Dyer-Ives Poetry Competition sparks creativity in Kent County

Nurturing a community of local poets, the Dyer-Ives Poetry Competition enters its 47th year and seeks to continue to stimulate creativity among Kent County residents of all ages.

“There’s growth and change that occurs in the competition every year, so it’s always exciting to read the submissions that come in,” said Christine Stephens, a former winner of the competition. She is currently in her 10th year as the coordinator of the competition.

“The role of the contest is to recognize people who bang their head against the page, to reward those who don’t get recognition for their work often,” said Stephens. “The competition fosters a community of poets and encourages their voices to be heard.”

The competition has a prominent role in the Grand Rapids literary community, giving a voice to many amateur poets.

The competition awards nine individuals with a monetary award and the opportunity for their poem to be published, which is often the first step into the publishing world for winners.

Award recipients also read their poems at an awards celebration at the Grand Rapids Festival of the Arts, which takes place downtown every June.

The competition has three entry categories: kindergarten through eighth grade, high school and undergraduate, and graduate and adult. The diversity of entries encourages poets of all experience levels to take part.

“I love reading the kids’ entries the best,” said Stephens. “Kids are natural poets, and I believe that grown-ups can do their best work when they write at a childlike level.”

The feedback from judges on their poems is a huge draw for community poets. “It’s a prestigious contest because of the high-profile judges that we bring in,” explained Stephens. “I have dream judges every year that I would love to be a part of the competition, and it’s always a pleasure when those individuals agree to work with us.”

Some such “dream judges” have included Billy Collins, Naomi Shihab Nye and this year’s judge, Mark Doty.

Doty boasts an international reputation as the recipient of the National Book Award for Poetry in 2008, along with many other awards. Doty read some of his poems at a well-attended poetry reading at Grand Valley State University last fall, and the positive response towards his work prompted an invitation for him to participate in one of Grand Rapids’ literary traditions.

Over the past decade, Stephens has taken note of the growth of the literary community in Grand Rapids as a result of the success of the competition. “I’ve seen a number of other competitions popping up and thriving throughout West Michigan,” she said. “The Grand Rapids Public Library and Kent District Library now host their own poetry and short story competitions and have a group of Grand Rapids Poet Laureates.”

Despite its constant presence in the community over the past four decades, the future of the contest remains unclear.

The Dyer-Ives Foundation is phasing out its giving in the next five years, deciding to spend the rest of its funds in the present  rather than securing a long-term endowment. They are doing this in order to allow other community entities to contribute to philanthropic efforts.

As a result, the Dyer-Ives Poetry Competition will be seeking a new home and source of funding in the next few years, though Stephens remains hopeful that the competition will continue in its current strength. “Over its long history, it’s been the people who keep this contest alive,” she said.

Though it is well-regarded in literary circles, the competition remains somewhat unknown to many in the community, something that Stephens would like to see changed.

“Poetry is important to the community,” she said. “Our poets help the world see itself. In poetry, the more specific you get, the more universal you become.”

Entries for the Dyer-Ives Poetry Competition are accepted until March 1 and can be submitted to [email protected]. More information about the competition can be obtained at dyer-ives.org.