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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 through December 1st!) 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 best-selling novelist Colin Channer about the process of writing his first book of poetry, Providential, out now from Akashic books.  Check out an excerpt from Providential here, at the Harvard Review online. In this interview, Channer discusses the challenges and pleasures of genre-hopping and the difficulty of writing an honest poem.

How many books have you published, and where?

There is a novel, a novella and a story collection that I'm proud of. The novel and collection were put out by an imprint of Ballantine. The novella came out from an indie, Akashic Books. I've done a bit of editing as well—two anthologies of fiction with Akashic. I coedited a poetry anthology as well. This was with Akashic too.

Describe the process of constructing your first poetry manuscript. How did you conceive of ordering the collection? If you'd like, you might speak to the differences in thinking about ordering a story collection, or constructing a novel and ordering a book of poems?

Writing a story cycle, anthology editing, having a previous life as co-creative director of a print catalog—all this picked-up knowledge made Providential conceptually seeable as one poem jointed at odd angles as I worked. Many of my favorite collections are dynamically tensed between obedience and cross purpose.

In practice this involved among other things looking at the work like they were poems submitted by other writers for a themed anthology on Jamaican police. In truth I'm made up of several poets who write at different times in different modes. While looking at the work unbiasedly, an organizing order showed up — Before Duty, During Duty, After Duty. As it turned out, this flash of clarity came after a similar structure had been suggested by the actual editor of the book! Poems in each section were selected and aligned with logic and feel as guides. I looked at length, shape, tone, presence of echoes, setting, language register, and so forth.

Did you notice poetic tics once you’d put the poems together? (For instance, I spent the year 2007 trying to break myself of the verbs “bloom” and “ache,” 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?

I had many tics, sure; but the troubles with my poems were not subtle. So many of them were just dishonest and bad, and bad in a way undealwithable — showoffy with language, smug with the metaphor.  Tics on the language level I've blocked out. The shame of facing them I guess. Actually, one is coming back now, an overuse of nouns as verbs.

The tic of dishonesty showed up in a few ways, but one of the most unbearable ones was a tendency to adopt a proven poet's relationship to herself and her subject along with her technical approach to her craft. As a result I made many poems that stood no chance of making a meaningful contribution to poetry's corpus. And I am not saying that this is something the poems in Providential are destined to do. What I am saying is that poems that rely on technique alone are unlikely to make it. Technique is needed but what is vital is perspective—where you stand, how you stand, what your eyes lock on to and stay with, examine. The more you do this as a principle and practice the more you learn yourself. And here "learn" also means "teach." I would not always see from my "I" with my own eye but from the one that wrote the poem I technically admired. As such there were many poem-things that read well, and looked pretty good, but which on close inspection shared a problem of parallax, always seemed "off." 

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

I mostly depended on my editor to tell me. If he said no to a poem I'd get rid of it.  No questions. No defending. No argument. My philosophy is that I don't work for an editor, an editor works for me. Arguing with my editor about a poem's fate would've been as sensible as having a fat bill for back taxes and second-guessing the directive of my CPA. 

Now on the occasions when my editor said a poem was good, well that's when long talk would start. I'd quiz him on the poem's peculiar and particular qualities of goodness, ask him to take me through the work, and not just to feel validation, which I wanted, for nailed-in begins to hurt.  I asked him to do this to learn. His editor-deemed good poems were checked as "possibles." No greater commitment than that. Final including came down to "fit," which is a thing of "feel." As such good-deemed "possibles" did not get in. 

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

I asked my editor. He's tremendously experienced. I took his advice. The press he recommended took the book. It's in England. A joint release was sorted with Akashic for sub rights in the States. Both of these presses, Peepal Tree and Akashic, have a cosmopolitan list of international writers, are very overt in their interest in good work period, and have done the work of communicating their openness to interesting work by black writers.  

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

I'm a bit ticked off with current-me for not telling former-me of the peculiar mental pleasures of making poems. I should have started this seriously years before.

On a technical level, I wish I'd followed my instincts and allowed myself to feel comfortable with the notion of shifting how I thought of poem-making purely based on need. Sometimes it's useful to see a given poem as dance, or painting, architecture, bricolage, ferrotype or film, especially Marker and Varda types. This ability and willingness to shift perspective, to work under the aegis of a metaphor allows you to sneak up on a poem and take it in control.

I also wish me-now had been able to say to me-then, "There's no such thing as a line break, there are only lines." It's better to make a line in prospect — with beat, sense and sound in mind instead of retrospect, as afterthought. We tend not to think of breaks and not of lines in wholeness, only when our poems rhyme.  

Has publication (either of individual pieces in the collection, or of the collection as a whole) changed your writing or manuscript construction processes?

Because publication came as a result of lots of focused writing guided by frank feedback from my editor and clear notes my recent bad poems are not as bad as those before. Still, most of what I write is tossed. Process-wise, the most important change is the full acceptance that honesty is a matter of craft and not just temperament. This is a very big shift. Vantage, stance and vision count. 

What is your favorite part of your first book of poems?

There is a poem by the name of "Fugue in Ten Movements" that I admire for the way its ten poems intersect at odd angles. I wrote it after the book had come together in ways complete enough for me to see what was missing. It's a poem with moving parts like a contraption dragon. The way the parts contain internal references and echoes across short and shorter poems is something I'm proud to say I pulled off.

What did you do when you heard it was accepted?

I can't remember. For me acceptance is never the moment of deep feeling. This comes at the moment I see a cover and see pages set. At this point manuscript registers as book, potential turns to something assured. The book is in many ways my unit of creative thought and purpose. Not the single story. Not the single poem. The book.

What was the most surprising thing about the publication process?

I was surprised by how different poems look when set. Prose runs to the margins in manuscript, so prose pages don't change as much in production as poetry pages do. On top of this, my editor did needed work on line integrity (not breaking), after the house had taken on the work. This meant the shape of several poems changed, and this affected me. I suddenly didn't quite know how to hear or read aloud work I'd known closely.  By the time I saw bound galleys though, intimacy had returned.


Colin Channer was born in Jamaica to a pharmacist and cop. Junot Díaz calls him “one of the Caribbean Diaspora’s finest writers.” His poems have appeared in Prairie SchoonerHarvard ReviewThe CommonThe WolfBlack Renaissance Noire and other venues. He's served as Newhouse Professor in Creative Writing at Wellesley College and Fannie Hurst Writer in Residence at Brandeis University. His many books of prose include the novella The Girl with the Golden Shoes, “a very moving and mesmerizing journey” in the words of Edwidge Danticat. Honors in include a Silver Musgrave Medal in Literature. Providential is his first poetry book.