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G&A: The Contest Blog

For the seventh installment of our Winners on Winning series, we spoke with Paisley Rekdal, the winner of the 2013 University of North Texas Rilke Prize for her poetry collection, Animal Eye, published in 2012 by the University of Pittsburgh Press. The $10,000 prize is given annually to a midcareer poet. Animal Eye was also a finalist for the Kingsley Tufts Poetry Prize and the Balcones Poetry Prize. Rekdal's previous books include an essay collection, The Night My Mother Met Bruce Lee; a hybrid-genre memoir, Intimate; and three previous books of poetry, A Crash of Rhinos, Six Girls Without Pants, and The Invention of the Kaleidoscope. She teaches at the University of Utah. 

What kind of impact has winning the Rilke Prize had on your career?
The Rilke Prize relieved me of certain fears about the current direction of my writing, in particular the kinds of aesthetic interests and experiments with which I was, and am now, engaged. That kind of validation is probably the biggest reward any prize can give, outside of a sudden influx of cash. In terms of connections, the Rilke prize put me in direct contact with Bruce Bond, Corey Marks, and Lisa Vining at UNT, which led to some wonderful conversations over my week there about art and reading, the state of the lyric, and the best place to buy cowboy boots. As for what the prize itself allowed me to do financially, it helped pay for a new roof, which (considering my bathroom ceiling that winter was literally uddered with snowmelt-filled paint balloons) was a true blessing.

Has winning this award, or previous awards, changed the way you approach your work?
Like any good American or egomaniac, I love awards, but I can't write for them. I don’t think anyone does. In terms of the seriousness with which I take my work, however, prizes have certainly given me the confidence to be more ambitious.

Have you ever entered a contest that you didn't win?
I can’t begin to list all the contests that I’ve entered and haven’t won. The upside of being a 95% loser, 5% winner (if I’m lucky that year) is that I’ve learned how to brush off the rejection and continue to write, even within hours of a serious disappointment. Disappointment is, in fact, a great thing for a writer (if by "great" we also mean "getting kicked in the groin"), since it forces you either to learn how to enjoy the writing process itself or give up. Over the years, I’ve also been a judge for small and large contests across the nation, and these experiences have taught me that, once you’ve winnowed the best manuscripts down to a small handful, picking a single winner is frighteningly arbitrary. Being a finalist or semifinalist really is a good sign, as I tell my students: it means that your skills are recognizable, even if they aren’t the ones the judge-of-the-moment loves most.

What advice would you offer to writers thinking of submitting to writing contests?
Gird your loins. And take nothing—whether it’s failure or success--personally.

For more Winners on Winning, read the current issue of Poets & Writers Magazine, and check back here every Wednesday for a new installment.

Submissions are currently open for the Thurber House’s John E. Nance Writer-in-Residence award. The four-week residency is offered from September to October 2014 to a fiction writer or nonfiction writer who has had a book published within the past three years. The resident will be provided with a $4,000 stipend and a two-bedroom apartment in the former home of fiction writer and cartoonist James Thurber in Columbus, Ohio. Travel and food are not included. The resident is also asked to participate in three community outreach activities offered by the Thurber House, such as giving readings or teaching writing classes.

To apply, submit two copies of a book published in the past three years, along with three short stories, essays, or chapters of a novel or book of nonfiction with an optional table of contents totaling no more than 50 pages by June 2. There is no entry fee. Self-published books are not eligible. Submissions should be mailed with the required entry form to Thurber House, 77 Jefferson Avenue, Columbus, OH 43215. The resident will be chosen by July 7.

Born and raised in Columbus, Ohio, James Thurber (1894-1961) was a prolific humorist, short story writer, and cartoonist. Though he spent most of his career in New York City, Thurber attended college in Ohio and worked at the Columbus Dispatch as a reporter from 1920 to 1924. He is buried in Columbus’s Greenlawn Cemetery.

Established in 2012 by Sally Crane, the annual John E. Nance Writer-in-Residence award is named after John Nance, a photojournalist who was the Thurber House writer-in-residence in 1995 and 1998. Previous residents include fiction writer Katrina Kittle and creative nonfiction writer Liza Monroy.

