G&A: The Contest Blog

Jumping the Gun, Pulling the Trigger on This Year's Big Awards

Given the overwhelming response to our May 1 post, "Who Should Have Won? A Writer's Spectator Sport," (cricket...cricket) here's another chance to be the judge.

Which of the following books of poetry and fiction (all of them published in these first five months of 2009, some having appeared in Page One: Where New and Noteworthy Books Begin) do you think will win one of the big literary awards—Pulitzer, National Book Award, National Book Critics Circle Award, Kingsley and Kate Tufts Poetry Awards, etc.? (Note to the crowd of readers, clamoring to post comments, who notice a glaring omission: Feel free to make your voices heard).

Portait and Dream: New and Selected Poems (Coffee House Press) by Bill Berkson
Romanticism (Norton) by April Bernard
See Jack (University of Pittsburgh Press) by Russell Edson
Selected Poems (FSG) by Michael Hofmann
Shannon: A Poem of the Lewis and Clark Expedition (Ecco) by Campbell McGrath
Chronic (Graywolf Press) by D. A. Powell
The Dangerous Shirt (Copper Canyon Press) by Alberto Ríos
Poems 1959-2009 (FSG) by Frederick Seidel
The Great Wave (Houghton Mifflin Harcourt) by Ron Slate
Assorted Poems (FSG) by Susan Wheeler

The Sky Below (Houghton Mifflin Harcourt) by Stacey D'Erasmo
Out of My Skin (FSG) by John Haskell
Nobody Move (FSG) by Denis Johnson
Castle (Graywolf Press) by J. Robert Lennon
How It Ended (Knopf) by Jay McInerney
Pygmy (Doubleday) by Chuck Palahniuk
Miles From Nowhere (Riverhead Books) by Nami Mun
Ruins (Akashic Books) by Achy Obejas
Everything Ravaged, Everything Burned (FSG) by Wells Tower
Sag Harbor (Doubleday) by Colson Whitehead

To find out of you're right, we'll have to wait a while—the National Book Awards will likely be announced in November; the National Book Critics Circle Awards, next March; and the Pulitzers and the Tufts Awards, next April—but just think of how shrewd you'll feel if you predict correctly.

Editor Honors the Memories of Loved Ones With Annual Contests

It's easy to get caught up in the details of who won which award and how big the cash prize was and when the winning book is going to be published. These are all important details, no doubt, but every once and a while a contest or a sponsoring organization comes along that offers a little perspective to the competition, reminding those of us who pay such close attention to the deadlines and the recent winners that the people who run the magazines and the small presses and the nonprofits that make the contests possible are often doing what they're doing for very personal reasons.

Robert Nazarene named his Chesterfield, Missouri-based literary magazine Margie to honor his late sister's memory. Marjorie J. Wilson died in 1977 at the age of twenty-two. The annual journal also sponsors a number of writing contests, several of which are also named after late family members. The Marjorie J. Wilson Award, worth a thousand dollars, is given annually for a single poem. (This year's deadline has been extended to May 29.) The Robert E. and Ruth I. Wilson Poetry Book Award, given annually for a book-length poetry collection, is named for Nazarene's grandparents. And the newly created Auntie Ann Book Award, which will be given for a book-length collection of poetry (the deadline is August 31), is named for his aunt.

In a recent e-mail, Nazarene explained the personal importance of this suite of contests:

"Our 'Auntie Ann' was aunt to Margie, myself, James [Margie's senior editor], and our brother Tom. Also to my children, Bobby and Madelyn. She was of extremely modest means. And yet, she never missed a birthday or Christmas card to any of us...and it always included a far more generous check than she could afford. She was so kind. And she gave us all back rubs whenever we wanted them. Similarly, the Robert E. and Ruth I. Wilson Poetry Book Award is in honor of our grandparents. Neither our grandparents nor our Auntie Ann had the opportunity of education. In fact, my grandfather, Robert E. Lee Wilson, went to work at nine to support his mother and six siblings when his father (an alcoholic) abandoned the family. In any event, none of these dear people ever went beyond the eighth grade. We know they are smiling at the literary awards named in their honor. ... They all loved Margie with all their hearts and were dumbfounded with grief when we lost her at age twenty-two in 1977."

