‘World of Poetry’ Awards Mean Big Bucks--Paid by the Winners

The Washington Post

Three thousand poets have arrived in Washington, and most of them are winners. World of Poetry, a for-profit California organization, is holding its fifth annual convention this weekend, its first in Washington. Bob Hope will perform, there will be a “Balloonathon,” and literally thousands of awards will be presented.

But then, in the World of Poetry, it’s hard not to be a winner. It’s just that some of the versifiers don’t know it, especially because their award letters call the honor the equivalent of an Oscar.

Mary Zangare, for instance, who is arriving from Las Vegas to collect her Golden Poet Award, said she thought she was one of only a dozen winners.


Actually, two-thirds of the poets in attendance at the Washington Hilton will collect Golden Poet awards. And those 2,000 are just the ones who are paying the $495 registration fee, plus air fare and hotel bill.

World of Poetry founder John Campbell said in an interview that two-thirds of the 75,000 entries to their contests this year won the award. A postcard sent out by World of Poetry, however, puts the number at “over 150,000.”

“It’s a considerable amount, and we’re trying to increase that each year,” Campbell said. “It’s our way of encouraging poets and helping them to feel good about themselves. . . . I vowed as an editor I’d never send out a rejection slip, and I never have.”

This is prompting growing disenchantment out in Golden Poet land. “We may be dumb hillbillies down here in Whopee Holler, but we’re not stupid,” said Kentuckian Tony Tribble, who got a letter informing him that he had won a Golden Poet Award in May. “They got a scheme to make money.”

Poet Laureate Due

Tribble is not coming to the convention, but U.S. Poet Laureate Howard Nemerov is. He’ll be addressing the group this morning. He said that while he had “some questions” about World of Poetry, he had made a commitment to appear and “as I can’t get out of it, I’ll go in with a good heart, a clean mouth and will keep a civil tongue in my cheek. . . . It’s more like P.T. Barnum than Hitler, you know.”

Meanwhile, World of Poetry has drawn the attention of both the district attorney’s office of Sacramento County, where the company is based, and the local postal inspector. Both are making inquiries.


Said Deputy Dist. Atty. Justin Puerta: “Basically, what this industry is working off--and there’s no law against it--is vanity. What we have a difficulty with is the elderly or disabled who call in and say, “I’ve won this award, and I thought I was the only one. I had the local church raising money, and then I found out I wasn’t the sole winner.’ They’re put in an embarrassing situation and feel disgruntled.” The same thing happens, he said, with that other vast group of poets: teens.

The letter received by Tony Tribble begins like this:

“Dear Golden Poet:

“I am so excited to tell you the good news!

“World of Poetry’s Board of Directors has voted unanimously to honor you with our Golden Poet Award for 1989, in recognition of your poem ‘The Grapes of Birth.’ . . . The Golden Poet Award is to poets what the Academy Award is to actors.”

That last sentence, Puerta added, also tends to imply that the recipient is one of a small number. As Tribble said: “I thought maybe like a handful of people had won. . . . But if you’ve got as many rejection slips as I do, you know you’re not that great.”

Others winners interviewed--both those planning to attend the convention and those who were not--exhibited a range of feelings.

Quest for Notoriety

“My reason for coming is to help spread the gospel,” said Wilma Ficklin of Las Vegas. “My expectation is that possibly there are quite a few Golden Poet awards. What I am seeking is just a little bit of notoriety, just a little bit of recognition from the world.”

Marie Wendling, a California resident, had been intending to come, but changed her mind. “Am I going to spend about $1,000 for a piece of paper? No.” Furthermore, the 84-year-old retirement-home resident said, “I don’t go out much. Except to bet on Lotto.”

Her poem must have been among the shorter winners. It reads:

He didn’t walk the path of gold

Just stumbled through the lead

Now carried to his grave site

For he is stone-cold dead.

Mary Zangare, the Las Vegan who had thought there were only 12 Golden Poet awards, said: “I want to meet other people, and I want to pass the word around about child abuse,” the subject of her winning poem.

If she’s never attended an event like this before, she’s sent her poetry to, as she says, “all the greats.

“I wrote for Elvis’ father, Karen Carpenter’s parents, Betty White when her dog Stormy died. Liberace--when he was living. And the president of Korea. And John Wayne sent me his last note before he died. I’ve just written one now for Willie Nelson. He just doesn’t know it.”