Endowed in perpetuity by the Glenna Luschei Fund for Excellence

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 2014 Sillerman First Book Prize winner Ladan Osman about the process of putting together the manuscript that would become The Kitchen-Dweller's Testimony.


1. Describe the process of making the manuscript. How did you conceive of the poems together?

This book developed from my MFA thesis. At first, I conceived of the poems as a discovery process. The speaker articulated her developments and trauma through images and incidents, in distinct stages of revelation. I wasn’t happy with that sequence so I let the poems shadow or reflect off each other, and found the updated manuscript moved more smoothly and with greater tension.

2. How long did the process of making the manuscript take, from beginning to put it together to the moment you submitted and won the Sillerman?

I started early drafts of some poems during grad school, in 2009-2010. Until late 2012, I cut, added, and rewrote poems. When I felt I’d filled in the manuscript’s gaps, it took less than an hour to sequence the poems. This was after years of carrying the book around, and shuffling its pages.

3. How did you hear you’d won the Sillerman prize? What did you do immediately after you’d heard?

Sometimes I avoid checking my email or social media pages, at least until later in the day. One morning, my mother called to ask me why I hadn’t told her I was featured in a popular online Somali newspaper. Then I logged onto Facebook and saw a ridiculous number of notifications. So I guess the first thing I did is explain myself to my parents. I was surprised for days, and wasn’t sure how I wanted to celebrate.

4. What was it like to work with editors and bring the book to press?

A true pleasure. I met Malika Booker in 2012, and she talked about working with Kwame Dawes. In that moment, I wished for an editing experience like the one she described. The editors at the African Poetry Book Fund are attentive and exacting, yet always graceful. I really needed that directness to improve not only my poems but my professional presence, too. 

5. What do you wish you’d known about constructing the manuscript then?

I wish I’d known that there were readers ready for my work, readers who would demand my rigor. Many times, I doubted my aesthetic inclinations, and wasn’t sure where the work belonged. If I’d known the APBF would exist, I would’ve had an entity to aim for, a clear community to try and join. That pointed focus would’ve been very encouraging.

6. What’s changed since you’ve won the Sillerman? Do you think of or approach your work differently?

I have a lot more opportunities to share my work, and to read work by emerging writers around the world. I’ve gained confidence in having a book supported by a collective dedicated to bringing contemporary African poets into conversation with each other. I think this has heightened my political sensitivities, and encouraged me to pursue my truest impulses in creative communication. I have a professional family to whom I have a serious responsibility.

7. What are you working on now? 

I’m writing new poems and prose, visual work, and collaborating with artists across different disciplines.


Ladan Osman was born in Somalia and raised in Ohio. She earned a BA at Otterbein University and an MFA at the University of Texas at Austin. Her chapbook, Ordinary Heaven, appears in Seven New Generation African Poets (Slapering Hol Press, 2014). The Kitchen-Dweller’s Testimony (University of Nebraska Press, 2015) is the winner of the 2014 Sillerman First Book Prize.

Her work has appeared in Apogee, The Normal School, Prairie Schooner, Transition Magazine, and Waxwing. Osman has received fellowships from the Fine Arts Work Center, Cave Canem, and the Michener Center for Writers. She is a contributing editor at The Offing and lives in Chicago. You can find her online at ladanosman.com.