If you're a poet, the Holy Grail of poetry prizes and grants is of course the prestigious $100,000 Ruth Lilly Poetry Prize, administered by the historically renowned, Chicago-based Poetry Foundation (See Poetry Foundation: Grants for Creative Writing). But if you don't happen to be a poet laureate with a lifetime's worth of achievement under your belt, funding for your lofty literary pursuits can be hard to come by. After all, it's hard to be a poet. However, the Ruth Lilly Poetry Prize isn't the only cookie in the Poetry Foundation's cookie jar.
Unfortunately many of the Poetry Foundation's other awards and prizes aren't actually open to the poetic public at large. The Neglected Masters Award, Mark Twain Poetry Award, Randall Jarrell Award in Criticism, and Verse Drama Prize are all closed to unsolicited nominations and no applications are accepted whatsoever, at any time, period. But two awards and fellowships are. The Emily Dickinson First Book Award and five annual Ruth Lilly Poetry Fellowships are available to those poets who think they have what it takes to rise above the fray and claim what's rightfully theirs. Or at least claim what's attainable.
The Emily Dickinson First Book Award, with a prize of $10,000, is "designed to recognize an American poet over the age of 40 who has yet to publish a first book," and is in fact not an annual contest, but only held "occasionally" — so contenders would be wise to sign up for the newsletter and watch the website for announcements (Read IP's profile on Poetry Foundation President Robert Polito).
The Ruth Lilly Poetry Fellowships is a program awarded to five recipients per annum and appears to be the program that has expanded the most in terms of the number of fellowships given and who is eligible to apply. Since its inception in 1989 it has increased from one, to two, to now five U.S. poets to which it grants fellowships. The fellowship also used to rely on university writing programs to nominate individual candidates, but has opened it up to all U.S. poets between the ages of 21 and 31, awarding $15,000 a piece for a total of $75,000 each year.
If you are within the age limit and meet the criteria, this is the most accessible funding the Poetry Foundation offers. It may not be the six-figure Ruth Lilly Poetry Prize, but you can still have the grande dame's namesake associated with your byline if you have the chops.