I'm Coming Out of the Closet…

…on how I first got published. Let me know if you’ve heard this one before.

Around the age of 16, I noticed an ad in the paper for a FREE poetry contest that offered $500 to the winner. About a year into writing abstract and angst-filled song lyrics that I called poetry, I decided that I could probably win this contest–not that I was sure of myself or anything.

So I entered the contest. Unfortunately, I did not win the $500 prize. Fortunately, I was the lucky winner of an Honorable Mention certificate, and the company decided to accept the poem for publication in an anthology they were putting together. It only cost like $60. So, of course, I jumped in and bought the anthology and even a coffee cup (pictured below).

However, things started going south once I received the anthology and realized that the poetry in it was not exceptionally good. And when I looked at my poem surrounded by these other poems, I realized my poem probably wasn’t particularly gifted either.

Suddenly, I was getting offers to enter another FREE contest. So I sent them my absolute worst poem. It was also an award winner that merited publication. Of course, of course. I felt like such a sucker.

Over the years, this company would send me notifications of contests, gifts I could buy to commemorate my great achievements, offers to spend thousands of dollars attending their prize ceremonies, where I could also win big money.

They were unrelenting, and for over a decade it has been a dark secret hidden in my past. Something I’ve been ashamed to admit. But no more. I want others who’ve fallen into this trap to know they’re not alone; I want others who could fall into this trap to know what I did not know as a junior in high school: stay away. There’s nothing illegal going on, but ethics are thrown out the window, for sure.

If you’ve had a similar experience or have a “friend” who’s gone through this, I definitely encourage you to share.




Yes, I bought the coffee cup. What was I thinking?!? 😉


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17 thoughts on “I'm Coming Out of the Closet…

  1. Jessie Carty

    I’m also guilty 🙂 But lucky for me I didn’t have the money to buy the anthology, but a friend of mine did and I noticed my "honorable mention" didn’t appear in the anthology. Guess that only happened if you bought it!

  2. Ryk

    I’ve been warning my creative writing students about such things since I started teaching 12 years ago (and after I also got smart after finding one of my mediocre poems in the top 3% of all entries they received). Doing some research back then, I found the transcript of this expose done on 20/20 back in 1998:

    National Library of Poetry – Exposed on ABC’s 20/20
    (Transcript of broadcast January 5, 1998)

    Now, a nationwide contest that every aspiring poet should know about. There’s lots of competition, but you can almost guarantee you’ll end up being published. Arnold Diaz dispenses some poetic justice in tonight’s Give Me A Break

    Witches are a misunderstood lot / with their brooms and brew boiling hot.

    Chances are you’ve never heard of amateur poet Margaret Brough. Though she’s had three poems published, few people have read her stuff. And instead of these anthologies, bringing her literary bliss, Margaret’s lament is …

    I’m embarrassed that I was sucked in like this.

    Margaret answered this ad from the National Library of Poetry, an impressive sounding name, not knowing it was just a small private company in Maryland, and profits were an aim. Margaret entered the contest and was selected a semifinalist. She was surprised, but
    happy as a clam.

    I thought, Well, maybe I’m better than I think I am.

    However, Margaret began to think something was funny when the National Library of Poetry asked her for money. Fifty dollars to publish her poem, for her biography, another $20. She paid and the company encouraged her to enter more of its contests, which she did. She was very ambitious.

    When I got so many published, that’s when I got suspicious.

    ARNOLD DIAZ (on camera)
    Well, we at 20/20 are nobody’s fool, so we came here to the Thomas Jefferson Elementary School to conduct an experiment. We hoped it would show it, that even a second grader can be an award – winning poet.

    Who can tell us what a poem is?

    Miss Silio’s class hadn’t studied poetry yet, but the kids agreed to write a poem about their pet.

    My dog has a black tail. My dog saw a blue whale.

    My dog barks all night and all day. When we leave the park, he wants to stay.

    We entered all the kids in the National Library of Poetry contest. Would any of their rhymes be among those judged the best? Well, what do you know? The answer was yes.
    (on camera) Here’s the semifinalist, Amanda Merckle


    But it wasn’t just Amanda. All these other kids, too, received the same letter saying we have picked you. Out of the thousands of poems, we have chosen your notable work for publication. The classroom was filled with jubilation. Then the job of breaking the bad news fell to me. (on camera) Do you think you’re going to get that book free?


