A thing or two about book prizes

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The first thing to know about book prizes is, well, they don’t really happen that often. Just as you might get tons of rejections before you do your victory dance for one acceptance, for that one exception, book prizes come in unexpected and sweep you off your feet. Especially prizes for poems, because, if you think about it, it’s as if all of your poems (hence your manuscript) have been accepted for publication. All of them. At once! That’s kind of a dream, isn’t it?

A beautiful poet’s dream.

The second thing is, poems have a way of slipping through our fingers and into the eyes of strangers (editors, readers, designers, etc) without us knowing, thus they find a way of existence that is independent from the hand that wrote them. Let’s ponder on that for a moment. Think about all the time you spent writing a poem – not the actual writing, but the whole process in general. Did it come to you in bits and pieces, in the middle of the night? Did it show up when you didn’t want it? Did it come and go, and then again, until it drove you crazy? Did it want something from you you didn’t know, only to sleep quietly beneath your palms? However it came to you, and however long it took you to capture it onto the page, it was still not ready yet. At first, you nurture it, then you relapse in a momentary hateful sentiment for it, which will cause you to become more rational and cut off your darlings promptly. Then you might regret that and patch it back together. Then you step away from it, perhaps go do other things poets do when they’re not maddening. Coffee? Gardening? Life?

Whatever it is, you come back to it with new eyes. Literally. You have never seen this poem before, because you actually haven’t. It was something else then, it has become something new now. You do not feel rage or hate or love for it, but a pervasive sense of fondness that fills up your chest and lets you know, there might actually be something in this poem worth sharing with the world. You don’t quite know what it is yet, and you may never know. Is it the middle stanza? Have you seen those words arranged in that way yet? Was it its slight elegance? Was there a shocking truth somewhere in there? It doesn’t matter. What matters is, this is a new poem, with new potential. You finally do what you should’ve done all along: you craft it into its full being. Spend hours taking off a comma and replacing it with a blank space, reviewing the speaker’s ego, alternating titles, wondering which message is hidden, and which rests beneath your eyes. The thing is, even after all of this, it still might not be ready.

But something tells you it is time to send it out, send it out into the world and let others see what you saw.

And you do.

And it gets rejected.

Not just once, but multiple times, by multiple editors and journals you highly admire, it gets rejected so many times it becomes easier for you to believe that it has no light anymore, it bears only the scars of criticizing eyes, it has been weakened by a cruel world.

It may or may not find a home by itself before it is thrown in a manuscript you’re working on. But this doesn’t keep you from writing (although it doesn’t save you from despair either), because what is a poet without her poems? She is like an empty bucket in the middle of rain.

Then you follow the same pattern, or not, because let’s face it, every poem is entitled to its own individuality, to its own failures and successes. Sometimes freshly written poems find their way into the world without much fanfare. Others take years to mend and sow back together, only to come back broken. Others sit quietly underneath your belly until they are ready to explode. So even though you are the same poet, the hand that writes them is different, the capture of the word is as unique as each poem allows it to be, the colors you see with each one are not just different, but anomalous, unassuming, and always, always, new.

This surprises you each time. You might have fallen into the usual pitfalls – did you write about the moon again? About coffee in a coffee shop? Did you write about love and was bored by it? This is so common, but it doesn’t matter (at least not at the beginning). But you are surprised anyway, because you didn’t know you could use blood as a color, and light as a voice, and you didn’t know there was so much music in words, such eloquence in sorrow, you didn’t know this was in you because it wasn’t. This, you like. The constant surprise. It keeps you going. The light keeps coming back, and you write, in the middle of an ordinary task, you find yourself wondering which title to use, how poetic was that one phrase some stranger said on the bus, how saddened the eyes of a happy father, how lonely people look walking joyful into the sun.

You write until the poems attach themselves to each other, into a unified arc, and suddenly you realize, this is a manuscript, this is a book, dare you think of yourself as a book writer?

Yes, you may.

And you go a step further. You send it out. Once, twice, three times, for as long as it takes. Somehow you have regained your strength and rejection notes do not stick to your skin anymore, you do not stink of despair or self-doubt. No, because stubbornness is with you, and that is your best asset. You submit until someone recognizes that light into your book, and there is a book prize with your name on it. Yes, all of your poems have been accepted. This means a lot of things, but it also means:

Your poems do not belong to you. Your poems are not your own.

Finally, a bittersweet sense of release, a bit of freedom before something decides to explode from the underbelly again. Then it will be time for another book, another story, another poem, another light.

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