The literary magazine Margie, Nazarene added, "is not about a what, it's all about a who and our attempt to keep her voice alive and ringing."

Commercial Mags Get In On the Contest Action

If your literary aspirations are a bit more, shall we say, glossy—your ideal number of readers in the six- or seven-digit range—you might want to check out these new writing contests. Esquire, the monthly magazine for the "intellectually curious and confident modern man" (circ. 700,000), and Real Simple, the magazine for women that features "the inspiration, information, and time saving tools they need to make their lives easier" (circ. 1.9 million), recently launched contests that offer some good, old-fashioned cash and, perhaps more importantly, publication in magazines that are read by a wider cross section of the American public than most creative writers ever expect to reach.

The new Esquire Fiction Contest offers $2,500 and publication for the best story based one one of these three titles: "Twenty-Ten," "An Insurrection," or "Never, Ever Bring This Up Again." Writers may submit up to four thousand words by August 1. 

Real Simple's second annual Life Lessons Contest offers three thousand dollars, publication, two round-trip tickets to New York City, hotel accommodations for two nights, tickets to a Broadway play, and a lunch with Real Simple editors, for the best essay that answers the following question: When did you realize that you had become a grown-up? Writers may submit essays of up to fifteen hundred words by September 7.

New Orleans Carpenter Turned Writer Receives Gift of Freedom

In 2004, at the age of forty-seven, Barb Johnson decided to take time away from her carpentry business and pursue an MFA in fiction at the University of New Orleans. Shortly thereafter, Hurricane Katrina wiped out Johnson's business and forced her to live on the balcony of her apartment in the evacuated city. She kept writing, and by the time she graduated, in 2008, she had a book deal for a story collection, More of This World or Maybe Another, forthcoming from HarperCollins in November. Last week, she won the fifty-thousand-dollar Gift of Freedom Award from the nonprofit A Room of Her Own Foundation.

In her application for the biennial award, which is given to a woman writer who has a specific two-year goal (winners are chosen on the basis of talent and motivation), Johnson wrote, “We write to say, You are not alone. We write the thing that can’t be said…the thing that will be a bright moment for a stranger, the way another’s writing was a bright moment for us.… We pass what we have to those who are hungry for it because we, ourselves, have been hungry.”

With financial help from the award, Johnson will spend the next two years completing a novel titled "St. Luis of Palmyra," which picks up where her forthcoming story collection leaves off. The finalists for this year's award are Bridget Birdsal, CM Burroughs, Nathalie Handal, Gail Kramer, and Rashaan Alexis Meneses.

Previous recipients of the award, which was created in 2002, are Jennifer Tseng, Jeannine Harkleroad, Meredith Hall, and Summer Wood.


Finalist One Year, Winner the Next

In what the Academy of American Poets calls an "unprecedented concurrence," the sole finalist for the 2008 Walt Whitman Award, J. Michael Martinez, was just named winner of the 2009 award. Judge Juan Felipe Herrera chose Martinez's collection, Heredities, from nearly a thousand anonymous entries. It will be published in the spring of 2010 by Louisiana State University Press. Martinez will receive five thousand dollars and a one-month residency at the Vermont Studio Center. The Whitman is given for a first book of poems.

Last year, judge Linda Bierds selected Martinez as the only finalist and named Jonathan Thirkfield the winner for The Waker's Corridor; whereas this year Herrera chose Martinez and named Keith Ekiss ("Pima Road Notebook") and Sarah Elaine Smith ("I Live in a Hut") finalists.

Which contest do you think Ekiss and Smith will be sending their manuscripts to next year?

Martinez, who was born and raised in Greeley, Colorado, received an MFA from George Mason University. His poems have appeared in New American Writing, Five Fingers Review, the Colorado Review, and Crab Orchard Review, among others. He lives in Boulder and teaches literature, critical theory, and cultural studies at the University of Northern Colorado.

