One was a competition, with an entry fee of $15, as I recall, where the winning poem would be set to music and performed by a symphony orchestra—no prize money; just the glory of having your poem used without compensation. Adult tickets for upcoming performances of this orchestra are $10 each. I have no idea whether the musical performers are paid.
Another was a state literary organization that chose to target poets—by no means the primary beneficiaries of its activities--by charging a $10 entry fee for a poem "contest" judged by a committee of its less-than-stellar members. The prize: to have one's poem and photo printed on a bookmark for free distribution, and a reading slot at an upcoming book festival. No prize money at all; just the most trivial form of publication possible (okay, okay; drink coasters would have been tackier) and the "privilege" of reading—with no guarantee of an audience.
Yet another was this "Best New Poets of 2007" thing: "There is a reading fee of $8 for all Open Competition entries; the fee includes a reading of your work and a copy of the 2007 anthology ..." Again, no mention of prize money that I can find. In my book, that's the equivalent of requiring one to be a subscriber to be considered for publication; a practice in which only a very few bottom-feeder journals engage.
I was sad to see a number of local poets whom I hold in high esteem fall for more than one of these. I think that as poets become increasingly desperate for publication, especially those whose professional careers depend on it, they don't consider the probity of the soliciting entity, or the actual risk/payoff ratio. While some entry fees have climbed to the point where the fees above may seem negligible, I've made a point in recent years of not entering any contests whose entry fees were more than 2% of the prize money. I believe we owe it to ourselves as poets, as well as to our communities, not to support heinous or ill-considered practices with our checkbooks. Boycott these things, and tell 'em why. "Fund-raising" is not an excuse; these folks should solicit donations from corporations, seek grants, or hold bake sales. Or at least offer respectable prize money, which would likely not only draw enough additional entries to make up for it, but ensure a far better quality of competition.
And if you are looking for any more excuses to cull your list of possible contests to enter, here are a few more criteria, after applying the entry-fee-max-2%-of prize standard:
a) Named judge (see 2/18/06 posting)
b) Response date (see 6/23/06 posting)
c) Ease of submission: by this I mean that if I have to reformat my poetry in double-spaced Times New Roman and send in five print copies with the word and line count on each page plus two discs in MS Word, it's not gonna happen, unless the prize money goes into 5 figures.
And no, prize money isn't everything. I happily submit to places that don't pay anything, as long as they don't charge me to do so. But what is everything, or almost everything, is not having your hard work devalued by places that make you pay in order to let them use your poetry