Interview by Carol Smallwood
Jendi Reiter, vice president of https://winningwriters.com “101 Best Websites for Writers” (Writer’s Digest, 2015-2018), oversees the Winning Writers literary contests. The website, founded in 2001 to help poets and writers, is located in Western Massachusetts. Jendi is also an award-winning author with a new book of short stories, An Incomplete List of My Wishes (Sunshot Press/New Millennium Writings, 2018).
How long did it take to organize the help so many poets and writers depend upon in Winning Writers? What was the spark that started it?
WW is always evolving and refining our features, which include a monthly e-newsletter, four writing awards, and a database of the Best Free Literary Contests.
Nearly 20 years ago (!) my husband, Adam R. Cohen, and I were working in the publishing industry in NYC, but wanted to start our own business that we could take outside the big city and corporate life. He brought his marketing expertise as the Atlantic Monthly’s former circulation director. I had been winning professional awards for my writing since high school, so I was familiar with many contests and could guide writers to find the best ones for their particular style and experience level. It took us half a year to get the business up and running.
More than simply another directory, WW’s mission was twofold: to educate emerging writers about contest scams, and to bring writers together to shed light on important social issues. The former objective was accomplished through the Wergle Flomp Humor Poetry Contest. The latter goal has informed all our contests, from the War Poetry Contest we launched after 9/11 to our current North Street Book Prize for self-published books.
Our two-person shop has grown to a staff of about 8 freelancers who help judge our contests, keep the database current, and do marketing research and diversity outreach. We find some of them through our local writing community, and others by approaching writers we admire and asking them to be guest judges. The benefit of an all-online business is that our talent pool isn’t limited by geography. Our former next-door neighbor now screens the North Street Book Prize entries from her home computer in Poland, where she is researching her graduate thesis!
Please tell readers about “Hand-Picked Resources for Writers” that you edit.
Adam and I read A LOT of books and social media, which we’re constantly harvesting for interesting links for our website. By curating these resources pages, we help writers find the best deals for self-publishing packages, book design services, stock photos, and other services for putting their work into the world.
Reading widely is essential to growing as a writer. We review our favorite books on the website, and also link to magazines and online archives of classic literature. In recent years we added a category called “Writing for Social Change”, which spotlights journals, contests, and articles that promote minority voices or social justice issues.
The website requires a great deal of work to keep the literary contests current. How do you manage?
We are very grateful to our assistant editor Samantha Grace Dias for maintaining the database. So smooth, it’s like it runs itself! Sam thoroughly understands the contest landscape and often alerts me to changes in contest guidelines that merit a ratings upgrade or downgrade. Hire her to edit your book or academic paper (firstname.lastname@example.org), but please don’t steal her away from us!
When did your annual humor no-fee contest begin? Please share with readers how they may enter and also about the other contests Winning Writers sponsors:
To enter any of our contests, go to the WW homepage, click on “Our Contests” at the top menu bar, and select the one you want. The submission period for each one is listed on the rules page for that contest. We prefer to receive entries through Submittable, but will consider mailed entries if you do not have Internet access.
The humor contest began in 2001 as a fun way to expose vanity contest scams: those “free” contests that accept nearly every entry and expect you to pay for a copy of the winners’ anthology. We invited people to write the worst imaginable poem, submit it to a vanity contest, and then send it to us with their “acceptance” letter full of fake praise from the vanity sponsor. I believe we played a role in driving the largest scam contest, Poetry.com, out of business. Now our Wergle Flomp contest is just a free contest for the best humorous or parody poem.
The Tom Howard/John H. Reid Fiction & Essay Contest and the Tom Howard/Margaret Reid Poetry Contest are open-theme contests that we took over from our former affiliate, the Australian novelist John H. Reid. Mr. Reid passed away earlier this year and we are glad to continue these contests in his memory.
In 2015 we launched the North Street Book Prize for self-published books of fiction and memoir; in the 2018 contest (entries currently being judged) we added categories for poetry collections and children’s picture books. Self-published and small press books face unwarranted prejudice from review outlets, bookstores, and awards committees. This prize allows us to signal-boost excellent books that are excluded from mainstream distribution channels.
I first enjoyed reading your award-winning poetry chapbook, Swallow (Amsterdam Press, 2009) and have followed your progress. Please tell us about your most recent book that the Midwest Book Review noted has “Astute windows into society’s secrets, prejudices, double standards, and individual purpose.”
My debut short story collection, An Incomplete List of My Wishes, was a runner-up for the Sunshot Prose Prize from the literary journal New Millennium Writings. These pieces, which I wrote over the past decade, won contests from journals such as the Iowa Review, Solstice Lit Mag, Passages North, and Bayou Magazine. Some of them began as character sketches for my novel Two Natures (Saddle Road Press, 2016), a coming-of-age story about a NYC fashion photographer during the 1990s AIDS crisis. The short story form allowed me to understand other perspectives apart from the novel’s first-person narrator.
Other stories grew out of my journeys through Jewish and Christian spirituality, weighing the comfort of collective belonging versus the danger for those who don’t fit in—exiled because of our queerness or our refusal to be silent about abuses of power. Is love ever not conditional, and what price are we willing to pay for attachment?
Over this same period, I was trying to adopt a child, while becoming estranged from my family of origin. So there is a recurring theme in these stories of broken or never-formed bonds between parents and children, though sometimes life on the other side of that loss is better (or wiser) than what was left behind.
Your prize winning books include poetry and fiction. Do you find it challenging to switch from one to the other?
I always have several projects going simultaneously, because it’s very easy for me to get bored or lose my confidence in whatever I focus on for too long. I don’t necessarily recommend this as a strategy—it’s just how my brain needs to be fed! My history as a poet makes me more attentive to the sound of every word in my prose. And I’m now discovering, upon my return to poetry, that my near-exclusive focus on fiction in the past four years has given me a better grounding in the details of our current cultural moment, and an increased interest in narrative and persona poetry to expand my poetic subject matter beyond my personal feelings.
Do you have another book in mind? How much note taking, planning do you do before beginning your books?
I am working intermittently on Origin Story, the sequel to Two Natures, as well as a chapbook of politically inspired poetry. Most of these poems aren’t “ripped from the headlines” exactly, but are informed and energized by current themes (such as my gender transition, climate change, and the #MeToo movement), in a way that’s different from my earlier, more philosophical and inward-looking poetry.
Links to my books:
Bullies in Love (poetry)
Two Natures (novel)
An Incomplete List of My Wishes (stories)
About the interviewer: Carol Smallwood’s most recent poetry collection is In the Measuring (Shanti Arts, 2018). She is a recipient of the Albert Nelson Marquis Lifetime Achievement Award, and supports humane societies.