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So You Wanna Win a Book Prize?

In honor of the Prairie Schooner Book Prize (open now!), we've revived our interview series about publishing the first book. This week poet Ángel García, winner of the 2018 CantoMundo poetry prize, talks about resisting the expectations of the first book, the usefulness of self-imposed limitations, and eavesdropping on your own poems. 

How many books have you published, and where?

Teeth Never Sleep is my first book, forthcoming from University of Arkansas Press in the Fall of 2018.

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

The manuscript has changed dramatically over the years. With every contest cycle, something about my editing process has changed. But when I graduated with my MFA, my thesis was a mess. It was just poems I threw together, to be honest, without much thought about its sense. I knew I would do this work after graduation. But because I hadn’t thought too deeply about it, I didn’t know how or where to begin. I kept expecting something magical to happen, like I would wake from a dream and the structure would appear to me. For many years, I fluctuated between stagnation or mostly tinkered with poems. But really, I didn’t know how to do to work. Most of my educational experience has been to make and think about singular poems. But a manuscript was foreign to me. It wasn’t until I realized what kind of narrative I wanted to tell that I begin to arrange poems. Essentially, the order of the manuscript starts at the end and ends somewhere in the middle. I didn’t want to rely on the arc of birth to death (even though I’m clearly alive). I wanted to start somewhere else. Really, I wanted to fight against the narrative(s) and expectations of the “first” book. I wanted to think about my manuscript as different or new. But this too was a myth I had to dismantle, and it wasn’t until I was able to do that that the manuscript became more realized.

Did you notice poetic tics once you’d put the poems together? How did you decide which tics were fruitful (interesting in that they accrued throughout the collection in a meaningful way) and which were not?

The tics helped me think more deeply about the manuscript and what eventually gave me some order or sense of what the manuscript would be. I made lists of tics or threads. While writing through some of these threads, I found that some were going to work while others weren’t. But the poems revealed this for me. I set up a criterion, initially, of writing ten poems in a series. It was an arbitrary number, but it was a good starting place. Depending on how these poems worked together or how they worked in conversation with each other, I’d keep them. If I could only write one or two poems, I’d abandon the series. But this really helped me think of poems in partnership, or how they converse with one another. I have a series of mirrored poems, and this was another way for me to recognize patterns and order poems.

How did you decide which poems to include in the collection?

This was one of the more difficult challenges I faced. I kept thinking about revision not as a process, but as a way to save the poems I “liked.” I would highlight titles in red, I would put them in separate piles, I would tell myself over and over again that I would make certain poems work. Eventually, after I had a mentor read the manuscript, he made suggestions for initial cuts. That made it easier. He told me this poem or that poem don’t really work. But so often, this was something I already knew or suspected. But trusting myself is something I had to learn how to do. Slowly, I began to take out more and more poems because they just weren’t doing enough work in the manuscript. It became easier to omit than try to save a poem. The poems that are in the manuscript now (possibly with a few exceptions) don’t need me to save them. They are doing just fine on their own or in conversation with other poems. I’m now just that person eavesdropping, knowing they can hold their own while speaking for themselves. Because I’m empowered, I think the poems too, are empowered.

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

The main (but not the only criteria) I had for submitting the manuscript was to submit to presses that made beautiful books. But the more I learned about the process and the more I read, the more presses I included. More presses; more money. After years of submitting, I began more and more to send to first-book contests, and only submitted to a few “open” contests. But again, I was considering what press, what kind of books they made, and what contests are advocating for or are open to underrepresented populations. Since the Fall of 2015, when I began seriously submitting, I’ve probably submitted to more than 40 contests.

What does current-you wish you could have told past-you about the whole process?

I would tell a past me to be more patient and more deliberate. There was this sense of urgency to make a book happen—a mixture of getting older, feeling like I had nothing or little to show for years of work, and a sense that everyone and everything was passing me by. But had I had a book picked up in 2012 or even 2015, it would not have been ready. I’m certain of that. While there is still doubt about the current manuscript, and I think there will continue to be doubt, the book is better because it’s more realized. I’ve made deliberate choices and deliberate moves to create a whole. More importantly, though, I would tell myself that the process of the book becoming more and more real is an emotional process. I've spoken with other poets like Sara Borjas and DaMaris Hill (whose books are coming out soon) about how emotional (fluctuating between depression and anxiety and a slew of other emotions) the realization that a book will be out in the world can be. I don’t know that I had ever heard anyone talk about that, or at least talk to me about it. As elated as I am, I’ve had to deal with doubt, fear, insecurity, etc. and that has been taxing. It’s labor, of an emotional sort, that I wasn’t really prepared for.

Has publication of individual pieces in the collection changed your writing or manuscript construction processes?

The most useful thing to think about when individual poems were published was to think (even just initially) of those poems as “done.” It cleared my mind to work on other poems and to keep making new poems. Eventually, most everything has been revised, but in my mind it helped me compartmentalize work and keep pushing forward.

What did you do when you heard it was accepted?

I took the call when I was in my TA office, so there wasn’t much room to celebrate. I did get emotional and while walking home I made calls to my partner and then one of my best friends. As great as it was to hear and share that I had won a prize and that my book was going to be published, the elation lasted only for a short while. As usual, shortly after, the fear and worry began to settle in. But there was something too about not being “home” to share and celebrate with other friends and family. This past December my brother, Juan, hosted a dinner and that was special. My family (not all) and friends (not all) were there. That resonated more closely to heart. Later, we went out and I drank and danced in celebration and that, or the hangover, was when things felt realized.

Ángel García is the proud son of Mexican immigrants. Born in Texas and raised in Southern California, he is the author of Teeth Never Sleep, recipient of the 2018 CantoMundo Poetry Prize which will be published by University of Arkansas Press in the Fall. His work has been published in The American Poetry Review, Crab Orchard Review, and Huizache, among others.