For the sixth installment of our ongoing Winners on Winning series, we spoke with Harmony Holiday, the winner of a 2013 Ruth Lilly Poetry Fellowship, a $15,000 award given annually by the Poetry Foundation to five emerging poets between the ages of twenty-one and thirty-one. (Starting this year, thanks to a donation from the Dorothy Sargent Rosenberg Memorial Fund, the prize amount will increase to $25,800 each.) Holiday's debut collection of poems, Negro League Baseball (2011), won the Fence Books Motherwell Prize. Her second collection, Go Find your Father/A Famous Blues, was published by Ricochet Editions in 2013.

What kind of impact has winning this prize had on your career?
I’m someone who’s deeply suspicious of the road most traveled by writers in our time—from the brave and often dejected or shrill dream of becoming a writer, to an MFA program and the connections and lexicon that come with it, and then ideally to publishing and teaching. I’m grateful for the fact that structures exist that help writers earn livings during these twilight years of monopoly capitalism, but I am constantly interrogating the path, wondering whether or not something is lost in the transition from training to sheer being. And while it’s possible that I romanticize a time when a writer’s biography was not as predictable, it’s also true that such a time called for less of a costume or spiel, and perhaps helped preserve the diversity and exhilaration of the unknown that made a writer’s life worth writing about. I admire writers like Amiri Baraka who, while understanding and operating within the current structure, also danced around it toward greater agency and creative freedom, creating independent presses, collectives, and ultimately, ideas that cannot be born within the obscuring anatomy of the western canon as it stands. It seems to me that the way that the academy has emerged as the number one source of training in the literary arts is at once heartening and a very complicated puzzle, meaning we all know that a specific aesthetic is born within the confines of these universities, and that even the wildest and freshest writing is manicured into something that can be explained in the terms that an MFA education allots—too much savviness perhaps, lots of know-it-all-ism and unassailable writing seems to come from that, lots of good writing too of course, but things could stand to be re-apportioned.

All of that said, winning the Ruth Lily, knowing that the Poetry Foundation is a strident and unrelenting champion of writers who take the road less traveled, I’ve been re-inspired to maintain my position on that road, even if it the resistance I put up is only in the form of archival work that re-distributes the wealth of the canon, or the deeper study of jazz and other music, or the continued study/practice of dance and application of its tenets in my writing—it’s a huge relief to be reminded of the importance of paving this road without over-defining it, the importance of freestyling, while realizing that too much resistance can undermine and too little might as well be none at all.

Additionally, my new book Go Find Your Father/A Famous Blues, was born of the energy and inspiration that the award provided. It began as a lyric essay and evolved into a book length collection of poems, letters, and essays, a memoiresque suite of work that might have been thwarted by fear about where it would fit into the canon, or about what genre it is, had the award not been the reminder I needed to just go forth and make the best and most inspired work I can make.

Has winning this award, or previous awards, changed the way you approach your work?
Not necessarily, no. I think winning things refines my idea of what winning really is. Each time you realize it’s not about anything you tried to prove to judges or yourself, it’s about the fact that you were in a natural, almost inevitable, place where your writing and ideas were concerned, that you can’t ever fake or contrive that, so that the goal remains to continue to approach writing and living from that raw, natural, this-is-me take-it-or-leave-it place. 

Have you ever entered a contest that you didn't win?
Absolutely, but I try to think of rejection as some kind of mythic, fableistic deity gifted to us by the ancients, that sort of educates us in the ways we have rejected ourselves thus far, the nuanced place wherein we have not been true to ourselves. Meaning, sometimes we know we’re too young for a Guggenheim, but apply anyway because why are we too young, after all? Or sometimes we’re clear that a certain magazine privileges narrative work, and we send something a little decentralized from that aesthetic, knowing what to expect, but also hoping we might rouse people to a new way of seeing simply by showing up. I think that’s a healthy way to interrogate both ourselves and the cult of normativity that suggests what’s appropriate for when and why. If we’re always playing it safe, if we’re always winning, we’ve rigged our own contest with our best self, we’ve lost the will to exceed ourselves, and that’s no way to win.

What advice would you offer to writers thinking of submitting to writing contests?
What are you waiting for? Write and read and listen and use your body every day, don’t make applying to or winning contests your raison d’être, but also don’t just talk about it, be about it.

For more Winners on Winning, read the current issue of Poets & Writers Magazine, and check back here every Wednesday for a new installment.

