Free contest 'winners' can buy books, mugs, plaques featuring their work
Tuesday, April 3,
Story last updated at 11:06 p.m. on Monday, April 2, 2001
by Joie Tyrrell
By Diana Marrero
Times-Union staff writer
English teacher Katrina Short entered some of her best students in a poetry contest, hoping a few would be genuinely recognized or even published.
High school senior Ellen Spera submitted a poem to the Montel Williams Cure for Multiple Sclerosis Poetry Contest, wishing to pay tribute to her mother fighting the disease.
Al Bowman, an amateur songwriter/poet and full-time carpet cleaner, participated in a number of poetry and songwriting contests, dreaming of his big break.
What the three of them didn't realize when they put their hearts into their entries is that almost everyone wins. But winning comes at a price.
All three Jacksonville-area residents entered free contests run by the International Library of Poetry, a company with a slew of other business names that conducts monthly poetry, art and photography contests. Its "winners" are then offered the opportunity to buy a book, plaque or mug featuring their own work.
The practice has lured millions of Americans. Watermark Press, the Maryland-based parent company that operates the International Library of Poetry and other similar setups, has 500,000 customers a year and has been in business since 1983, according to information reported to the Better Business Bureau of Greater Maryland.
"It's a back-door approach to selling books or plaques," said Robin Rukab, a spokeswoman for the Division of Consumer Affairs in Jacksonville.
It's a pretty lucrative business, critics argue, preying on people's emotions, insecurities and vanity without regard to artistic value. Ostracized in literary circles, the books the company publishes typically can't be found in regular bookstores or libraries.
Officials at the International Library of Poetry and Watermark, which have the same phone number, did not return several phone calls over two weeks.
The contests have been going on for years and the myriad companies that run these contests likely will keep churning out marked-up personalized items as long as people are willing to pay to display their creativity.
These contests are nothing new but the collaboration of such goodwill efforts as the Montel Williams MS Research Fund is a different twist, lending them some legitimacy.
Cara Hardy, a spokeswoman for the talk-show host Williams, said the poetry organization approached the show to collaborate in support of finding a cure for multiple sclerosis and has donated money. She said the arrangement is probably "a one-time deal."
"It was an opportunity for us to raise money for MS," she said. "It's not to say we're not concerned about the people who were affected by this."
Although Spera, whose mother has multiple sclerosis, said she realizes the company probably didn't have the noblest intentions, she takes the fact that she paid $38 plus shipping and handling for a walnut-finished plaque in stride.
"No matter where the money goes, I did this for my mom," said the Orange Park 18-year-old.
But if Spera is not terribly upset about the situation, there are plenty of others who are.
Short, who teaches at Lake Shore Middle in Duval County, said she is furious her students have been duped by the International Library of Poetry and other companies like it.
"It's just a gimmick," she said. "It just irritates me. This is really not a true contest."
Short, chairwoman of the English Department, said the school's English teachers probably receive about five contest solicitations throughout the school year. She now trashes them.
Short said she is saddened that students get taken by the feel-good praise the contest organizers offer.
"They don't understand the world is a cruel place yet," she said. "They think, 'Gee, someone thinks I'm a good writer.' It gets their hopes up."
Although the companies' practices may be misleading and the public has complained to consumer-advocate groups, it's not illegal.
The companies deliver on what their customers pay for and don't obligate their contestants to buy anything. Fork over $49.95 and you will get a deluxe hardbound anthology featuring their work.
Tom Stevens, president of the Better Business Bureau in Jacksonville, said the International Library of Poetry "skirts right on the edge of doing what they're supposed to do."
According to a report by the Better Business Bureau of Greater Maryland, Watermark Press has done business under the names Birthwrites, International Poetry Hall of Fame, International Society of Poets, National Library of Poetry, Pegasus Press and poetry.com.
The International Library of Photography and Arts and Kids also have ties to Watermark Press. The company is a vanity publisher of books and music, meaning contestants actually subsidize publication.
In the past three years the Greater Maryland bureau has received 390 complaints about the company. The company responds to each one, bureau President Nicholas Greaves said.
"It's a legitimate business and they're in the business to sell books," he said.
The Montel Williams-sponsored contest is only one of the latest contests run by the International Library of Poetry, which has published more than 250 amateur poetry anthologies since 1996, according to its Web site. It offers everything from T-shirts to mouse pads to aprons personalized with a poem.
