A few years ago, I made a decision about whether or not to enter contests. With rare exceptions, I only enter contests with an entry fee when get something in return: a copy of the winning book, a subscription to the journal, an issue of the journal, or something the press published in the past. I'll even settle for a special price on something else the press offers. I'm happy to help support literary presses, but entering a contest where I get nothing (often, not even a rejection letter) just began to feel too abusive to me.
I know there's some debate on this subject. In fact, in the latest issue of Poets and Writers (Jan./Feb. 2009), Jacob M. Appel argues the case for contests. On the other end of the spectrum, on her blog, Reb Livingston has argued that we'd be better off saving our contest fees and starting our own publishing ventures (see, for example, her August 27, 2008 entry--but you'll have to scroll down).
My happy medium: if I get something in return, I'm happy. Even if it's something I'd have never spent my hard-earned money on, I'm happy because I can say that I'm also supporting small scale publishing.
Often, I make discoveries I'd have never made without the contest. The same can even be true of grant applications. Years ago, I applied for an individual artist grant from the state of Florida. I didn't get it, but when they sent the publicity (complete with samples of the winning work) about the people who did, I was blown away by Michael Hettich's poem, "The Point of Touching." I can't find a copy of it on the web, but his website is here, and you could buy his book Flock and Shadow, which I highly recommend.
I thought of this experience the other day, when Michael Hettich's new chapbook, Many Loves, appeared in my mailbox; I ordered it when I entered the Yellow Jacket Press Chapbook Contest for Florida Poets (Florida poets, the deadline seems to be Dec. 31 of each year). I love Hettich's specific details: the old man who works in his garden in his dress-up clothes, the various smells that waft through the poems, the birds and plants, a rickety ladder in the rain. I love that Hettich uses details from normal, everyday life to hint at something larger. I love that Hettich doesn't tell us outright what the something larger is.
I've been enjoying the work of Michael Hettich for almost a decade now, and I probably wouldn't have ever stumbled across him on my own. If I hadn't applied for that grant, I likely never would have read his work. The discovery of a poet who writes such wonderful poems makes the fact that I didn't get the grant (all those years ago) almost inconsequential.
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