Pushcart Prize Turns Forty

Tara Jayakar

It could be said that any artistic endeavor is an act of faith, and publishing is certainly no exception. Literary magazines open and shutter each year, independent and university presses shift their focus or shut down entirely for a myriad of reasons: not enough funding, not enough staff, not enough book-buying readers. But the Pushcart Prize, the nonprofit award series and press that releases its fortieth-anniversary prize anthology this month, is still going strong. Weighing in at an impressive 654 pages, Pushcart Prize XL: Best of the Small Presses features sixty-nine poems, stories, and essays published during the previous year by small presses and journals, and nominated by an army of editors that span the globe.

The idea for the Pushcart Prize anthology was first conceived in the early 1970s by founding editor Bill Henderson, who at the time was a senior editor at Doubleday. “I was tired of the publishing industry turning writers into dollar signs,” Henderson says, citing the tendency for big houses to favor marketability over substance. After leaving Doubleday, he self-published The Publish-It-Yourself Handbook: Literary Tradition and How-To, a guide that advised writers on how to start their own presses, free themselves from the constraints of commercial publishing, and express their own truths—a rally cry to rebuild the literary industry on the foundations of community and care rather than capitalism. (The handbook is now in its fourth edition, and has sold over seventy thousand copies.) To further champion the work of small presses and literary journals, Henderson began to conceive of a “Best of the Small Presses” prize and collected anthology—something that would highlight the poetry and prose being put out by indie publishers each year. He enlisted everyone in the literary scene that he could think of to help—Joyce Carol Oates, Ralph Ellison, H. L. Van Brunt, and Anaïs Nin, to name a few. They all got on board, and are listed as founding editors in this year’s anthology. Henderson used money from his book sales to get the anthology off the ground, and in 1976, from a shack in his back yard, he self-published the first annual Pushcart Prize: Best of the Small Presses.

“It really caught fire,” Henderson says. “People were as fed up as I was with money in publishing.” Henderson credits the publications and presses that showed support for the project early on. The New York Times Book Review, for instance, published reviews and excerpts of the anthology, while the Village Voice, Publishers Weekly, and Kirkus helped spread the word. W. W. Norton joined on as a partner in 1982, and has been distributing the anthology ever since. Perhaps ironically, Henderson says, “It was the establishment that came, trumpets blaring, to our help.”  

Even with the initial support, however, there were doubts about the prize’s future. “Many did not expect it would last more than a year, maybe two,” Henderson writes in the introduction to this year’s anthology. “After all, Pushcart had no grant funding, no institutional cash, no federal support or family fortune. But the prize refused to die, and I know the reason, hidden from the conglomerates. There is a heart, mind, soul, and defiance out there in Small Press Land that refuses to let commerce kill the spirit of our writers, editors, and readers.”

“The Pushcart is one of the last bastions of non-corporate writing,” says writer and filmmaker Laleh Khadivi, whose winning story, “Wanderlust,” is featured in Pushcart Prize XL. Khadivi’s piece originally appeared in the June 2014 issue of The Sun. “The journals are small, the selection process is free from big publishing houses, and the work of the staff is consistent and done with a love for the form.”       

When Henderson talks about the Pushcart, a word he uses frequently is romantic. “Not to be romantic, but…” is how a number of his sentences begin. For the many authors and editors across the country who help keep the Pushcart running—all on a volunteer basis—the very idea of the prize, and its ability to stay afloat in an ever-shifting literary sea, is a romantic one indeed. Among them is poet and former Pushcart Prize poetry editor Jane Hirshfield, who speaks of the prize as if it were a small miracle. “I’ve been sending in Pushcart nominations every year since 1989, when I first became eligible to do so. It’s a unique opportunity to try to bring a widened audience to a few poems I find dazzling, pulse-changing, transformative,” Hirshfield says. “This year I found Margaret Gibson’s profound and gorgeous ‘Broken Cup.’”

Gibson, whose poem was originally published in her collection Broken Cup (LSU Press, 2014), is the author of eleven books of poetry and a memoir. She was a finalist for the 1993 National Book Award for poetry, and has won two Pushcart Prizes. Her poem appears in this year’s Pushcart anthology alongside another particularly compelling story by Tiffany Briere, a writer who holds an MFA in fiction from Bennington College and a PhD in genetics from Yale.

“I found Tiffany Briere’s ‘Vision’ in Tin House and I thought it was brilliant,” says Jaquira Díaz, a former Pushcart Prize winner and current contributing editor. “When it was time for nominations, Tiffany’s piece came to mind right away. It had been months, but I hadn’t been able to stop thinking about it. It is haunting and heartbreaking and beautiful. When I came across the line, ‘God is taking my mother in pieces,’ I knew it would stay with me forever. I wasn’t surprised that it won. The stories and essays in the Pushcart Prize anthology usually have that quality—they stay with you.”

It’s that staying power, that lasting love, that seems to have kept the prize going all these years. “Whether as nominator or as ultimate judge, the invitation here is rigorous and clear: to love most what you happen to love most, and to name that in public,” says Hirshfield. “The Pushcart is, entirely and uniquely, a book made by the entire community of writers, for the entire community of writers.”

The guest prose editors this year were Emma Duffy-Comparone, Michael Kardos, Lincoln Michel, and Daniel Tovrov. Kim Addonizio and David Bottoms served as guest poetry editors. Together, they chose from over eight thousand nominations.

The Writers’ Studio, in partnership with the Strand Bookstore, will be celebrating the release of Pushcart Prize XL: Best of the Small Presses on Friday, November 13, in New York City, with featured readings by Jonathan Galassi, Mary Karr, Ben Marcus, Colum McCann, Sharon Olds, Philip Schultz and Zadie Smith, and an introduction by Henderson. For more information about the event, visit www.strandbooks.com/event/pushcart-prize. To learn more about the Pushcart Prize, visit www.pushcartprize.com.

Tara Jayakar is Poets & Writers Magazine’s Diana & Simon Raab Editorial Fellow.