Behind the Blue Light: How Contests Work

'The way you hear it, is the way you sing it.' Jan Steen, circa 1665.

‘The way you hear it, is the way you sing it.’ Jan Steen, circa 1665.

Huzzah! Indiana Review’s annual poetry prize is open for submissions! You have until April 1 to submit your poetry, but before you do, I thought it my duty as Associate Editor to—lift the velvet rope, pull back the papyrus curtain, turn the glossy cover, lead you by the hand “behind the Blue Light”—reveal How Contests Work.

You submit a packet of three poems to Poetry Contest 2013. What happens next?

First, our hawkish interns make sure your $20 payment clears. REAL TALK. Then we hook you up with a one-year subscription to IR.

Our eagle-eyed interns make sure each submission document is anonymous before an editor sees it. Every single submission is read carefully by our senior editor and poetry editor. They confer and select a large batch of their favorites, aka the semi-finalists.

The rest of the editorial staff then reads this group of semi-finalists, and together with the senior editor and poetry editor, determine 10-15 finalists. We, often along with our many-feathered interns, check with the writers to make sure these poems are still available for prize/publication.

The finalists are forwarded to the final judge—this year, the inimitable (though many try) Nikky Finney—who chooses the ultimate winner and runners-up. The winner receives $1,000 and publication in IR.

ALL submissions to the contest are considered for publication in IR. Often several finalists and/or semi-finalists are published after discussion and a vote by the poetry committee of readers, associate genre editors and editors.

Whew! There you have it. Is it tough to win the IR Poetry Prize? Yes, of course. But your chances are better than you think. If you have a piece you believe in, then you’ve already done the work. Just think of all the lit-loving folks on this end who will read and consider your poems, the numerous chances your poems have to make one or all of us fall in love.

Is it hard to be published in IR? Yes, of course. To paraphrase the film A League of Their Own (its title, we’re certain, a reference to Virginia Woolf):

It’s supposed to be hard. If it wasn’t hard, then everyone would do it. It’s the hard—aka the wealth of shimmering poems we receive from you—that makes it great. So, thank you, and happy submitting.