Poetry Contests, the National Library of Poetry, and Amateur Poetry Anthologies

One of my jobs as a digital reference specialist is to answer questions submitted through the Poetry and Literature Center’s Ask a Librarian form. The questions I receive tend to cluster around two or three major categories, such as how to find literary criticism on a novel and how to locate the full text of a poem without knowing its title and author. By far the most common question I receive, however, comes from people trying to find poems that they wrote, submitted to a poetry contest, and subsequently had published in a poetry anthology.

In almost every instance, the poems in question were published by an amateur, or vanity press, poetry publisher. These for-profit publishers, which have been extremely active since the 1980s, accept nearly every poem submitted to their contests for publication, and make money by encouraging winning poets to purchase copies of the anthologies in which their poems appear.

The Library of Congress has become a locus of questions about vanity press poetry publishers—receiving upwards of two-hundred inquiries per year—because many people mistakenly believe that the Library itself publishes and sells these anthologies. This misconception occurs for a number of reasons. First, the names of some amateur poetry publishers are quite similar to the Library of Congress. One of the largest amateur poetry publishers in the 1990s and 2000s was the National Library of Poetry, whose name is frequently confused with the Library of Congress, or, as many people refer to us, the “National Library of Congress.” Second, many of these publishers send emails and letters to winning poets that link their anthologies with the Library of Congress. Their correspondence sometimes notes that the anthologies will be submitted to the U.S. Copyright Office at the Library of Congress, or that the anthologies will be assigned a “number” by the Library of Congress. People often take this to mean that the Library of Congress will add the book to its permanent collections, or will assign it an ISBN number. The National Library of Poetry, in fact, printed ISBNs on its anthologies” copyright pages in such a way that people might assume the numbers were issued by or associated with the Library of Congress:

Copyright page of the National Library of Poetry anthology East of Sunrise.

Copyright page of the National Library of Poetry anthology East of Sunrise.

In practice, the Library rarely adds these books to its collections, and is not responsible for assigning ISBNs to books. Rather, what will usually happen is that the anthology will be registered with the Copyright Office and receive a copyright registration number.

To help people find poems they’ve had published by amateur poetry publishers, the Library has created an online guide to amateur poetry anthologies. The guide discusses the standard practices of these publishers, includes entries on dozens of active and inactive publishers, and offers tips on how to locate the anthologies through libraries and bookstores. If you’re looking for a poem that you, a family member, or a friend submitted to a contest or had published in a poetry anthology, please take a look at the guide and see if it helps with your search. Of course, we are happy to assist you directly as well: simply email your question to our Ask a Librarian service and we’ll do all we can to help you find your poem.

Lost Titles, Forgotten Rhymes

The following is a guest post by Abby Yochelson, English and American Literature Reference specialist at the Library of Congress’s Main Reading Room, Humanities and Social Sciences Division. As Rob Casper and Peter Armenti have introduced themselves in previous blogs, I’ll try to tell you a little about myself here. My name is Abby Yochelson, …

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