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So You Wanna Win a Book Prize?

James Crews talks about his rewards and obsessions

This is the third and final entry of our three-part series in which Hali Sofala, our Book Prize Coordinator, speaks with some of our past Book Prize winners to get a sense of how Prairie Schooner's Book Prize has played a role in their careers, and what advice they might have for future Book Prize contestants. Today, we're featuring her interview with James Crews who won the Book Prize in Fiction in 2010.

1. You won the Prairie Schooner Book Prize in Poetry in 2010 for your collection, The Book of What Stays, what were you doing when you heard the news that you had won? How did you feel?

I was working a lowly office job in Portland, Oregon when I got the news about the Book Prize. It was early summer, and I was a little resentful at being trapped in my cubicle while most of my colleagues were gone on vacation in places like Turkey, Hawaii and Italy. The call about the prize came from Grace Bauer, but because I was working, I didn't answer. You can imagine my shock when I called back later, and she said the press would be publishing my book, that I had won the prize. The prize money also came in handy since I was living paycheck to paycheck at the time, able to buy only the essentials and just barely making my rent. After jumping up and down for a while, I called my mother and then a few close friends who gasped when I gave them the news.

I can say without hesitation that the Book Prize had a profound effect on me as an artist. I finally felt as though all those years of sacrifice and devotion to the poems was worth it. We shouldn't need outward approval or rewards for what we do, but when you're a poet, it can feel at times as though the rest of the world couldn't care less about what you love to do. So I began to feel like a "real writer" for perhaps the first time in my life. The Prize gave me a sense of belonging and purpose that I desperately needed at that time in my life. 
2. How does The Book of What Stays fit in with your larger body of work?

The Book of What Stays  is my first collection, so I'm not sure I have a larger body of work quite yet. In terms of my obsessions, the subject matter I return to over and over in my poems and essays, it fits right in. I have always been fascinated with what remains after a relationship ends, or what we remember of someone who has passed away. Love and grief, to me, are the essential subjects of any art, and they both show up in that book again and again. The heart of The Book of What Stays, though, for me anyway, is the long poem about the life and work of Felix Gonzalez-Torres, "One Hundred Small Yellow Envelopes." The poem describes the loss of his lover, Ross, to AIDS at the height of the Crisis. I had lost my father a few years before I began working on the poem, so it allowed me to write about the grief I was feeling from a certain distance. That detachment, I think, has helped me process personal subject matter that I have only begun to write about in a more straightforward way. 
3. What project(s) are you working on currently that you are most excited about?

The project that has the most momentum, I suppose, is the next collection of poetry, though I don't yet have a title and the book is quite young. My poems, at least from my view, have gotten shorter and simpler (and hopefully, tighter) over the past few years. I credit this development to my own drive to seek greater clarity in my life and through my spiritual practice. 

I have also started writing non-fiction that focuses on my early marriage, the death of my father, and a life-changing trip to Colombia that really opened some doors in my mind, but who knows if any of that will ever end up in print.
4. One of our mottoes here is “Writing that moves you.” Where is the best or most memorable place your writing has taken you? This can be an actual destination on a map or a more mental/emotional journey.

Definitely the most memorable place my writing has taken me is Colombia (though most of my friends, by now, are tired of hearing about it). I traveled to Bogota alone with the intention of finally writing a novel, believing that was the only way I was ever going to get published and support myself as a writer. I had more or less given up on poetry because I thought no one wanted to read the kind of poems I like to write: accessible, narrative, emotionally-driven work. But as I made my way in a country where I didn't speak the language and had untold hours alone to process the last few years of my life, I started writing poems again. I had brought the a very rough draft of The Book of What Stays with me, just in case I decided to come back to it. In reading it over again, I was surprised to find that it was a workable draft, and just a few months after coming back from Colombia, I started sending it out to contests. Honestly, I still didn't think it was good enough, but I sensed I had a small window of time in which to get it out into the world. So I took two sick days from work, read the poems out loud over and over to myself, and then headed to Kinko's to make copies and send them off. I almost didn't submit to the Prairie Schooner Book Prize, however; I actually said to myself: "They'll never like my poems. That contest is too distinguished." But I forced myself to insert the manuscript into its manila envelope and lick the flap.

5. What/who are you reading lately?

I've been reading a lot of nonfiction--Mary Karr, Joy Castro, and Anne Lamott are just a few. I love discovering new poets too, and Connie Wanek's book, On Speaking Terms, was a thrilling find. I have also been waiting quite a while for Mary Szybist's new book, Incarnadine, and Bruce Snider's Paradise, Indiana, both great poetry collections for very different reasons. But I just try to read as much poetry as possible, since I've observed that, when I'm reading books of poems--whether I like them or not--I tend to write a lot more poems. I always end up wanting to try out what I see others doing in their work.
6. Do you have any advice for the writers submitting to this year’s book prize?

Rewrite and revise your manuscript--and read it over and over aloud--until you're absolutely sick of it and no longer have the urge (or strength) to change anything. Then, it should be ready for the world.