One of the main ways that people get a book of poetry published, particularly a first book, is by winning a poetry book contest. There are dozens of these book contests out there. A few years ago, I read for one of them, helping to make the first cut of submissions.
It was not an anonymous contest, and the applicants provided short biographies as requested. They had a wide range of backgrounds, publishing credits or lack thereof, educational backgrounds, and life experiences.
Not everyone whose manuscript I forwarded to the next round had a post-graduate education. However, it had always seemed to me that most poetry book contest winners have MFAs.
Poetry book contests are expensive to enter – $25 seems to be an average. A contest can receive hundreds of submissions. In 2015, for example, between 800 and 1,000 people entered the contest for the American Poetry Review’s 2015 Honickman First Book Prize (source here.)
I was curious as to how often people without post-graduate degrees win poetry book contests.
I took a look at the past 5 winners of each of these 10 annual contests for books of poetry. I chose these 10 from a long list of poetry book contests. I mostly chose based on who hadn’t suspended the annual contest in the past five years, whose website was up to date enough to list a 2015 winner, and who had a list of past winners on their website.
American Poetry Review’s Honickman First Book Prize
Blue Lynx Prize for Poetry
White Pine Book Prize
Akron Poetry Prize
Noemi Press Book Award
Cider Press Review Editors Prize
Agnes Lynch Starrett Poetry Prize, U. of Pittsburgh Press
Walt Whitman Award, Academy of American Poets
A. Poulin Jr. Poetry Prize, BOA Editions
Cleveland State University Poetry Center, First Book Award
Here are the levels of education of the winners of these contests in the past five years:
MFA – 41
MA – 4
PhD – 4
MFA student – 1
no post-grad education – 0
Here’s what it looks like in a pie chart, in case you like that sort of thing.
Some of the MFA and PhD holders also had MAs. I didn’t list an MA unless it was the winner’s only post-graduate degree. One person had two MFAs, one in fiction and one in poetry, but I only listed one MFA per person.
Based on quick scans of the contest guidelines, it looks like that the majority of them are judged anonymously. So what’s going on here?
Either advanced degrees make you a much better poet, as they are intended to do, or they enable you to fit in better with what judges expect from literary poetry. My own MFA experience suggests more of the latter, but that was a long while ago.
Because of my contest reading experience, I’m theorizing that plenty of people with no advanced degrees are entering these contests. If you’ve read for a lot of contests and my experience was a fluke, let me know.
I believe my sampling includes a few of the most prestigious book contests. It may be that smaller contests are more open to people without post-graduate degrees. However, I’m guessing that more prestigious contests attract more applicants without advanced degrees, because more people have heard of these contests and because the cash prizes are larger.
Here’s my question:
Is it ethical for poetry book contests to accept paid entries from poets who don’t have graduate degrees if these applicants almost never win?
Consider that the high cost of education excludes many poets without a lot of money in the first place. I think the contests likely prey on both newer and non-academic poets who don’t understand the odds.
I’m not an expert on any of this, and I’d love to hear from people who are in the comments. And if you’re new to the blog and you like to talk about writing things, you can follow the blog — there’s a place on the lefthand side of the page. Thanks for reading!