I know that many of us submit our work to contests. I know for a fact that at least two Harrieteers, Ange and myself, have sent manuscripts to the annual National Poetry Series competition, and were lucky enough to have books published as a result. (Harrieteers...I like that. It's like Mouseketeers, but without the ears or simmering psychoses...)
Sending your poems off to be judged is a little like dressing your daughter up in her finest clothes, making sure her skin is sparkling and her hair is perfect, kissing her goodbye, and putting her on a first-class flight to a college that hasn't even accepted her yet.
The key is to keep it all in perspective. I enter fewer and fewer competitions (just no time), and when I do it's for the perverse thrill of having my passion, my lifeblood, fondled by an stranger (OK, maybe there's a simmering psychosis after all, and maybe it's not so simmering). For me, the contests are still fun. Most of them anyway.
We've got a couple of categories to deal with, of course. Some contests are looking for a damned good poem, and the author of that ditty gets cash money and publication in a mag or literary journal. Other contests, usually sponsored by publishers, ask for a completed manuscript. If yours is chosen as pick o' the crop, the book gets published and maybe you get little spending money besides. Then there are the immensely popular are-you-worth-it contests--although I'm sure organizers are cringing at the word "contest"--sponsored by the NEA and various regional grant-giving entities. They have money and they want to give it to you--but only if you can prove to them that you're a worthwhile investment.


Since writers are famously cash-strapped, and since there is money involved, people submitting to these latter competitions are often VERY careful. Quality stock paper, mildly perfumed. NO typos. Legible copies. A stunning project proposal. You may have to track down and document every place you've been previously published--being in actual print a certain number of times is often a prerequisite for entering. (Please hold on to a shred of dignity and avoid contacting your high school newspaper for clips of your riveting and groundbreaking pep rally coverage, or your adventure in iambic pentameter inevitably called "Feelings".)
The NEA has a particularly rigorous submission process, which makes sense since they're giving away quite a bit of moolah. In the hours before the postmark deadline, you can spot the other folks who've spent sleepless nights perfecting their packets. You will all be in a bar, clutching your "Delivery Confirmation Requested" receipts. You will all be drinking quite heavily.
Anyhoo...
Why all this bandying about? What's the point, you ask? Well, I just had a really disturbing thought that made me kinda mad and when I'm kinda mad I ramble to keep from throwing furniture. So let's consider every line before this one as "rambling."
Most writing contests and competitions are, as you know, anonymous. That means the judge shouldn't know whose entry they're holding. Of course, there's always the chance that someone who knows you might recognize your work, but many contests go to great lengths to keep the proceedings fair, so no one has a better chance of winning that anyone else. We'd all like to think that we'd be totally impartial judges, but c'mon now. Suddenly you're holding the manuscript of someone you've mentored, and you just KNOW what a great deal publishing with WiffleBrain Press, or winning the Best Poet in This Room contest or getting that hefty grant check will mean to her, and....
you get the idea.
But some grant-granting organizations have a decision process that's not anonymous. It's curious, but hey--not illegal. It's weird, seeing that some cultural landscapes are notoriously incestuous, but hey--once again, not illegal.
What should be illegal are the abuses that could arise. My God, what if a hypothetical judge in a hypothetical competition refused to consider an applicant because she knew that (hypothetical) applicant to be a KNOWN POETRY SLAMMER?
It could happen.
Let us review. In a high-profile, non-anonymous competition--let's say there's quite a bit of art-enabling money at stake--a judge stamps a submission with a big fat NO because she recognizes the name of the applicant as the name of someone who occasionally participates in an entertaining crapshoot known as the poetry slam--which says nothing at all about that applicant's ability as a writer which, by the way, the hypothetical judge is not even giving the poet a chance to demonstrate, not even hypoethetically.
So. Before anything like this hypothetically happens, let's make sure it doesn't.
Just recently a funeral was held for the N-word. (I couldn't attend, but I sent a tasteful floral arrangement). Now, right here, right now, I'd like to hold a similar service for the clueless, misinformed, outdated, narrow-minded, elitist, whackbrained, flummoxed, doltish, ludicrous, irresponsible, laughable, archaic, ill-advised, incorrect and all-around cockeyed notion that participating in a poetry slam --which is a helluva lot of fun, by the way--is somehow a cover-up for a lack of true literary talent. Among the KNOWN POETRY SLAMMER attendees at this funeral:
--Bob Hicok, a former member of Ann Arbor's poetry slam team. Despite that blot on his record, Bob has gone on to publish the critically kissed "Insomnia Diary"; "Animal Soul," which was a finalist for the National Book Critics CIrcle Award; "Plus Shipping" and "The Legend of Light," which won the 1995 Felix Pollak Prize in Poetry and was was an ALA Booklist Notable Book of the Year. He's got two Pushcart Prizes, an NEA Fellowship, and he's been published in Poetry, The New Yorker and Ploughshares. And he was once--omigod--a slammer.
--Paul Beatty, who represented NYC in the first ever National Poetry Slam, is the author of the poetry volumes "Big Bank Take Little Bank" and "Joker Joker Deuce," as well as the novels "The White Boy Shuffle" and "Tuff." Someone at Library Journal who really, really liked "Big Bank Take Little Bank" said "It's as though Beatty had found a way to plug in his be-bob mind to the outlet of language and instead of stream of consciousness there pours out a flood of consciousness of a young man growing up in late-20th-century America who sings the culture electric.." Someone at Kirkus who really, really liked "White Boy Shuffle" called it "a wildly inventive debut that veers between spirited brilliance and Def Comedy Jam vulgarity."
Paul can't stay long. He's busy hyping his latest project, "Hokum," an anthology of African-American humor he edited. Someone who really, really liked it said "Groundbreaking, fierce, and hilarious, this is a necessary anthology for any fan or student of American writing, with a huge range and a smart, political grasp of the uses of humor."
--Former Nuyorican Poets Cafe slammer Sarah Jones has a Tony Award under her belt; her one-woman shows include the Broadway hit "Bridge and Tunnel" (produced by Meryl Streep!), "Surface Transit" and "Women Can't Wait!" She's done her thing at the Kennedy Center, the United Nations and the U.S. Congress. She's got an Obie, a Helen Hayes Award, two Drama Desk nominations, HBO's US Comedy Arts Festival's Best One Person Show Award and goddamn it all, she sued the FCC for censorship!
We'd better bring in some more chairs. This funeral's gonna get crowded.
I think I saw Daphne Gottlieb on the list. Surprised she can make it--a former San Fran slammer who--according to her website and several witnesses--"stitches together the ivory tower and the gutter just using her tongue," Daphne has won the Audre Lorde Award in Poetry, and her tour-de-force "Final Girl" was named one of The Village Voice's favorite books.
Her work has been praised (by real people) as "fierce," "unapologetic," "scorching" and "deliriously gutsy."
Also in the mix--Saul Williams, Justin Chin, Mums the Schemer....
Have I made my point?
What prompted this tirade was the aforementioned hypothetical contest fiasco, as well as the continued preponderance of the "poetry slammers can't write their way out of an open door" notion. Thankfully, it is notion that's now dead, and officially buried.

Originally Published: July 20th, 2007

Patricia Smith has been called “a testament to the power of words to change lives.” She is the author of seven books of poetry, including Incendiary Art (2017); Shoulda Been Jimi Savannah (2012), which won the Lenore Marshall Prize from the Academy of American Poets; Blood Dazzler (2008), a chronicle...

  1. July 29, 2007
     Tara Betts

    A few names I'd add:
    Ray McNiece, Justin Chin, Susan Somers B.A. Willett, Crystal Williams