A Frequent Winner's Advice

The name Cynthia Lowen may ring a bell with those readers of our Recent Winners section. Lowen has won the “Discovery”/Boston Review Poetry Prize and the Inkwell Poetry Competition, among other awards, and was recently a fellow at the Fine Arts Work Center in Provincetown. Since she’s met with continued success, we thought we’d ask her about her experience entering writing contests.

How many contests have you entered? And how many did you enter before winning your first one?

I’ve entered dozens of contests—most of which, it goes without saying, I did not win. With my most recent work, I actually started the manuscript with the goal of having ten new poems to send out to contests, after finishing up with my MFA, with the notion that this was a good way to get some new poems generated under a sort of deadline. As it turned out, these first poems about Oppenheimer and the making of the atomic bomb were positively received by the editors at Tin House, on the basis of which I was selected as winner of the Tin House/Summer Literary Seminars Kenya prize. So I feel I was fortunate in having a positive reception of this work early on. At the same time, for every rare phone call or e-mail of congratulations about having been selected as winner of a contest, there are numerous trips to the mailbox to find those slim envelopes containing notes saying, “Better luck next time,” which I think is good—you can never take for granted having your work recognized with so many talented writers out there.

What do you look for in a contest?
The first thing I generally look at is who is judging it. Is it someone whose poems I admire, whose poems share some sort of kinship with my own, who I think might like my work? Or, if it is a contest sponsored by a magazine or press, where the editors are selecting the winner, I try to get a sense of whether or not my work would appeal to them based on the other work they publish. You know, if journal X is only publishing sonnets, I probably wouldn’t enter its contest, as I don’t write too many sonnets that see the light of day. But if a magazine I love is holding a contest judged by a poet I can’t get enough of, I’ll probably enter its contest, in the hopes that the reason I love the magazine and the judge have somehow informed the choices I am making in my own writing. When it comes to fellowships and grants, I generally apply to things I have heard positive things about from other writers.

How do you select a piece to submit to a competition?  
I try not to send my newest work but pieces I have sat with for several weeks. Because the poems in the manuscript I have recently completed tend to inform each other as a series, depending on how many poems a contest is accepting I try to send a selection that fits together within the manuscript or that can best stand alone. I’ve found that, when writing a book-length series, it can be really hard when you can only send three to five poems to a competition, because I often feel like the poems need each other to make sense or be complete. Therefore, I tend to favor those contests that allow you to submit more poems, as I think a wider selection better reflects the arc of my work.

What award has been of the most value to you?
I think the award that was probably the most meaningful for me, because of its history, was the Discovery Prize. To give a reading at the 92nd Street Y, a venue where so many writers I deeply admire have read, and to receive an award that so many poets I love have also received was an amazing honor.

Have you ever had a negative experience as a result of winning a prize; any horror stories?

Fortunately, I’ve never had any sort of negative experience as a result of winning a prize. I can’t even imagine what one might be. Perhaps there was the morning, waking up in Masai Mara, in southern Kenya, to find the whole region flooded, looking forward to a seven-hour bus ride back to Nairobi through it. That was not absolutely ideal—but it was incredible, that through poetry and the Tin House/SLS prize, I was able to have this kind of fantastic adventure.

What piece of advice do you have for writers looking to contests as a way to get their work into the world?

One thing that I would encourage writers to do is to use contests as a way to challenge themselves, outside of the structure of MFA programs or other sorts of support systems, to get their poems to a point where the work feels finished and where the writer can feel confident about having it read by others. When I send work out to a contest I really admire and don’t get the award, it’s a sign to me that I have to go back and push my work harder, and reapply next year in the hopes that the growth in the poems will be recognized. This was what happened in the case of the Discovery Prize, and also the fellowship I received to the Fine Arts Work Center in Provincetown, which was also a huge honor: The first time I applied I did not get the award or the fellowship, but the next year I reapplied, with different poems or subsequent drafts of the poems, and did. I think the most important lesson I’ve taken from contests is to not get (too) discouraged by not winning them, but to use contests to make my work better.

