The Story Behind “Poetry.com Scam – Bad Poetry Readings”

I was recently asked about my YouTube video that addresses the Poetry.com scam of the early 2000’s and I wanted to give the full background on that story . The video is farce and the poems read in it were made up for that video, but it comes from a real experience I had. Here’s the comedy video for context:

Even though the video is exaggerated it does illustrate my feelings on getting scammed.

I was scammed in 1999 or 2000. I had written what I thought was a pretty good poem entitled “To Young Ladies” and I wanted to share it with people. So I searched on the internet for a place to submit my poem. I found Poetry.com. The website let you submit poems for a chance to win $1000 if your poem was selected as the best poem that month. My reaction was, “My poem is good enough to win me $1000!” So I submitted it. Soon after, I got an email telling me that my poem was in the running to win the monthly prize and it was good enough that they wanted to publish it in a book that I could buy for $40. That’s the gist of it anyway, I don’t have the original emails or letters they sent. Well, I was some 16 year old so I was thinking, “Yay! I’m getting published!” I didn’t even tell my mom about it. I just used some money from my part-time job to buy it. And I only made like $50 bucks a week so that was a whole week of work! (I’m sure a lot of people’s mom’s would pay for it though.)

The book arrived in the mail a month or so later, and that is the point where I realized I got scammed. When I had first heard from them they had said something to the effect of, “Your poem, To Young Ladies, has been selected to be published in [some book title I don’t remember],” but… The book I received had a different title, and that’s when a light flickered in my brain that I’d gotten scammed. It occurred to me that they published so many of these that a writer would be published in whatever book was due for the next printing. They only publish people that pay for the book! So every poem in the book represents a “sale” and there are around 2000 poems in each book. They had my $40 and they had the $40 of the 1999 other people that were published in the the book. A cool $80,000, minus expenses, but I’m sure the expenses are minimal. My guess is they published one of these books every week.

The book is okay. Don’t get me wrong. It’s not the cheapest printing I’ve ever seen, but it’s also not really the quality you’d normally expect from a coffee table book. The presentation is meant to look meaningful and dignified and the name of the company was “The International Library of Poetry”, so it feels all distinguished and renowned.

As for getting the book, the experience is: The book arrives in the mail, you look at the “Index of Poets” for your name, and then you turn to the page your poem is on, you see that it’s there, then you put the book on a bookshelf.

A few weeks after you buy the book, they send you another letter saying that your poem is “so good” that they are going to make an audio CD of your poem as read by a “professional” reader. That was $60. To make it seem more personal, and not like something that they send to everyone (which they did), they had handwritten something like “You wrote a very beautiful verse, Jack” on the form letter. I think I was tempted to get it, but I didn’t do it.

As for the contents of the book… I never read any poem other than the one I wrote. Not one! When I first got the book I thought to myself I could read some of the poems just to know someone else’s thoughts. After all, all of them were written by people, and people are interesting and full of passion! I have tried to read some of them. I have! Even as I’m writing this blog I’m flipping through the book trying to see if there is anything interesting in the book… There isn’t. People are not as full of passion as I thought, I guess. People are not as interesting as I thought. I can’t even read more than a line or two in any of the poems, before getting bored out of my mind. They are all bad. Really bad! Pardon my french, but they are all complete utter crap.

I’m sure these poems have meaning to the people that wrote them, but they don’t have meaning to me. Most of them are embarrassingly bad. My poem is bad too!

To illustrate my point, I’m going to analyze my own poem that is in the book for your reading pleasure, but before I do that I want to give some background on why I wrote the poem, because this story is more amusing than the poem itself:

There was this friend of mine, Seth, and he really liked this girl and wanted to ask her to prom. I personally thought that this girl was very unattractive and I said to him, “Why would you want to go with her? She’s not pretty!” Then in a fit of silliness I said, “I’m going to write a poem about how ugly she is!” (I don’t like using such harsh words today, but understand that I was an immature 16 year old at the time, and that’s what I had said to him.) Then I wrote the poem. I thought it was pretty good, so I submitted it to Poetry.com in hopes to win $1,000.

I will present and analyze the full text of my poem as it appears in the Poetry.com anthology. (I have since edited this poem and re-titled it, but this is the original text that appeared in the book.)

