Open Letter to the Administrators of Poetry Contests


This has been the worst year or two economically I have experienced since I was born. (And I was born some time ago.) But the administrative elements of the poetry industry have not, so far as I have noticed, reacted with the kind of empathy and concern that the rest of the world has. Some consider poetry to be above and beyond the petty concerns of the world. They are wrong. Poetry falters the farther away it strays from the reality and the blood of lived life. I would like to ask the administrators of poetry contests to address that.

Poetry contests are notorious for charging fees, an activity which, in any other aspect of the publishing world, would be enough to tar them forever as con artists. Given that our national unemployment rate has reached 10%, this is an even less defensible practice than usual.

I ask these administrators to wave the fees to their poetry contests for the next 12 months for any poet who is unemployed.

This is not a great sacrifice. If a poet is employed, he or she would still pay the dreadful fee. But to a poet who has no work, this $15, $25, $50 or more that you are requiring puts the contest quite out of reach.

The fee structure is implicitly prejudicial to poor and working-class poets to begin with. In the current economic environment, it smacks of outright insult. And it’s not in your best interest either, as poetry is one place where every class, as well as both genders and every culture and ethnicity, can, and always has, made great contributions.

Poetry has grown conservative (in the small-c sense) enough in the last several decades. By enforcing a pay-to-play model it is more certain still that poets who work for a living, work in a vulnerable industry, or who come from working people, are even less represented than they would normally be.

Heaven knows, the only thing I’m a socialist about is cigarettes. (From each according to his abilities, to each according to his need.) But fair is fair. Waive the fee for your poetry publishing contest for any poet who is unemployed and you do a lot to balance access to the public ear for all poets.

I don’t expect much in the way of a reaction by contest administrators, but should any of you do it, I will post your names and links here.

(To make sure this isn’t seen as a self-serving gesture, I will not submit to any fee-waived contest during 2010.)

Turnabout is fair play. I would like to encourage all poets, especially those who have financial stability or steady jobs, to boycott all poetry contests whose administrators have elected to retain their fee structure. Instead, both employed and employed alike should only submit to fee-waiving contests and to the poetry contests listed here which do not charge a fee.

Curt Hopkins, unemployed poet

1 Comment

  1. Julie says:

    I looked into joining my state’s literary society, because people tell me I should. Blah. The cost? Seventy five bucks a year! I almost fainted. Even if I had seventy five bucks to spare, I’d use it to keep the lights on and buy my family’s groceries for the week. I realize they need to generate some money for programs, but such a high price seems rather elitist to me. You’re so right…even fifteen bucks is out of reach, especially right now. Maybe I’m just jealous and crying in my bourbon at midnight. Thankfully, there are a lot of beautiful underground zines and contests out there. People who know what it means to struggle have been really good to me. Thanks for this post.

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