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Poetic lotto: playing the game. (poetic license).

I have to admit, I've played the lottery. I've tried to find the right combination of figures, the perfect alignment of planets, the flawless sequence of characters to make sure my numbers hit. I've spent ten (or fifteen, or twenty) dollars at a time hoping that the odds are with me, believing that this time is the time that I'll win.

If I calculate how much money I've invested yearly playing the game (easily three or four hundred dollars) and multiply that by seven years (about how long I've been at it), that's almost three grand. And this is not money I've used to try my luck in a Mega Millions, Power Ball multistate drawing, but dollars I've used to send, and send, and send manuscripts to poetry competitions across the country.

I've willingly become one of the thousands who plop down twenty bucks--sometimes twenty-five--to have an acclaimed poet (someone who has probably played the game twice as long as I have) consider my work for publication. Make no mistake--the poetry competition circuit may be one of the biggest lotteries of our time.

I've been guilty of believing that every single one of these competitions is rigged--that someone sits in an office collecting checks and turning every accompanying manuscript into reams of recyclable paper. And that a winner has been selected long before a call for submissions ever goes out to poets. And I have plenty of stories to support that belief.

Once, I entered a competition and realized after the fact that I'd sent a manuscript and twenty-five dollars a week after the deadline. I'd enclosed a self-addressed stamped postcard so that they could acknowledge receipt of my entry. Months later, they hadn't mailed the postcard back to me, so I called them. I asked if they'd received it. Yes, the editor said. We accepted it even after the deadline because we figured the mail was a little slow after 9/11. The deadline had been nearly four months after 9/11, so in my estimation, his watery excuse was complete bull. What they had accepted was my money, not my work.

To be frank, I hate this game. I hate paying entry fees. I hate the idea of having to be lucky enough to find the competition with a final judge who likes my work enough to read it. The notion of a winner becomes so subjective. But if I have no intention of self-publishing (and this week, I don't) and if I don't know someone in a position to ease my poetry manuscript into the hands of editors who actually like my work, then what are the alternatives?

I continue to play the game.

I realize that to some extent, playing this poetry lottery is necessary. You have to keep sending and sending if you want anyone to know your work. Eventually, your number comes up. With any luck, you're not three grand into the game. Recently, I won my first poetry prize and was a finalist in a poetry book competition. After years of entry fees! But guess what? Neither of the competitions required an entry fee. So when my number finally came up, it had not cost me a penny to enter.

--Cherryl Floyd-Miller lives in Atlanta and is the winner of the 2002 Hughes, Diop, Knight Poetry Award. Her manuscript Utterance: A Museology of Kin was a finalist for the 2002 Naomi Long Madgett Poetry Award and a 2001 semi-finalist for the Kathryn A. Morton Prize in Poetry. She is also a playwright.
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Author:Floyd-Miller, Cherryl
Publication:Black Issues Book Review
Geographic Code:1USA
Date:Jan 1, 2003
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