When I was recovering from a particularly foul sojourn with depression I had to work my way back into writing both poetry and prose. Rather than start by submitting to a journal with the often indeterminate delay, I looked for a current literary competition in an area a long way from where I live. I found one in the Fellowship of Australian Writers NSW Far North Coast 20th Anniversary Competition, held in 2007.
When I was highly commended in that competition for a short story, it meant more to me than previously having a story published in Australian Book Review, or regular writing I did for the Australian Left Review. It was right up there with finishing my PhD. It meant that someone who didn’t know me had read the story and quite liked it. It meant that I wasn’t deluded, and that depression had not totally stolen my literary mojo. If memory serves me correctly, the entry fee was about $6, which was then about two cups of coffee. In exchange I had much needed objective feedback. And a certificate! It was a tiny step towards being a part of a literary community again, without having to attend anything in person, which, at the time, was simply not possible. With more confidence, I began to submit poetry and stories to various publications.
I am now an inveterate competition entrant. If something catches my eye, I am quite happy to write to a prompt. I won’t force a poem, but if you stare at something long enough, you usually find a poem buried in the words. I sometimes save poems for competitions, which are, in some ways, less frustrating than submitting to journals: there is inevitably a firm date for last entry and at least a vague date by which decisions will be made. It’s not a question of waiting for a poetry editor to shake off a glorious somnolence like a dog come from a golden slough.
Many of the competitions I have entered were free or cost a few dollars. An award offered by the Arts Department of the ACT (free), for which I entered a poem about ghosts and domestic violence is perhaps the prize I value most next to that initial FAW one. This was because the poem I entered combined the realist and the speculative in a way I had been attempting for some time. The competition allowed me not only to refine a work that had already taken me quite a long time, but to have a finish date. I am not a procrastinator, but we all have ridiculous notions of perfection, and can easily wreck poetry through reworking it too many times.
But many competitions are not free and cost far more than the FAW competition of beloved memory. I have a friend who wanted to enter a novella in a competition currently being offered by The Griffith Review. He was not willing to proceed, however, when he found that the entry fee was $50. To most prose writers, and to all poets, $50 is quite a lot of money. It is a subscription to some journals. It is books. It is food, or even wine. $50 is what I am paid, sometimes, should a poem I write be published.
My equivalent to The Griffith Review novella is the Newcastle Poetry Prize, which is currently open for entries. I simply cannot justify paying $33 for entry (plus $1 for using a credit card). There are good judges, and I like the fact that the prize is based outside the major cities. But no explanation is given for the entry fee. I would very much like to understand the economics behind setting the amount. Presumably some of the funds raised go to paying the judges, but the competition site also speaks of the ongoing $20,000 funding provided by the University of Newcastle.
I have, however, recently entered a competition where I paid $20 for entry. My tipping point then is somewhere between $20 and $33. One turns into an accountant of dreams at times like this by balancing the potential reward against the investment of $20. In this case, I really wanted to enter a poem that I had already written on the topic given, and hoped that it might be more widely read, if successful in the competition.
Literary contests are sliding more and more towards charging fees that exclude many people, and exploit many who can ill afford the entry fee. I am lucky, in that if I really wanted to enter something, my partner could provide the means. But I would not enter a competition that cost $33 because it is simply too much of the household’s money for me to spend with a clear conscience.
What of those without the resources, without any publication history by which to gauge their work, without the knowledge to tell the legitimate competitions from the dodgy? What about those without access to a credit card, which is the only way to pay for many competitions? What about those who are caught up in a notion that thinking about money in relation to poetry is somehow vulgar and those who are enticed into entry by a shimmering notion of possibility? For those with a taxable income, at least some of the entry fees could be refunded through a deduction. Again, this hardly applies to those without a wage, or those who cannot put off current necessities for a partial refund. Is any of this connected to the increasing presence of the academically employed in Australian poetry? Big prize wins in ‘prestigious’ prizes are certainly connected with the publication of books. Not that academics are rich, but they do have access to $33.
There is an important difference between a free competition that excludes no-one with access to a computer, a competition that charges a modest fee and those moving into double figures. The Australian Society of Authors suggests that:
The sponsoring body should bear the main costs of conducting the competition. Entry fees are acceptable so long as they are in proportion to the prizes on offer. A $5 fee is appropriate where the prize is more than $1000. Entry fees of more than 1% of the first prize on offer are unacceptable.
I doubt whether there are very many competitions that follow these guidelines, and even if that percentage rate applied in competitions with high monetary prizes, many voices would still be excluded, due to the initial entry fee.
I have played the pokies a few times, and the flashing messages such as ‘Keep going’, ‘Your luck is changing!’ and ‘You’re a winner!’ seem apposite here. Literary competitions are selling hope. It is an industry based around the notion of prestige, once one moves away from small, local competitions. Sometimes they can provide a valuable chance to participate and to explore, even to have fun, or to take risks. I do know people for whom a win in a particular contest has made a marked difference to their lives; but those are generally competitions for already published books.
And when I make $50, or $33, from my poetry, I would rather spend it on those books than on the chance that a judge might have a similar notion of what poetry is to my own. If I put a poem on my blog someone will read it. It’s as good a poem as it would be if it were entered it in a competition. It is costing me whatever the blog costs – a most lovely nothing.