Cormac McCarthy Adds PEN/Saul Bellow Award to List of Honors

Pulitzer Prize? Check. National Book Award? Check. Guggenheim and MacArthur fellowships? Check, check. Picture hanging in the Smithsonian's National Portrait Gallery? Check. Appearance on Oprah? Check. Popular movie adaptation? Check, with at least two more in the works. And now Cormac McCarthy can add the PEN/Saul Bellow Award to the list.

Yesterday the PEN American Center announced  that the author of the best-selling apocalyptic novel The Road (Knopf, 2006), has won the second biennial PEN/Saul Bellow Award for Achievement in American Fiction. He will receive forty thousand dollars. The 2007 winner was Philip Roth.

Joel and Ethan Cohen, whose adaptation of McCarthy's 2005 novel No Country for Old Men was a big hit last year, plan to release their adaptation of The Road in October. An adaptation of Blood Meridian (1985), written and directed by Todd Field and produced by Scott Rudin, is planned for a 2010 release.

And in case you missed it, below is a clip from the author's rare interview with Oprah, which aired last year.


PSA Announces Annual Award Winners—for the 99th Time

The Poetry Society of America on Friday announced the complete list of winners of the 99th annual PSA Awards—a baker's dozen of prizes ranging from the $250 Louise Louis/Emily F. Bourne Student Poetry Award, given to a student in grades nine through twelve, to the prestigious Frost Medal, given for distinguished lifetime service to American poetry. Sixteen-year-old Grace Dunham won the former; seventy-nine-year-old X. J. Kennedy received the latter. 

Among the other winners are Ron Padgett and Gary Young, who two months ago split the Shelley Memorial Award, a prize established way back in 1929 by the will of the late Mary P. Sears. John Koethe, the UWM philosophy professor whose eighth book of poems, Ninety-fifth Street, is forthcoming from Harper Perennial in September, and Christopher Buckley were the judges.

Padgett and Young are actually the twelfth pair to share the annual prize. The first was Herbert Bruncken and Winfield T. Scott in 1939. Some other, perhaps more widely known Shelley Award-winning pairs are John Ashbery and Richard Wilbur in 1972 and Denise Levertov and Robert Duncan in 1983.  

In addition to all the poetry collections that Padgett has published with great indie presses over the years, he's written and/or edited books about writing as well as two books about other poets—Ted: A Personal Memoir of Ted Berrigan (The Figures, 1993) and Joe: A Memoir of Joe Brainard (Coffee House Press, 2004). Young, a prose poet who teaches at the University of California, Santa Cruz, is the author of several poetry collections, including Pleasure (2006) and No Other Life (2005), both published by Heyday Books.

Who Should Have Won? A Writer's Spectator Sport

Last month, Dave Davies, senior editor of the Philadelphia Daily News, interviewed author Bruce Weber about the finer points of being a baseball umpire for NPR's Fresh Air. Weber, a New York Times reporter, trained to be a professional umpire for three years in order to write As They See 'Em: A Fan's Travels in the Land of Umpires (Scribner, 2009). One of the interesting things they discussed is what happens when an umpire is confronted by an angry player or coach who doesn't agree with a call. The bottom line: Any amount of complaining isn't going to make the ump change his mind.

The same can be said for the much more private spectacle of a judge naming the winner of a literary prize. Certainly not everyone can agree with the decision, but the judge is the final arbiter—and therefore the call stands.

Can you think of a recent call in "the ball park of writing contests" that made you want to explode out of the dugout, get in the umpire's face, and plead your case?

Perhaps it was last year's Nobel Prize in Literature selection. Even before French novelist Jean-Marie Gustave Le Clézio was named winner, the former secretary of the Swedish Academy, Horace Engdahl, started a firestorm of controversy when he criticized American writers in an interview with the Associated Press, noting that U.S. authors are "too sensitive to trends in their own mass culture," and that the quality of their work suffers as a result.