Portland's Literary Arts Names New Director

by Staff

Andrew Proctor was recently named executive director of Literary Arts, the twenty-five-year-old nonprofit organization in Portland, Oregon. He will succeed Elizabeth Burnett, who resigned from the post in September 2008.

Self-Publisher Partners With Popular iPhone Reader

by Staff

Smashwords, the self-publishing company founded by Mark Coker last year in Los Gatos, California, recently announced an agreement with Lexcycle, the company that makes the popular Stanza e-book reader for iPhone and iPod Touch devices.

Pause the Podcast and Dial-a-Poem

by Staff

As poets and publishers have taken advantage of technological advances to present poetry in a variety of new media, from podcasts to video poetry produced for the small screen, one writers organization is looking back to the telephone to spread the word.

The Story Prize Finalists

Julie Lindsey and Larry Dark recently announced the finalists for the Story Prize, and you have to hand it to them: They picked a pretty eclectic group. Lindsey, who founded the Story Prize in 2005, and Dark, the director of the annual award honoring short story collections, chose Unaccustomed Earth by Jhumpa Lahiri, Demons in the Spring by Joe Meno, and Our Story Begins by Tobias Wolff as the final three from among seventy-three story collections.

Lahiri, whose third book, Unaccustomed Earth, was published by Knopf last year, became the youngest writer to win the Puliltzer Prize when her first book, the story collection The Interpreter of Maladies (Houghton Mifflin), was so honored in 2000, when the author was just thirty-two. "Interpreter stood out because it didn't try to stand out," wrote Matthew Solan in a profile of Lahiri in the September/October 2003 issue of Poets & Writers Magazine. "There are no 'shock plots'; she instead focuses on the uniqueness of ordinary life. You can relate to her characters because their plights could easily be your own—a young couple trying to stay together after losing a baby; a housewife yearning to be more independent. Beneath the surface, though, her fiction takes the pulse of first- and second-generation Indian Americans trying to bridge the gap between the country they call home and the heritage that defines them."

Joe Meno's first two books, Tender as Hellfire (1999) and How the Hula Girl Sings (2000), were published by commercial publishers, but with his third, The Hairstyles of the Damned (2004), he moved to the independent Punk Planet Books, and he's been with small or university presses ever since—Demons in the Spring was published last year by Akashic Books. (Later this year, however, he's back in the big house: Norton will publish his novel, The Great Perhaps, in May.)

Tobias Wolff has been a consistent presence in the contest arena for the past thirty years, having been honored with the PEN/Faulkner Award for Fiction, the PEN/Malamud Award, the O. Henry Award, the Rea Award, and others. He's also been a finalist for the Los Angeles Times Book Prize and the National Book Critics Circle Award. Our Story Begins, which was published last year by Knopf, gathers the best stories from three previous collections: In the Garden of the North American Martyrs (Ecco, 1981), Back in the World (Houghton Mifflin, 1985), and The Night in Question (Random House, 1996). "Something always happens in a Wolff story—something troublesome, something violent, either literally or emotionally," wrote Joe Woodward in profile of Wolff in the March/April 2008 issue. "Indeed, so much violence to the human spirit hasn't been seen in a short story collection since Flannery O'Connor's A Good Man Is Hard to Find."

Story Prize judges Daniel Menaker, Rick Simonson, and Hannah Tinti (who last year won the ten-thousand-dollar John Sargent Sr. First Novel Prize from the Mercantile Library Center for Fiction for her novel The Good Thief) will choose the Story Prize winner, who will be announced at an event on March 4 at the New School in New York City. The winner will receive twenty-thousand dollars and the other finalists will each receive five thousand dollars.

Who do you think will win?


Treasures from New York City Indie Bookstore Donated to Library

by Staff

An anonymous donor who paid $440,000 for a treasure trove of books and magazines from the Gotham Book Mart, an independent bookstore in New York City that was forced to close in 2007, has donated the collection to the University of Pennsylvania's Rare Book and Manuscript Library.


Subscribe to Poets & Writers RSS