Although Watermark Press is probably the largest company of its kind, it is by far not the only one. A slew of poetry contests are solicited through letters and advertised across the Internet and in publications.
Three popular ones -- famouspoets.com, friendlypoets.com and freecontest.com -- offer thousands in prize money for their free contests. All go back to the same Los Angeles address.
"Whenever anyone is asking for [your] work, be careful," said Allan Lefcowitz, art director for the Writer's Center, a non-profit writers organization in Maryland. "Ninety percent of the time, it's a scam."
Along the way, people from all sorts of backgrounds have come under the spell of these contests.
Darby McLean is a 6-year-old Jacksonville first-grader with a budding art talent.
"I like to draw animals," she said. "It's really, really fun."
Sharon McLean said she entered Darby's drawing of a wolf howling at the moon in an Arts and Kids contest, which promises thousands of dollars in prizes and even
$5,000 in grants to area schools. And Darby won. Not the prize money, but the chance to be featured in a book.
Mom willingly paid $79 for it.
"I figured it was some kind of scam," McLean said. "I just did it because I figured we'd enjoy the book with all the pictures by little kids. I don't mind because it made my child feel good."
Bowman, the amateur songwriter/poet who hoped to get discovered, has had plenty of experiences with these contests.
"I quit doing them," Bowman said, but not before he bought two copies of America at the Millennium through International Library of Poetry.
But he's not upset about paying a lot of money for the poetry anthologies, one for him, one for his grandson.
"Maybe when he's 50 he can tell people his grandpa was a poet," he said. "In a way, I am."
So why do so many people take the bait?
Jean Barbour, a retiree who lives in Neptune Beach, summed it up this way.
"Vanity propels us to do foolish things," said Barbour, who bought a book, a plaque and some other merchandise emblazoned with her poetry.
James DeMaris, an Arlington bookkeeper, agreed.
"If you've never been published before, this seems like a good opportunity," he said. "They really hype you up. It's just a bunch of hype."
Even so, he continues to enter the contests, though he never buys anything.
"I keep thinking maybe somebody will see it someday," he said. "No one else has beaten on my door to send them my poems. I was looking for recognition. ... Every poet is a dreamer."
A sampling of winning poetry
Multiple Sclerosis, Will There Ever Be a Cure?
Multiple sclerosis, will there ever be a cure?
We really don't know for sure.
The medicines aren't working,
so she stays within her home lurking.
Nothing can make the pain stop,
she can't even take her girls to the mall to shop!
She remembers those days when she could wander free,
now all she can do is stand still like a tree.
She can't take us to the beach because of the sun,
so instead we stay inside and do arts and crafts for fun.
Her legs get numb, her hands get tight,
that is how you know she is putting up a fight.
She cooks, cleans, and cares for them all,
that is why she is the most wonderful mother of all.
I guess we all need to get together and pray,
so one day her and her daughters can go to the beach and stay!
-- Ellen Louise Spera, Orange Park
When Twilights Fade Away
As twilight fades away
And the darkness settles in...
I'm all alone when your memories
Return again ...
I can't forget the way we met ...
And the love we shared ...
But you went away ...
And left a heart that cared
... Time can heal a heartache
And time can make it well ...
Time can dry away ... all my tears ...
But time can't erase those memories ...
Of you that remain ...
And time can't heal my every ...
I toss and turn the whole night
Through ... just dreaming of you ...
I can't seem to fall asleep ...
No matter what I do ...
I rise to face the day ... till time
Has turned again ... and twilight
Fades away ... and it all begins
Nooo ... Time can't heal my every pain ...
-- Al Bowman, Jacksonville
He left me with his roses
and his black dirt garden with his tomatoes and lettuce
but he forgot to take our evenings in the kitchen together
and he forgot to take the smell of his jacket
and the sound of my name, the way he said it
He left me with his catfishing and his careof tools
and a set of deer antlers on the wall
but he forgot to take his glass of wine and ginger ale
and his big hands around mine.
He left a grey tackle box
a handmade knife and some homemade sinkers
but he left his hat on the rack
and his glasses by the bed
but he forgot to take his name,
forgot to take his smile.
He left his cruficix on the wall,
the statue of the Virgin on his dresser
and the braid of garlic
he loved so well.
--Jeff Curtis, hometown
Recent winner for March, won $20,000