Cave Canem Deadline Nears, Recent Winners Offer Insight

The deadline for the 2009 Cave Canem Poetry Prize, an annual award given for a first book of poems by an African American poet, is next Friday. To get a sense of the manuscripts that have been successful in recent years, let's take a look at the last two winners, Ronaldo V. Wilson and Dawn Lundy Martin, both of whom were included in Poets & Writers Magazine's annual roundup of debut poets.

Wilson was thirty-eight when he won last year's prize for Narrative of the Life of the Brown Boy and the White Man, which was published by the University of Pittsburgh Press (the presses that publish the winners rotate; this year's participating press is Graywolf). He spent seven years writing the book and submitted to only three or four contests over a period of three years.

Martin was similarly selective in her submissions. She submitted A Gathering of Matter/A Matter of Gathering, which took her five years to write, to around seven contests before she won the 2007 Cave Canem Poetry Prize and it was subsequently published by the University of Georgia Press. When asked why she chose this particular contest, she replied, "First, because the publishers that make Cave Canem prizewinning work produce really beautiful books. Second, I entered because Carl Phillips was the judge." Martin's right, the books are beautiful. And Graywolf is known for publishing not only top-notch poetry collections but ones that look great, too. Yusef Komunyakaa is this year's judge.

Here's a sample from Narrative of the Life of the Brown Boy and the White Man:

When he thinks of the connection between his sad sisters and his turned-on old men strangers caught sucking and being sucked, and covered, he feels that his mind is one confused object that pulses about unknowing, wound up, a note toward itself with no answers but the need to cut, suspend, look. Paste, cover, and tape.

And from A Gathering of Matter/A Mattter of Gathering:

When the wax dries, finally, alongside the grass,
what rises when the dead are buried?

(To read her poem "Last Days" click here.)

It's arguable that the blurbs on the back of a book indicate anything about the aesthetic of the poet or the quality of her book, but just to "cover" all the bases: David Rivard called Wilson's book "scary in an exhalted sort of way," while Nathaniel Mackey called Martin's collection "staccato, braket studded, gruff, brusque."

And finally, whether you're thinking of submitting to this year's contest or not, the video below, of Martin reading her poem "Religion Song" at Fence magazine's tenth anniversary reading at the AWP conference in Chicago earlier this year, is worth watching: