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So You Wanna Win A Book Prize?

An Interview with Luisa Muradyan

by Jamaica Baldwin

Exciting news! The PS Blog is back from hiatus. We're kicking things off with a revival of our fun and useful "So You Wanna Win A Book Prize?" interview series. For the next several weeks, visit the blog for illuminating conversations between PS Book Prize Coordinator Jamaica Baldwin and writers who have played the book prize game and won! Don't forget, we're currently seeking submissions for the Raz-Shumaker Prairie Schooner Book Prize. Click here for full details. Read on for Baldwin's conversation with Luisa Muradyan, who won the PS Book Prize for her poetry collection American Radiance.

Jamaica Baldwin: You won the Prairie Schooner Book Prize in Poetry in 2018 for your collection American Radiance. What were you doing when you heard the news that you had won? How did you feel?

Lisa Muradyan: I received the incredible news when my son was only a few months old and I was in the deep zombie-like world of early parenting. I was so tired at the time that it took me a solid five minutes to realize what was going on and then once I realized that the incredible Kwame Dawes was calling me (me!) I very professionally burst into tears. It really was a dream come true, I had worked on my manuscript for years, been rejected for years, and now one of my poetry heroes was calling to tell me that he saw something in the poems. 

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

LM: The process of putting together the book took years and many forms. I always struggled with how to balance the humor and the sadness in the book. How do you put poems about family trauma alongside poems about Macho Man Randy Savage? Throughout the years, I received a lot of advice. Some people encouraged me to split the poems into two different books; in some ways, this makes thematic sense. For me however, I kept coming back to my grandparents who survived the Holocaust in Ukraine. My grandfather was famous for his dirty jokes, but his jokes took time and development. He was truly a master of his craft ,and in some ways, he was my only writing mentor in my family. For many in the Eastern European Jewish community, humor was tantamount to survival and subversion. A joke can be powerful. This is something I learned from my family and something that gave me permission to put the trauma and the humor alongside each other in the book. 

JB: 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?

LM: I have a lot of poetic tics throughout my work, and as I’ve gotten older I’ve learned to accept them for what they are often trying to tell me. Almost always they signify moments in the poem where I am uncomfortable or unable to move forward. The original version of the manuscript had more plums than anyone should have in literature. When I went back through the manuscript I asked myself if a plum was really necessary to the poem or was I just using fruit as a placeholder? Sometimes the poem needed a plum. Other times the plum was my shield against moving the poem towards a vulnerability I wasn’t ready to reveal.  

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

LM: I submitted various drafts of this manuscript for approximately six years. I submitted what I could afford. Some years that meant only a few contests, and other years that meant more. I had submitted twice before to Prairie Schooner.   

JB: What does current-you wish you could have tell past-you about the whole process?

LM: This is all such a gift, stop stressing out about mechanics and enjoy the miracle of other people reading your work.  

JB: Has publication changed your writing or manuscript construction processes?

LM: Not really, my first manuscript came together organically over a few years, and the manuscript I am currently finishing was written in a very similar manner.  

JB: What project(s) are you working on currently that you are most excited about?

LM: I’m excited about my new collection of poems that looks more deeply at the relationship between grief and humor, tentatively titled “Fun at Parties,” as well as a series of short nonfiction essays that I’ve recently started writing about the Soviet Jewish diaspora. 

JB: What was the most surprising thing about the publication process?

LM: I’m not sure if I was particularly surprised by the entire process but I remember being in awe of how many people were involved in making the book a real thing. When I was first sent a .PDF of the typeface of the book and I saw the title and my name underneath it, I was speechless. 

JB: What is your favorite part of your first book? 

LM: I’m not sure if I have a favorite part per se, but I do love that the book begins in a bathtub and ends in the lamp aisle at Walmart. In between the tub and the Walmart is my entire universe. 

JB: Do you have any advice for the writers submitting to this year’s book prize?

LM: Don’t be afraid of your poems. I really think my book finally started to get recognition when I stopped trying to mold the poems into what I thought poems should look like and let them do what they needed to do.