To Young Ladies

She is a rose after a rainstorm
Drenched in the mud of the earth
Which weighs down the sturdy petals
Slouching over it sinks into the muddy ground
Ruin awaits as it disappears beneath the might earth

That’s it. That’s the poem I wrote about the girl that my friend wanted to take to prom. When I read the text, I cringe. I’m embarrassed to share it with anyone, but I do so to illustrate my point.

This is a fundamentally bad poem. I give it some lenience because I was 16 when I wrote it and I was not aspiring to be a poet or anything, but let’s get into the details:

To begin with it’s bad on a purely technical level. There is no rhyme and no meter. For that matter there really isn’t any rhythm to it. And yes, free verse is a form of poetry, but free verse is almost always used as an excuse for amateurs to dump random words onto paper and claim it’s poetry. It’s almost always bad. Sure, someone that knows a lot about poetry and understands the technical aspects of it might be capable of writing good free verse. Certainly, I, a 16 year old that had only really written poetry as assignments for English class, could not, and that shows from the text of the poem. Just try to read it aloud and it will be even more clear how bad it is. I can only imagine what a “professional” reader would have done with it.

The next problem with the poem that I want to address is that it is factually wrong. The narrative of the poem is that a rose is destroyed by a rainstorm. This is a highly unlikely scenario. Roses have really strong stems. A rainstorm would probably not destroy a rose, and almost certainly not to the extent described in the text. Sure, artistic license and hyperbole may be used in poetry, but this is hard to grasp. It’s hard to visualize what is going on in poem for anyone that has actually seen a rose. A flower that might be a better fit for this narrative would be a pansy, but calling a woman a “pansy” is bad taste (though I assume Poetry.com would have still published it).

I suppose the final issue I have with the poem is the title and implications of it. I titled the poem “To Young Ladies” with no reason as to why. It’s a bad title… What young lady is it for? To the woman that originally inspired me to write it? Certainly not. Even though I wrote it about a woman I found unattractive, the poem seems to have more to do with weakness than physical appearance. A rose is beautiful to begin with, which is a far cry from the immature thoughts I had about the woman I wrote it about.

The only line I even like in the poem is the first one “She is a rose after a rainstorm”. That idea could go somewhere, but this poem does not go anywhere good with it. A good poem might actually use the attributes of a rose to talk about how strong the woman is… But I digress.

I want to end by giving my final thoughts on the Poetry.com scam. It is a scam, but it’s really not that bad of a scam. It’s vanity publishing. It makes the kids, or whoever, that submitted their poem feel hopeful. They get to be in a book, and it only cost $40 (which I suppose is $60 in today’s dollars). You do get a book out of it too. It’s not like you just give them money and get nothing in return. You’ll never read the book, that’s true, but it is something you can hold in your hands and even show people if you want to.

The people that run the scam are pretty smart. As I stated before, everyone in the book bought it, so every book they publish is a guaranteed 2,000 sales. It’s smart. I don’t hold anything against the business model.

As the story goes, I had the book sitting on a bookshelf for 20 years and I thought about throwing it out many times. Every time I moved I thought, “There’s no point in keeping this… but it doesn’t really take up much space.” I also wondered if there was anything I could do with it.

Eventually I made a YouTube video about the the scam. All the readings in that video are made up due to potential copyright issues, but the inspiration to make the video came because I got scammed. A few of my friends, and even some strangers enjoyed the video, so it was worth it in that regard. Other than making a funny video I have never told anyone that I bought the book, because I do feel embarrassed for having gotten scammed. I’m not even sure if I ever mentioned the book to my mom, but if I did then she was certainly proud that her son was “published”.

Today, Poetry.com is not whatever it was at the turn of the century, but there are other websites out there that take poem submissions and will still publish you in a book! As long as you understand that it’s a vanity thing and don’t get delusions of grandeur that you are some great poet, it’s fine. Heck, I’d even say if you have delusions of grandeur it’s still fine. It will just be embarrassing when you explain why you put on your résumé that you are a published author.

If you got scammed and feel bad about it, and that’s why you’re reading this post, then know that I was scammed too and I’m embarrassed, but it’s a minor embarrassment at best.

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