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So You Wanna Win a Book Prize?

In honor of the Prairie Schooner Book Prize and the Sillerman First Book Prize for African Poets (open now!) We've revived our interview series about publishing the first book. This week, Book Prize Coordinator Katie Schmid Henson talks with Prairie Schooner contributor and poet Hala Alyan about the process of writing her first manuscript, and bringing her first book, Atrium (and her second and third books) to publication. Hala's second book, Four Cities, is out from Black Lawrence Press now, and her third, Hijra, was a winner of the 2015 Crab Orchard Series Open Competition and is forthcoming from Southern Illinois University Press. 

1. How many books have you published, and where?

My first book, Atrium, was published by Three Rooms Press in 2012, while my second book, Four Cities, was recently released by Black Lawrence Press. My third manuscript, Hijra will be published by Southern Illinois University Press next year.

2. Describe the process of constructing your first manuscript. How did you conceive of ordering the collection?

I had an unusual publishing experience with Atrium, in that the lovely people at Three Rooms Press approached me to put together a manuscript. So it wound up being a combination of older, reworked poetry I had written during my college years, and newer pieces. When I sat down to organize the collection, I realized there were natural thematic constellations.

3. Did you notice poetic tics once you’d put the poems together? (I spent the year 2007 trying to break myself of the verbs “bloom” and “ache,” for instance, once I realized everything I wrote was blooming or aching.) How did you decide which tics were fruitful (interesting in that they accrued throughout the collection in a meaningful way) and which were not?

YES. For me, there’s a lot of “unfurling” and “reciting” and “brimming.” And that’s to say nothing of words like “land” and “maps” and “moon.” To be honest, I have a blind spot when it comes to writing tics, so it’s always been most helpful to have someone else read over a collection and let me know what seems to be sticking out in terms of superfluity/repetition/etc. Once I notice it, the word needs to pass a more stringent test to stay in the poem: is it crucial? Does it capture what is being said in a matchless way?

4. How did you decide which stories or poems to include in the collection?

I tried to assemble the poems around themes: horoscopes, women, diaspora. It made it easier to decide what to cut out. I’m always slightly mournful about leaving a poem out; it feels ruthless. But I’ve learned to think of each poem as serving its own intrinsic purpose, not just one for a manuscript.

5. How did you decide where to submit the collection? How many places did you submit?

With my first manuscript, the process was a bit different because I was approached by a press. For my second and third manuscripts, I submitted them to different open reading periods and contests. Generally, I’d pick presses that published books I admired and related to, publishers that seemed like a good fit.

6. What does current-you wish you could have tell past-you about the whole process?

That everything will work out fine. I was nervous about people reading my work, about the book somehow falling through, about struggling with future work. But in the end, it all came together; once you hold the actual book in your hands—this tangible, solid thing you created—all those other fears melt away.

7. Has publication changed your writing or manuscript construction processes?

Not necessarily. I think evolving and loving and growing up and moving cities has changed my writing. But I will say that I’m more mindful of trying out different styles and engaging in new storytelling; I think that’s always the consequence of audience. You become more aware that someone might read the work at some point.

8. Do you have an ideal audience that you envision when you write? How has your conception of your audience changed as you've evolved as a writer?

I try not to think too much of the audience when I'm writing; I find that it gets in the way. Of course, if the poem is about a particular person, then I'm envisioning that individual as the audience. In terms of my concept of audience, I never used to show my work to anyone, so the "audience" in that case was usually just my future self. Since publishing, it has expanded to encompass this nebulous, indistinct mass of people I love, admire and used to know. But I try not to dwell on it (depending on the content, this can be easier said than done).

9. What did you do when you heard it was accepted?

With Atrium, I remember speaking with the publishers and then walking over to Washington Square Park and sitting in the sun, completely stunned. I just sat for like half an hour before I started calling people. It was a beautiful feeling.

10. What was the most surprising thing about the publication process?

The patience it requires. Even once you have a manuscript accepted, it’s not like the book materializes overnight. It takes months and even years. Also, I was surprised by how much I enjoyed the process of thinking about cover art. (Despite being extremely indecisive.)

11.  What is your favorite part of your first book?

Probably the horoscope poems. I loved writing them.


Hala Alyan is a Palestinian American poet and clinical psychologist whose work has appeared in numerous journals including The Missouri Review, Prairie Schooner and Columbia Poetry Review. Her poetry collection ATRIUM (Three Rooms Press) was awarded the 2013 Arab American Book Award in Poetry. FOUR CITIES, her second collection, was recently released by Black Lawrence Press. Her latest collection, HIJRA, was selected as a winner of the 2015 Crab Orchard Series in Poetry and will be published by Southern Illinois University Press.

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