Boston's Alternative Source! image!

[This Just In]

A verse-case scenario


A short while ago, the Phoenix received a press release soliciting “Inspirational Poems ... From Boston Area Poets.” “Good news for sincere poets!” the release crowed. “The Bards of Burbank is offering a $1000 grand prize in their Poetry Competition 2001, free to everyone....” But wait — before you go digging up those inspirational sonnets you wrote as a lovelorn 15-year-old, bear in mind that in the world of online poetry contests, “free” is a flexible term. And so, for that matter, is “sincere.”

“It’s a scam,” says Charlie Hughes, a self-appointed poetry watchdog who publishes a Web site dedicated to exposing what he calls “these deceptive practices.” He adds, “This is something that twists the art for pure profit.”

According to Hughes, the figure behind the Bards of Burbank (a/k/a the Famous Poets Society) is none other than John Campbell, the granddaddy of dodgy poetry contests. Using various aliases and operating under the auspices of multiple organizations, Hughes says, Campbell has been preying on the naïveté and vanity of poets for 20 years — making tens of millions of dollars into the bargain.

The trick, says Ed Magedson of the online journal The Rip-Off Report, is simple. Every poem submitted to a Famous Poets contest, no matter how awful, is deemed a “finalist.” Every finalist is included in a special anthology, usually titled something like Poetry Gems. The book, however, is available only through Famous Poets. So if you want to see your name in print, you have to shell out about 50 bucks for the privilege. Then there are the incidentals, such as having a photo included with your poem ($15) or having your poem illustrated ($20). Further, competition finalists (that is, everyone who entered) are invited to an awards ceremony, which costs upwards of $500 to attend. The whole shebang can set you back about $1000. Continued obscurity, meanwhile, is all but guaranteed.

“It’s indefensible,” says Hughes. “The people who are vulnerable to this sort of thing are the elderly and the young.”

Matt Rohrer, publicity and events director for the Academy of American Poets, is well aware of the damage done by disreputable poetry competitions. “I get calls every day from people who have been scammed like this,” he says. One such caller was the father of a Mississippi girl who had been named a Famous Poets finalist. “The girl had been invited to a ceremony in Vegas,” Rohrer says. “The family was going to take out a loan on their trailer because they had been led to believe their 14-year-old daughter was a genius.”

“It’s tragic,” says California-based actor David Beach. “You see these 70-year-old women who have blown their savings because they think they’re going to be poet laureate.” Two years ago, to his eternal shame, Beach MC’d a Famous Poets ceremony in Reno. “The whole thing was so shoddy,” he says. “I had complaints from people saying their poems had not been included in the anthology, or that they had been misprinted, that everything they had been promised had been screwed up.”

The low point, Beach says, came during the so-called entertainment portion of the evening. “People had been promised something professional, highly acclaimed,” he says. What they got was John Campbell, in a robe, sitting on a stool reciting Shakespeare. “For his encore,” Beach says, “Campbell read a love poem; behind him was a screen with the space shuttle Challenger exploding on it. It was the worst thing I’ve ever seen in my life. People just walked out in horror.” And those people, Beach adds, walked out “knowing they had been ripped off.”

Every now and then, Charlie Hughes will submit a terrible poem to Famous Poets, just to see what he can get away with. “I get the typical letter telling me how great my poem is, what a fantastic talent I have, and would I like to be included in a deluxe hardbound edition of the anthology,” he says. One of Hughes’s winning entries contained the immortal lines “My cat is chewing on her butt;/It makes me think she is a nut.”

But it gets weirder. After his stint as MC, David Beach had trouble getting Campbell to pay him. “He’s just impossible to track down,” Beach says (Campbell did not return phone calls from the Phoenix). Desperate, Beach resorted to posting a message on the Famous Poets Web site. “I wrote a letter which I guess got entered as a poem,” he says. “I believe the poem was called ‘Urgent! I Need My Money!’ Six months later I got a letter saying, ‘Congratulations! You won!’”

Issue Date: July 5 - 12, 2001