New Yorker editor David Remnick, for one, kicked some dirt on the umpire for that one: “You would think that the permanent secretary of an academy that pretends to wisdom but has historically overlooked Proust, Joyce, and Nabokov, to name just a few non-Nobelists, would spare us the categorical lectures," he said.

Without going all Lou Pinella here (obviously great respect and admiration is due the winners as well as the judges of writing contests—after all, they do what they do for the love of literature) have there been recent contests you'd like to have seen go a different way? Who should have won (besides yourself, of course) the Pulitzer, the National Book Award, or the National Book Critics Circle Award?

Wake Up, Fiction Writers! May Is Full of Story Contests

National Poetry Month is almost over. We laughed; we cried; we read and, perhaps, wrote some good poems. But now that the month-long verse extravaganza is nearly at an end—although it never really ends for the poets out there, does it—attention turns to the other genres as well. So, perhaps it's time to point out that fiction writers have a number of opportunities during May to enter contests in which prizes are given for short stories. 

For the procrastinators out there, tomorrow is the deadline for three contests, all of which offer a thousand dollars and publication. The Journal's Short Story Contest is given for a single short story, Lee K. Abbott will judge; Leapfrog Press's Fiction Award is given for an entire manuscript of stories (or a novel or novella) and will be judged by three Michaels (Michael Graziano, Michael Lee, and Michael Mirolla), and the Southwest Review's David Nathan Meyerson Prize for Fiction is given for a single story and is open only to writers who have yet to publish a book.

For those who want to plan a bit further ahead, the deadline for Hunger Mountain's Howard Frank Mosher Short Fiction Prize is May 10. The author of the winning story receives a thousand dollars and publication.

May 15 is the deadline for the Lorian Hemingway Short Story Competition, the well-defined prize given annually for a story writer whose fiction hasn't appeared in a nationally distributed publication with a circulation of five thousand or more.

And even though it falls on a Sunday, May 31 is the deadline for three short story-related contests: the University of Georgia Press's Flannery O'Connor Awards, Glimmer Train Press's Short Story Award for New Writers, and The Writer's Short Story Contest.

Four Poets Officially Discovered in "Discovery"/Boston Review Contest

Timothy Donnelly, poetry editor of the Boston Review, received nearly nine hundred submissions for this year's "Discovery"/Boston Review Poetry Contest, coordinated in partnership with the Unterberg Poetry Center at the 92nd Street Y in New York City. From that tower of manuscripts, judges Mary Jo Bang, Terrance Hayes, and Mark Strand recently chose four winners. They are Jynne Dilling Martin, Bridget Lowe, Jeffrey Schultz, and Annabelle Yeeseul Yoo. 

The "Discovery" contest has been around for five decades, but this is only the second year that the Boston Review has had a hand in coordinating the prizes and publishing the winners. Previously that honor went to the Nation, which ended its partnership in 2007. The annual prize is given for a group of poems by a poet who has not yet published a book—emphasis on the yet. After all, two of the judges, Bang and Strand, are previous winners of the contest and went on to collect a National Book Critics Circle Award and a Pulitzer Prize, respectively.

The editors of the Boston Review said the judges cited "formal invention, uniqueness of voice, and clarity of vision as distinguishing characteristics" of the four winners. In addition to the five-hundred-dollar cash prize and publication of their poems in the Boston Review, they have been invited read at the 92nd Street Y on May 11.

Martin, who is also the Random House publicist for such authors as Charles Bock, Emily Chenoweth, and Curtis Sittenfeld, has had her poems published in the Kenyon Review, New England Review, TriQuarterly, Indiana Review, New Orleans Review, Southern Review, and elsewhere.

Lowe is completing her MFA at Syracuse University, where she has received the Hayden Carruth Poetry Prize and the Peter Neagoe Fiction Award.

Schultz teaches at Pepperdine University and has had his poems published in Great River Review, Northwest Review, Poetry, Poetry Northwest, Willow Springs, and elsewhere.

And Yoo is a New York City poet whose work has appeared in LIT, Chelsea, jubilat, and Western Humanities Review.



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