    Yeah? Have any of you ever heard of the term rip-off?


    The so-called National Library of Poetry admits almost everyone who enters is selected a semifinalist as long as their poem is 20 lines or less. At 50 bucks as piece, the thousands of poems crammed in each of its anthologies brings in hundreds of thousands in fees.
    The company says it has tougher standards for the finalists awarded cash prizes each year. But the real winner of the contest is the company, that’s clear. (on camera) So to the National Library of Poetry; if you want to pay them to publish their poems, they’re willing to talk about how much it would take. But ask them to pay you? Come on

    … give me a break!

    Copyright ABCNews. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed in any form. Transcripts produced by Federal Document Clearing House

  3. Rodney C. Walmer

    Terri, years ago I was tempted to buy one of those, maybe back in the 70’s as well. All I remember, was screaming for hours "They want to publish my poem!" Of course it was a vanity offer and nothing more. I had to borrow the money from my mother at the time, and she did not go for it. So, I never did get the anthology or anything else from them. We moved and I never heard from them again. But, as a young poet, that was a very, Shall we say inspiring experience. That did not cost me a penny. Though, I am certain it would have cost me as much as they could pump out of my mother, had she been as gullible as I was at that age.


  4. Terri

    Haven’t we all done poetry.com–LOL? Never bought an anthology though. I did purchase one in the 70’s. Still have it somewhere. Can’t remember the group, but the cheap paperback anthology had a unicorn on the cover. I guess to signify that they had "stuck" it to me!

  5. Rodney C. Walmer

    This is the poem I sent them. It is based on a true story. You will see, it is not that good. I wrote it as a release for the upset and anger I was feeling at the time.

    Saving Life

    He left, not with a bang, but a whimper
    Seeking parts that were simpler
    For a moment, he forgot his role
    soon, someone’s world was but a black hole

    She wanted to commit suicide
    reached out for help
    And, lord knows he tried
    Not just for her, but for himself
    How could he live, knowing she died

    He tore her world apart
    Just like he put that knife in her heart
    She reached out to him
    he betrayed her trust
    committing the ultimate sin
    but, he did what he must
    he tried
    never knowing if she lived or died. . .

    (C) Rodney C. Walmer August 12th, 2007. Inspired by a woman who reached out to me for help,
    while claiming she wanted to commit suicide. Dee this one’s for you. I called Police 8/11/07, and
    hopefully got her some help.

  6. Rodney C. Walmer

    I also have done the poetry.com thing, and I also had way too much praise for my poem. So, I did not buy anything. They are still emailing me about the poem. Almost a year later. For some reason, it just keeps getting higher up on their ladder of success, and they just keep offering me more and more to purchase. The latest they wish to sell me tickets to a hotel with a poetry meeting of some sort. I did not really bother to read the rest.


  7. Tyger Valverde

    Yep. Guilty! I did poetry.com, but I didn’t buy the anthology and got suspicious fast, when they showered my simple poem with too much praise.
    Now I’m reluctant to enter a poem in any contest anywhere.

  8. shirley brown

    yea, this is me alright!
    I think I did just as bad, I wrote (2) songs & I was told they were GREAT! at $425 a pop! they should have been GOLD OUT THERE! all thow one was on a radio & played (1) time.but I still think I got talent.So if you know that you have talent (don’t quit!)….
    ps and I didn’t even buy the coffee cup,but I did buy all the books that my poam was in.(and I didn’t even get payed) ….0’but did I mention my (2) songs was recorded in Nashvillle?so some where some one is playing my songs….

  9. Amy Barlow Liberatore

    I have not entered any contests yet, but I am following your advice, and this piece of info is good. You are brave to share this type of embarrassment.

    I once fell for the "Who’s Who" game myself. I found a former classmate (and felon) in the pages as well. Amy

  10. Chuck Keller

    I never participated but received MANY invitations over the centuries since I began writing poetry. I’ve often thought about doing a similar "contest" or "publication" which paid in copies with no fee and REAL awards. The thing that has kept me from doing that is that so many talented poets might be skeptical and associate mine with those "scam" operations.