For the fifth installment of our ongoing Winners on Winning series, we spoke with Tami Mohamed Brown, the winner of a 2013 Loft Literary Center Minnesota Emerging Writers' Grant in creative nonfiction, an award that includes $10,000 and professional development for a writing project. She also received a 2011-2012 Mentor Series Award in creative nonfiction from the Loft Literary Center. Brown is a regular contributor to Minnesota Women’s Press, and her work has been published or is forthcoming in Literary Mama, Mizna, Sweet, and in the anthology Open to Interpretation: Intimate Landscape. She lives in Bloomington, Minnesota, with her husband and daughter.

What kind of impact has winning this prize had on your career?
Like many working parents, I’ve never known a writing life or schedule that is separate or distinct from full-time employment and motherhood, my writing time a constant negotiation of balance to create pockets of time—however minimal—in early mornings, on the bus, squeezed in over lunch hours. Receiving the Emerging Writers' Grant has allowed me funded writing time on a regular schedule to work toward a final rewriting and shaping of my memoir: one day a week away from my full-time job, for a full calendar year. I’m still kind of blown away by that! 

Has winning this award, or previous awards, changed the way you approach your work?
Receiving this award for funded time on a very specific project has definitely made me take my work more seriously. There was the sense that my work had been validated, which fed into an awareness of the importance of my scheduled writing days—I’ve made a huge effort to protect that time, which otherwise would have been hard fought. These longer, weekly, concentrated blocks of time have provided a sense of expansiveness—time to think actively about and experiment with structure and time to simply get as much as I can down on the page.   

Have you ever entered a contest that you didn't win?
I submitted a version of the same proposal to the Minnesota Emerging Writers' Grant in 2012 and didn’t win. When the grant notice was posted for 2013, I revisited what I had written the previous year and tightened things up. The second time around, I asked readers I trusted for feedback on the grant narrative, and I used the resources the Loft provided—an open information session, a scheduled chance to ask questions. In short, I took more time and care with the process and with my work—it was good to be reminded that this can make a difference. 

What advice would you offer to writers thinking of submitting to writing contests?
Do your homework and seek out the opportunities that are a good fit for your work. Follow submission guidelines. Submit your best work. After that understand that timing and luck are part of the process, and persevere.  

For more Winners on Winning, read the current issue of Poets & Writers Magazine, and check back here every Wednesday for a new installment.


Submissions are currently open for the Tell it Strange Essay & Story Contest, sponsored by the Gotham Writers’ Workshop and the Writer. The winner will receive $1,000, publication in the Writer, and tuition valued at $445 to take a class through the Gotham Writers’ Workshop in New York City or online.

A $500 second-place prize and a $250 third-place prize will also be given; both awards include publication on the Writer website and tuition for a workshop. All three winners will also receive a subscription to the Writer.

Using the online submission system, submit a story or essay of up to 1,000 words with a $15 entry fee by May 31. The piece should respond to one of the following two quotes by fiction writer Annie Proulx: “We’re all strange inside. We learn how to disguise our differences as we grow up (The Shipping News);” or “There’s something wrong with everybody, and it’s up to you to know what you can handle (Close Range).” The winner will be announced by July 1.

Annie Proulx is the author of four short story collections, four novels, and most recently Bird Cloud: A Memoir of Place (Simon & Schuster, 2011). Her novel The Shipping News (Simon & Schuster, 1993), about a family living in Newfoundland, won the Pulitzer Prize and the National Book Award. Close Range (Simon & Schuster, 1999) is a collection of short stories about Wyoming, including “Brokeback Mountain.”

Established in 1993, the Gotham Writers’ Workshop offers creative writing workshops in New York City and online for poets, fiction writers, and nonfiction writers. The mission of Gotham Writers’ Workshop is “to demystify the writing process through expert instruction and proven methods in a safe, creative learning environment.”

Proulx: Eamonn McCabe/the Guardian

The Poetry Foundation announced yesterday that Nathaniel Mackey has won the 2014 Ruth Lilly Poetry Prize. The annual $100,000 prize honors a living U.S. poet for outstanding lifetime achievement.

