Winner Take All

by Elise Hempel

I'm about to enter yet another poetry chapbook contest that I'll have little chance of winning. This one's cheap – only $10 to enter (compared to the usual $20 to $30), but that's because there's no monetary prize (most chapbook and full-length book contests award $1,000 to the winner), only publication and a contract for a certain percentage of the printed chapbook's sales.

Though we're now in the age of Trump, in the age of "winning," of loving winners and loving to win, I'm still the same person I was before November 8, 2016. Of course I'd love to win this chapbook contest, to have my 20 to 30 poems neatly packaged in a perfect-bound little book with a colorful glossy cover, to add one more publication to my résumé. But, like Anis Shivani, I also don't believe in poetry contests, and I resent the fact that this is what I, and other less-well-known poets, must do to even come close to getting just a chapbook published. And I continue to be baffled by the fact that most poetry contests (for both books and chapbooks, and for a single poem or group of poems) name only a single winner, awarding prize money and publication to the one "best" submission, though sometimes a few lucky finalists are also given publication and a lesser amount of cash.

Any struggling poet has to pick and choose her contests, and, unless it's the Howard Nemerov sonnet contest or something else that narrows things down a bit, I rarely enter those for "the best" single poem. Consider the impossibility of winning such a contest, with hundreds or even thousands of people entering, the slim chances of first getting your poem past one of the initial screeners, with their own tastes and biases and possible need to please the final judge (yes, they're the judges before the judge), and then of having it chosen as "the best" by that final, well-known poet-judge. Or, if the editors of the contest-sponsoring journal are the judges, consider the impossility of your poem appealing to their own very particular tastes, or, as with one popular journal, their confoundingly vast and indeterminable (nonexistent?) tastes that range from formal verse to prose poems, from the really good to hurl-the-journal-against-the-wall terrible. Consider also that one of your competitors may be a Pulitzer-Prize-winning former U.S. Poet Laureate (and if you think that's a stretch, I've got a copy of such a person's recent winning chapbook right here as I type this, my "freebie" from the same contest I also entered).

And consider that as the prize money increases so does the pool of hopeful entrants you'll be competing with. The aforementioned journal with seemingly all-inclusive taste holds an annual single-poem contest with a hefty $10,000 prize to the winner, and, though they do bestow a $2,000 Reader's Choice Award, the prize for 10 finalists drops substantially to $200 each. Why can't there be more than one winner? Why not give out two $5,000 prizes? Why not let 10 people win, at $1,000 apiece? The fee to enter this particular contest is $20, so if I use my imagination a little and do the math, multiplying $20 by, let's say, 2,000 entrants, that $10,000 prize money quadruples…. Where do the superfluous entrance fees go, and why can't all that money be spread around a little more? Can there really be a single poem that's "the best," a "$10,000 poem"? Is having five or 10, or even more, equally-sharing winners too socialist an idea for us here in the U.S.?

With only two weeks left until the contest deadline, I'm already feeling the heaviness of defeat, wondering who I'll be up against this time, how large the field will be, half-heartedly working on revising my new chapbook manuscript before the upcoming battle, though I may just dust off one of my older manuscripts instead – a more seasoned warrior.