The name Cynthia Lowen may ring a bell with those readers of our Recent Winners  section. Lowen has won the “Discovery”/Boston Review Poetry Prize and the Inkwell Poetry Competition, among other awards, and was recently a fellow at the Fine Arts Work Center in Provincetown. Since she’s met with continued success, we thought we’d ask her about her experience entering writing contests.
How many contests have you entered? And how many did you enter before winning your first one?
I’ve entered dozens of contests—most of which, it goes without saying, I did not win. With my most recent work, I actually started the manuscript with the goal of having ten new poems to send out to contests, after finishing up with my MFA, with the notion that this was a good way to get some new poems generated under a sort of deadline. As it turned out, these first poems about Oppenheimer and the making of the atomic bomb were positively received by the editors at Tin House, on the basis of which I was selected as winner of the Tin House/Summer Literary Seminars Kenya prize. So I feel I was fortunate in having a positive reception of this work early on. At the same time, for every rare phone call or e-mail of congratulations about having been selected as winner of a contest, there are numerous trips to the mailbox to find those slim envelopes containing notes saying, “Better luck next time,” which I think is good—you can never take for granted having your work recognized with so many talented writers out there.
What do you look for in a contest?
The first thing I generally look at is who is judging it. Is it someone whose poems I admire, whose poems share some sort of kinship with my own, who I think might like my work? Or, if it is a contest sponsored by a magazine or press, where the editors are selecting the winner, I try to get a sense of whether or not my work would appeal to them based on the other work they publish. You know, if journal X is only publishing sonnets, I probably wouldn’t enter its contest, as I don’t write too many sonnets that see the light of day. But if a magazine I love is holding a contest judged by a poet I can’t get enough of, I’ll probably enter its contest, in the hopes that the reason I love the magazine and the judge have somehow informed the choices I am making in my own writing. When it comes to fellowships and grants, I generally apply to things I have heard positive things about from other writers.
How do you select a piece to submit to a competition?
I try not to send my newest work but pieces I have sat with for several weeks. Because the poems in the manuscript I have recently completed tend to inform each other as a series, depending on how many poems a contest is accepting I try to send a selection that fits together within the manuscript or that can best stand alone. I’ve found that, when writing a book-length series, it can be really hard when you can only send three to five poems to a competition, because I often feel like the poems need each other to make sense or be complete. Therefore, I tend to favor those contests that allow you to submit more poems, as I think a wider selection better reflects the arc of my work.
What award has been of the most value to you?
I think the award that was probably the most meaningful for me, because of its history, was the Discovery Prize. To give a reading at the 92nd Street Y, a venue where so many writers I deeply admire have read, and to receive an award that so many poets I love have also received was an amazing honor.
Have you ever had a negative experience as a result of winning a prize; any horror stories?
Fortunately, I’ve never had any sort of negative experience as a result of winning a prize. I can’t even imagine what one might be. Perhaps there was the morning, waking up in Masai Mara, in southern Kenya, to find the whole region flooded, looking forward to a seven-hour bus ride back to Nairobi through it. That was not absolutely ideal—but it was incredible, that through poetry and the Tin House/SLS prize, I was able to have this kind of fantastic adventure.
What piece of advice do you have for writers looking to contests as a way to get their work into the world?
One thing that I would encourage writers to do is to use contests as a way to challenge themselves, outside of the structure of MFA programs or other sorts of support systems, to get their poems to a point where the work feels finished and where the writer can feel confident about having it read by others. When I send work out to a contest I really admire and don’t get the award, it’s a sign to me that I have to go back and push my work harder, and reapply next year in the hopes that the growth in the poems will be recognized. This was what happened in the case of the Discovery Prize, and also the fellowship I received to the Fine Arts Work Center in Provincetown, which was also a huge honor: The first time I applied I did not get the award or the fellowship, but the next year I reapplied, with different poems or subsequent drafts of the poems, and did. I think the most important lesson I’ve taken from contests is to not get (too) discouraged by not winning them, but to use contests to make my work better.