Mackey, sixty-six, is the author of over a dozen poetry collections, most recently Nod House (New Directions, 2011) and Splay Anthem (New Directions, 2006), which won the National Book Award. Often known for his experimental work, Mackey has published four installments of his ongoing serial novel, From a Broken Bottle Traces of Perfume Still Emanate. He teaches at Duke University.

Don Share, editor of Poetry magazine, which is published by the Poetry Foundation, praised Mackey’s work. “The poetry of Nathaniel Mackey continues an American bardic line that unfolds from Whitman’s Leaves of Grass to H. D.’s Trilogy to Olson’s Maximus poems, winds through the whole of Robert Duncan’s work and extends beyond all of these,” he said. “In his poems, but also in his genre-defying serial novel (which has no beginning or end) and in his multifaceted critical writing, Mackey’s words always go where music goes: a brilliant and major accomplishment.”

Recent winners of the Ruth Lilly Poetry Prize include Marie Ponsot and W. S. Di Piero. The prize was established by Ruth Lilly in 1986, and has honored poets such as Adrienne Rich, Philip Levine, John Ashbery, W. S. Merwin, Yusef Komunyakaa, Kay Ryan, C. K. Williams, and Lucille Clifton.

University of California Press received the Poetry Foundation's inaugural Pegasus Award for Poetry Criticism for two of its books, both published in 2014, on the poet Robert Duncan: Robert Duncan: The Collected Later Poems and Plays, edited by Peter Quartermain, and Robert Duncan: Collected Essays and Other Prose, edited by James Maynard. The $7,500 annual award honors the best book-length works of criticism, including biographies, essay collections, or critical editions, that focus on poetry.

Mackey and University of California Press will be honored at a ceremony in Chicago on June 9.

Visit the Poetry Foundation website for an extended interview with Nathaniel Mackey. In the video below, Mackey gives a reading at the University of California in Santa Cruz in 2008.

For the fourth installment of our ongoing Winners on Winning series, we spoke with poet Christopher Salerno, who was chosen by D. A. Powell as the winner of the 2013 Georgetown Review Poetry Contest for his collection ATM. He received $1,000, and his book was published in March by Georgetown Review Press. His previous collections include Minimum Heroic, which won the Mississippi Review Poetry Prize in 2010, and Whirligig, which was published by Spuyten Duyvil in 2006. He is an assistant professor of English at William Paterson University in New Jersey.

What kind of impact has winning the Georgetown Review Poetry Prize had on your career?
I’m actually up for tenure this year at the university where I teach, and so clearly a prize of any kind is useful for that business. But more important, in terms of my writing, the prize has afforded me the time and perspective to clear the deck, and to be patient and thoughtful about what comes next. I realize that I don’t need to be pushing out books on any kind of set schedule. If it happens, great. Also, I’m sending myself on a modest reading tour this spring, which will allow me to connect with other writers and audiences who may not know about my work.

Has winning this award, or previous awards, changed the way you approach your work?
Absolutely. Winning this award for ATM, and winning an award for my previous book, Minimum Heroic, has given me insight into my revision process, and what it means to “finish” a manuscript. It’s also made me think about the notion of a “project” or themed book, such as ATM. Some presses responded more strongly to the cohesive nature of this manuscript, as opposed to my previous, loosely-knit collections.

Have you ever entered a contest that you didn't win?
Yes. I’ve entered more contests over the years that I can remember. But fewer and fewer as my career has moved along. To some degree I’ve used rejection to push me back into the manuscript and think more about it. I’ve also developed more awareness and respect for what certain presses do and what kind of work they publish, and so if my book doesn’t make the cut I am more inclined to wonder why. I’m rarely satisfied with my work anyway, and I find great enjoyment in pushing the manuscript around to see what other potential is there. 

What advice would you offer to writers thinking of submitting to writing contests?
There are two things I’ve learned. First, you must familiarize yourself with the judge’s work and the work published by the press or publisher holding the contest. You’d be crazy to throw your $20 at a press just because you think it’s grand. How do you see your work fitting there? My advice would be to send, but only if you think it’s a good fit. Secondly, it’s wise to keep in mind that, after winning a prize, it is unlikely that the press will publish that winner’s follow-up book. Some presses are loyal to authors, and others seek the freshness of new contest books. 

For more Winners on Winning, read the current issue of Poets & Writers Magazine, and check back here every Wednesday for the next six weeks for a new installment.

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