Poet Rusty Morrison, also cofounder of ten-year-old press Omnidawn Publishing, has seen both sides of literary competition. Her first book, Whethering,won the Colorado Prize for Poetry (Center for Literary Publishing, 2004), and was followed a few years later by the true keeps calm biding its story, published in 2008 as part of the Sawtooth Poetry Prize from Ahsahta Press. The book went on to win the James Laughlin Award from the Academy of American Poets. Morrison has also received the Poetry Society of America's Alice Fay Di Castagnola Award, Cecil H. Hemley Award, and Robert H. Winner Award. Her most recent collection, Book of the Given, was selected for publication by Noemi Press in 2010 a few years after she'd submitted a shorter version of the book to (but didn't win) the press's chapbook contest.
On the flip side, Morrison's press, which she runs with her husband, Ken Keegan, administers its own series of competitions, with two poetry book prizes (a new contest launched this summer) and one chapbook award. We caught up with her recently to discuss what it's like to have a foot in two realms, and to get her insider's take on using contests to find a place for one's work in the world.
What do you look for in a contest? What has inspired you to submit your work for particular awards?
I enter contests for full books and for series of poems. Both kinds of contests excite my interest. Probably the most important criteria for me in choosing to enter a contest are my respect for—and feeling of kinship with—the publication or the press that is offering the contest. New presses and journals are as valid and worthy of my respect as older ones. But I want to feel that I admire the choices made by the press or the journal, and I want to see that their aesthetic is aligned with mine, regarding both the work chosen and the way it is presented.
How did you know your manuscripts were ready to go out?
I am an avid believer in revision, so most all of my work has undergone distinct stages in the revising process. I believe that it's in the process of revision that I can bring the most excitement into my writing. Of course, I'm not talking about the fine-tuning that happens at the very end of the process. I'm talking about a wilder, riskier kind of revision, in which I attempt to open opportunities in the work that I can't see during the initial writing process.
I try to take most works through a few stages of revision, and then let the work sit for a few days, or a week, or more. When I return to it, I look again and attend to it with my most open-spirited perceptions, to see if something more might want to arrive in the work. And I let myself add and change quite radically, as I follow my intuitions. After I've done this a few times, I usually have the sense that a work has given me all the possible inspirational opportunities it has, or that I can glean from it. That's when I'm ready to hone it, and I let myself become more overtly conscious/critical, and I do the fine-tuning that I think helps finish a piece. Usually, I let it sit a day or two, and see how the 'honing' looks. I never send out a piece that I've just changed in any way. If I make a change, then I let the poem sit another day.
I've just described the way that I work with a poem series, but this is similar to the way that I perceive a full manuscript. I see a manuscript as a constellation of smaller units of difference. As I work on a manuscript as a whole, I want to bring my attention to those differences, as well as to the larger arc of alignments that will give the manuscript a sense of wholeness. So when I bring a number of these series together in the manuscript, they often change in ways I can't predict. When I am in this manuscript-creating process, I am often surprised by what emerges in a smaller series, once it comes into the manuscript. In this process, I am often revising again. I'm not after uniformity, but actually, I'm again seeking surprises. I want to let difference and surprise emerge in ways that provoke and challenge me, and, I hope, might excite a reader too. I suppose I begin to trust that a manuscript is ready to be sent out if I see that it has taken me through a process of evolution, and that it has constellated into a force that reflects that evolution.
Have you also submitted your manuscript to publishers outside of a competition?
I have, but I haven't had any publications come from that process. Recently, Noemi Press published a new work of mine. But that occurred because I'd sent to their contest. My work didn't win, but the press was interested in publishing it.
Has being a contest administrator changed the way you look at writing prizes or modified your practice of submitting work in any way?
I have more appreciation for how much work goes into running a contest. I'm actually one of the manuscript readers, or screeners, so I do not manage the database or the contacts. This protects me from seeing anyone's names. But I know how vigilant Ken Keegan, my press partner, is in tracking work and contacting writers if there's anything amiss in their submission process. And, I can see how much time this takes him. So when I submit I try to get everything ready, and then let it sit a day. Then, the next day, I look over the work one more time and I check over everything that is required. I understand all too well that when I am nervous about my poems, and focused on the writing, I may be neglectful of the other details: getting my cover page right, getting my payment made correctly, etcetera. Getting these little things right will make a contest administrator's life much easier, and I want to be sure I'm sending in a submission that is easy to accept.
What has been the most rewarding aspect of receiving an award? Is there a prize that has been of particular value to you?
It is such a shock and honor and pleasure to win an award. Every award has given me a sense of recognition that is deeply and powerfully moving. After each award, I've found myself in a haze of amazement for days. I suppose that winning a prize is both marvelous and a little frightening. Generally, in my creative life, I work very hard to trust within myself that the most important thing is to keep writing and to keep growing as a writer. I try to focus on that, and not upon how well the poems succeed in finding an audience. But then, if and when I win a prize, I feel such a thrill, such a rush of surprise to imagine that there is actual acknowledgement in the reading public for my work. It is a little scary because it broadens my trust in the work's ability to make contact and to give something to readers that they value. And it increases my hope that my future poems will have relevance for readers. It is such a different feeling from the one I can cultivate for myself, internally, as I do the work and acknowledge the risk and gratification of the work itself. So winning a contest opens me to more expectations, more awareness, and this is a good thing, as long as I keep it in perspective.
As both a writer and a publisher, what piece of advice do you have for writers looking to contests as a way to get their work into the world?
I think that my best advice is to keep sending out the work. I know this seems obvious, but so many writers slow down, or give up on the submission process. I send my work to many, many, many contests each season. I try to do it without worry, without thinking about winning. I just do it as a step in my own internal process of poem development. I consider the moment of "sending something out" as an accomplishment. It marks the poem or the series or the manuscript as having come-of-age.
When the work returns to me, if it isn't accepted—which is so often the case—I just reconsider it, and often find myself entering into some bit of revision. The work continues to stay fresh to me that way. So submitting—to contests as well as other forms of submission—is a way to get some distance on the work, and then meet it again, when it returns. In that meeting, it might want to grow and might ask me to grow too, in some form of rethinking or revision. But it might also simply still feel "finished" and then I send it out again. And sometimes, the work is accepted somewhere or it wins a contest, and that is incredibly sweet!
In the video below, Morrison reads from her series "Necessities and Inventions" at a San Francisco salon last summer.
Correction: An earlier version of this post inaccurately stated that Morrison's Book of the Given had been a finalist for Noemi Press's poetry book award. The book was not a finalist for that award, but rather had been entered into Noemi Press's chapbook contest in a shorter form, and, though it did not win, the book was later published by the press in an expanded version.