    I have found MANY very talented poets on sites like authorsden.com, poets.com and others whose works deserve publication and promotion. I guess the solution would be to find someone wealthy enough to publish an anthology every so often and maybe even start a magazine but that person would have to be willing to risk losing their investment because as we all know poetry is NOT the most lucrative writing one can produce. Finding the right editor is, in my opinion, the key to a good anthology of poetry.

    I have just found this site and am enjoying exploring the blogs. Thank you for work and I hope my comment is appropriate and welcome.

  11. Robert Brewer

    To follow up, I was so scarred by this event that I did not submit my poetry anywhere for more than a decade. I probably went overboard a bit, but I was paranoid to submit something to another scam and/or submit something I would not be proud of later on in life.

    Getting back to Holly, I think the contest would have to be real for them to still be in existence. I don’t know this to be true or untrue. I would assume there’s no legal problems with the contest; however, it doesn’t make it exactly ethical.

    Yes, there were multiple poems on every page of the anthology. Thin paper. Tiny type. 🙂

    You live, and you learn, I guess. (Hopefully.)

  12. Tina Lyn

    Ah, yes, I too fell for the chance to see my works published in a "beautiful coffee-table anthology". However, the $60 gave me serious pause for thought. I submitted probably five poems altogether, and when I painstakingly went through the "online" anthology, I found NONE of my poems in the first, oh, 250 pages of the book… and what I did find wasn’t worthy of being published on toilet paper. I felt like a complete moron. I even got one of their worthless "certificates of merit", and, needless to say, it is NOT framed but stuffed in the back of the writing drawer in my file cabinet. How embarrassing, and yes, how sad that they were the first to receive some of my best efforts.

    Shirley, above, hit the nail on the head. You live and learn. There is actually a website out there that warns of such scams as these. It is http://windpub.com/literary.scams/. Forewarned is forearmed.

    Happy Monday!
    Tina Lyn

  13. Shirley Alexander

    I did the poetry.com thing too. I sent them (online) a short poem I had written about my father dying. I was v. happy when they accepted it, but wary when they told me about the anthology.

    I had not told anyone, thank goodness, because someone on my friends’ list on myspace was trumpeting her success all over the bulletins about poetry.com accepting her poem. I read her poem and I immediately knew I would not buy the anthology or ever participate in their "contests" again.

    I marked all their email as junk and I never open junk. I throw their letters into the trash unopened, and I am still mad at myself for wasting one of my best works by letting them have it first.

    I would rather just write for myself than be published in such a manner. You live and you learn.

    Thanks for the chance to vent about this. I had not even told my family. "smile"


  14. Holly

    I did at least twice the poetry.com stuff. I know its the same. I know what its like for someone close to me to do the whole buy the book thing. Years ago, my mom used to write poetry (doesnt much no more) and wrote a poem some place published it (before the net was popular mind you) and she bought the book. There it was in print REALLY TINY hard to find on one little page I dont think even alone on the page! Its a real kick in the pants to see it and my mom thought it was funny how small it was.

    I knew about this, and never bought the book for my stuff on poetry.com I just tried it out for the "contest" is that even real btw? Yeah *L* 😉

  15. Rachel

    I got published in an anthology of high school writers about 12 years ago, but I guess my publisher wasn’t so morally deprived. Contributors got a free copy and then the anthology cost around $5-10 for additional copies (I just stuck with my free one). I never got another mailing from them asking me to enter other contests and pay more money. I went through and read some of those poems a few years ago, and while I cringed at the triteness, for high school kids they weren’t that bad.

  16. Nancy B.

    I think a lot of poets have this secret in their backgrounds, Robert. I’m pretty sure I entered one of these contests as well when I was in high school (this was way back in the early 70s; it was a different "organization" from yours, but the MO was the same–and they’re still in business under a different name, which shows how lucrative this whole thing is for them). Anyhow, I was such a cynic even in my teens that I smelled a rat as soon as I got the letter about the anthology. Actually, back then maybe you had to BUY the anthology to get printed in it. Anyhow, I chucked the letter.

    To your credit, you did finally catch on. A lot of people never do.


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