In America, poets are held in such low esteem that even the most Honored Representative from Nigeria won't bother scamming us. Society says to us what Dermot Mulroney says to Julia Roberts in "My Best Friend's Wedding," that we are "The pus that infects the mucus that cruds up the fungus that feeds on the pond scum."
Even being cheated by Mr. Honorable Minister, however, is preferable to the poetry scams that have proliferated. Wind Publications' Literary Scam guide has this to say:
Hidden among the many sponsors of legitimate literary contests advertised on the internet lurk those who care little about literature, its audience, or authors. These organizations and individuals exist solely for profit through their so-called writing or poetry contests. Often you'll find these "free" poetry contests lavishly advertised in your local newspaper.
There is a cottage industry of writing scams perpetuated by pus poetry pimps, the chief among them International Library of Poetry, aka Noble House Press, aka Poetry.com. They advertise in USA Weekend and the Penny Saver--well, not the Penny Saver, but they might as well, because that sums up their opinion of poets. If you've seen the ads or received a letter that says, "Congratulations, your poem has been selected for our next anthology," congratulations, you're being scammed.
Like so-called modeling agencies or "talent agents" who prey on the dreams of nubile girls wanting to be the next Lindsay Lohan, poetry pyramid schemes exploit the number one hope of writers: publication, and more importantly, recognition. Many excellent Web sites such as Preditors and Editors and PoetryNotCom detail the outrageous mechanics of poetry "anthology" scams, and the infamous Wergle Flomp Poetry Contest by WinningWriters.com cheerfully skewers vanity poetry contests and the submicroorganisms who perpetuate them.
How do you spot a poetry scam? Look for...
1. Insane pie in the sky prize amounts.
I ran the DeAnn Lubell Professional Writers' Competition. Most poetry contests with reading fees pay, at most, $1,000, and that's for a book-length manuscript of poetry. For a single poem, the first prize pot is usually a whopping $100, $150 tops. A $20 million prize, as dangled by Noble House, is a big crimson flag. Oh, and no one ever offers poets a chance to win a world cruise. It's usually assumed that we sail around the world on a Mark Twain raft, a sampan, or a Hemingway skiff.
2. No contest fees.
Wergle Flomp is the only "F*r*e*e" poetry contest. Now, people on the Internet and toiling poets naturally leap at the word "F*r*e*e". But, like victims of those modeling scams, you'll end up paying for your moment of bargain hunting. Modeling scams want you to work with a particular photographer (usually fake European). Likewise, poetry scams won't let you even see your poem in print unless you pay for the anthology. When you do pay for the anthology, you may wonder if you just bought a copy of the Penny Saver, because your poem looks like it was crammed onto the page to make room for the "Spot the Difference" puzzle and the adult talk lines. Then there are those awards banquets...
3. Phony awards banquets.
Ten years ago, no joke, I received a mailing from Famous Poets Society that lured me to fork over the cash to attend an awards banquet and convention. If I paid my money, I could join the elite company of poets such as...Ted Lange of "Love Boat" fame. Who knew Isaac the bartender was a closet Langston Hughes? Plus, I could win $6,000 in door prizes. Now, if you've ever attended a poetry reading, especially in coffeehouses, you know that poets wear their vow of poverty as proudly as a Che Guevara T-shirt. Just the thought of winning $25 in a poetry slam made my fellow poets and me weep more cathartically than the contestants on "Deal or No Deal." And Ted Lange usually doesn't attend.
4. Questionable reputation or none at all.
In poetry, if you don't have Nikki Giovanni, Czeslaw Milosz or Donald Hall front and center in your magazine, plus several angsty Eastern European poets, would-be poets drop you like Oprah dropped James Frey. Look for magazines, publishers and poetry contests that publish and are judged by literary lions. It's Bukowski or bust. And when Poetry.com can't figure out that Dave Barry and 20/20 are hoaxing them, the joke's on Poetry.com. Similarly, if a vanity press charges you $3,000 to $8,000 to publish your collection of poems, and the top author promoted by Façade Press is an eighteen-year-old writing poems from the point of view of her liver, save your money for the hard work of actually submitting your poems to Threepenny Review, or literary magazines or publishers that you read about in Writer's Market or Poets and Writers.
5. Advertising in newspapers and glossy magazines.
Real poetry contests don't advertise in USA Weekend--sure, USA Weekend may sponsor a teen essay contest, but poetry advertisers? Forget it. People don't pick up USA Weekend as a literary publication, even though USA Weekend features books and authors. If you see a mass call for poets in a mass market magazine, give it a miss. Real poetry contests get deluged with submissions as it is. They don't need to fish for more.
6. Sending you a letter of acceptance for a contest you can't remember entering or a publisher you can't remember submitting to.
I admit, as a writer I have difficulty keeping track of what I sent to whom and when--we go into writing to avoid paperwork, not do it, although when we're not in the mood, reorganizing files suddenly becomes as tempting as a day in Cancun. Fortunately, Writer's Market features a Submission Tracker, and some enterprising bloggers actually post their submission schedule to make the rest of us sigh in unorganized envy. If you can't find the cover letter/e-query in your file cabinet, on your computer, on your Zip drive (you do back up, right?), or in your Sent folder, chances are you never submitted to National Library of Poetry or Wordscum.com (apologies if there actually is a Web site out there called Wordscum.com). Yes, after 300 rejections, getting an acceptance letter may be a boost, but to misquote Groucho Marx, think twice before you accept just any club that will have you as a member. Aim higher. Imagine if JK Rowling had just said, "All right, I'll pay a million pounds to have a few hundred copies of Harry Potter for my friends and relatives to buy."
7. Promising to get your book or handsome anthology on the bestseller rack in bookstores.
Number one, PoetryNotCom is one of the many sites reporting that this claim is bogus. Number two, most people who go into a bookstore to read poetry probably can find the poetry section blindfolded and spend three hours debating the symbolism in Whitman over a decaf skinny latte at Borders Café. Number two, although getting your book in bookstores is still the gold standard, Amazon.com and online retailing make it easy for even the tiniest press to get books noticed. Number three, bookstores are so glutted with inventory that they can't even stock the POD books, let alone anything from ScamPoet Publishing or Poetry.com, and bookstores will not accept vanity press books. For that matter, no poet besides Ludacris or Jimmy Carter will end up on the bestseller list in a bookstore. We don't go into poetry to be rich. We go into poetry to sound our barbaric yawp...and a fellowship or two is nice, too.
Many beginning poets get bilked, but you don't have to. If you're smart and ambitious, you'll be a successful poet with tons of lierary magazines and e-zines bearing your byline. Poetry.com and its ilk will always be "The pus that infects the mucus that cruds up the fungus that feeds on the pond scum."
Movie reviewer/screenwriter ("Blood Mask," filimng summer 2006) Kristin Johnson composes personalized poems, speeches, toasts, vows, and family memories. She is also co-author of the Midwest Book Review "enthusiastically recommended" pick Christmas Cookies Are For Giving: Stories, Recipes and Tips for Making Heartwarming Gifts (ISBN: 0-9723473-9-9), dedicated in part to her mother and grandmother.
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