Dispatches | December 18, 2003

[By Bern Mulvey]

I’ve always wondered about people who give detailed advice on how to win writing contests. First, a lot of the advice is contradictory; one famous writer, for instance, tells you to begin each submission with your strongest poems, while another equally famous writer tells you to end with them. I’ve even seen ‘proper’ fonts and paper weights discussed, as if the majority of contest readers out there are going to think, “Ick, she used Courier…and only 20 lb paper to boot. She’s gone.”

I mean, wouldn’t it be great if the solution to winning these contests was something as simple as paper quality? I’d then be able to write airily, “Well, you should have used the HP 22 lb paper, with a brightness factor of 92.” Everyone reading this would make that one simple change, and then off they’d go to poetic fame and fortune. I’d look (for maybe the first time in my life) like a genius.

Unfortunately, the large number of accomplished—and often moving and beautiful—entries means there is nothing you or I can do to guarantee being selected as a finalist. During this current contest cycle, for instance, TMR received almost 700 poetry submissions; these we have now whittled down to 100. Very soon, that number needs to go down to twenty. And then, finally, to four.

Among those cut will be writers of resonant and polished verse that I only wish I could emulate. Seriously, there are so many good writers out there now that choosing only four finalists in any given contest sometimes seems an actual crime. Given this reality, my (or anyone) attempting to offer detailed advice as to how to win a contest seems, if not an impossible task, at least an unforgivably arrogant one.

I am, however, quite qualified to talk about how not to win—i.e., how to ensure that your submission here has the least possible chance of making it through that first cut. The following are five of the most ‘successful’ strategies I’ve seen:

1) Ignore the contest guidelines

I’ve really never understood this one, but I’ve encountered some skilled practitioners of it. Poets choosing this route typically submit up to a month after the due date. They refuse to include a check, and then get angry when we offer to consider their poems as regular submissions (which we also read continuously throughout) instead. Some of the most determined send in 150+ pages when the contest limit is 10 per submission, often including previously published poems as well.

2) Submit work completely inappropriate to the journal

Editorial tastes vary with each journal—and by extension, with each contest as well. Hence, the best way to gauge your chances of success is to research that journal, including (if possible) reading a back issue or two. For instance, as noted on our FAQ page, TMR does not accept children’s verse; submit such work to us anyway and feel confident that you will not make it to the next round. Sending us ‘concrete’ poems (including, yes, exaggerated representations of your own genitalia) is a great way to be cut prematurely as well.

3) Be unprofessional with your manuscript’s appearance

Note that this is not a reference to paper weight or type font, neither of which really matter to us. Consider, however, handwriting your work (make it as illegible as possible). Write your poems on a crumpled napkin or scribble them in the narrow margins of the owner’s manual to your old VCR. Spice them up with teeth marks, coffee (or worse) stains, and a lot of misspellings (including, where possible, your own name).

4) Abuse or physically threaten the staff in your cover letter

Believe it or not, this does happen (indeed, it’s the only way—i.e., negatively—that cover letters can influence the decision making process). My favorite individual remains one fellow who, after a two-paragraph diatribe on the individual failings of our staff photos, dared us not to choose him as a finalist. (Our decision was made even easier by the fact that he was one of the aforementioned ‘genitalia’ poets….)

5) Plagiarize

While I find this practice despicable regardless, what gets me about this one is the lack of creativity shown in the poems being copied. Working for a literary journal implies an obsessive love of literature (after all, we either are not getting paid, or receiving very little, for our efforts). Hence, chances are that someone here has read Auden’s “Funeral Blues,” Eliot’s “The Love Song,” Oate’s “Suicide,” or Kunitz’s “The Portrait” before…and will react accordingly.

As a final note, though, I want to emphasize that the overwhelming majority of poets do not do any of the above. Instead, they submit their best work, or at least that work which they deem to be the most appropriate to us. They start off with their strongest poems first (which works best here). They do not depend solely on the poignancy (or humor) of a given subject matter to carry the day, relying as well on the freshness of the language and the evocative power of the images used.

Such writers, indeed, are what keep us here, marveling continually at the variety and vitality of poetry today. It will be a difficult decision again this year, to say the least.