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"So You Wanna Win A Book Prize" w/ Tjawangwa Dema

by Jamaica Baldwin

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! 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 Tjawangwa Dema. Click here to buy Dema's Sillerman Prize-winning collection The Careless Seamstress.

Jamaica Baldwin: You won the Sillerman First Book Prize for African Poets in 2018 for your collection Careless Seamstress, what were you doing when you heard the news that you had won? How did you feel?

Tjawangwa Dema: I was at home, England-home not home-home. It made me very happy, dare I say proud? My path to text – or written poetry – was quite circuitous but I had always hoped a book would come of my years of performance and public readings so there was relief too.

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

TD: When my chapbook, Mandible, got published I don’t believe I thought about curation very much. I was obsessing over whether this mostly new (for me) form of relatively brief poems on the page would hold ‘without’ my voice. I think I had a much more naïve idea of how voice can carry over, or translate, to the page. For The Careless Seamstresswas in large part a result of my MA in Creative Writing therefore I had had time to edit and move individual poems as I wrote my thesis. Typically, in the initial phase I go off instinct a lot then I wade into the chaos and attempt to make or name order. Though what I call instinct is partly/subconsciously made up of experience and practice. I allowed myself some distance after writing The Careless Seamstressand returned to the work with a fresh eye and ear. At that point I printed the MS out and moved a couple of pages around, read the whole thing out loud a number of times, changed titles/other text which in some instances had implications for order. There’s no magic here, I think, just the logics of getting a digital script to closely mimic its final form as text ordered on paper. But my editor who is an inarguably experienced writer, editor and educator also had suggestions for ordering. I always listen but I don’t always follow. In this case I did and The Careless Seamstressis all the better for it.

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?

TD: I suspect they are there, in my case perhaps to do with returning constantly to religious texts and mythology. If I had a rule about tics it would probably have something to do with always choosing either moderation or attentive exploitation of said tics. I’m struggling to answer your question in part because I tend to struggle with finding a pattern. I’m such a fickle reader and thinker – basically I ramble and ‘rabbithole’ somewhat productively but then, for me, the ghosts of those influences hover even after they have been shorn off. I read scientific research articles, magazines, biographies, interviews. I listen to talks online, to my mother, I attend seminars and regularly look out my study window existentially. I’m always collecting seeds for what I hope grows into poetry. At another time, when I was much harder on myself than I am now, I would’ve said just now that I should probably be doing more writing than thinking. But I imagine it’s a productive kind of thinking that I’m doing and I see that ‘tic’ of ‘intellectual promiscuity’ across a great many of my poems. Not like a puzzle to be solved, but rather I hope it’s a little aside for the reader, who like me, always likes to see something more, or else dis/appear from the familiar fog that is narrative.

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

TD: I submitted the collection to the Sillerman Prize and nowhere else. I don’t advice this; it’s bad practice really. It is prudent to imagine you will receive many, many, many rejections but I move slowly so I wasn’t in a rush. The APBF previously published my chapbook Mandibleand the editors were a gift. It was important to me that the editor of my first full-length collection be someone who was familiar with a wide, open idea of what poetry is, has and can be. Kwame Dawes is undoubtedly generous, but if we’re honest none of us will ever know where the man gets time to do all he does in a day and so don’t expect to be mollycoddled.  This is where I come in: because I’m really responsive to informed, constructive criticism. 

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

TD: It’s not a competition, you’re not on a timer. You can never read too much. Earn the capacity to trust your own ear.

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

TD: It’s difficult to say. I’m learning all the time and it’s not always possible to distinguish where the lessons come from but I know that when it comes to ordering the next MS I’ll return to conversations I had in publishing TCS before sticking a fork in it.

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

TD: I’ve got a couple of pots on the stove at the moment. I continue to facilitate the intersectional eco-writing workshops under the ‘Anthropocene Storytelling” banner with Dr. Kirk Sides. The next instantiation will be at the Berkshire Conference of Women Historians at Johns Hopkins University which I am particularly excited about. I’m also collaborating with Bristol-based NoBindings press to explore ethnicity and the environment. I’m not excited to be working on grant applications but this is what allows my curatorial partner Dr. Kate Wallis and I to stage a number of literary events in and around Bristol. It’s always important to remember that, particularly in the digital age, live literature is also part of the archive which can inform/disrupt ‘the’ canon. At the invitation of the acclaimed Ledbury Poetry Festival we are working to co-curate a poetry strand across a weekend which pleases me no end. And as always, I’m failing and somewhat succeeding at writing poems. 

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

TD: How complicated the distribution process is. I have to think about this in part because I am a Motswana living in England whose publisher is American-based.  Of course, it isn’t entirely a surprise the degree to which it was difficult to make the book accessible in various African countries where I was invited to read. There are structural reasons for this: to begin with by the time you get the books on the ground the cost is often quite prohibitive. Anyone who is interested in distribution and archives could start by listening to Bibi Bakare-Yusuf’s TedGlobal talk ‘Diversifying the voices of African Literature’. So, I did a significant amount of backpack-book carrying, though I should say I was glad to have a book to carry in the first place given that it is near impossible to traditionally publish poetry in Botswana.  =

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

TD: Favourite? Ah. I’ll apologise now for sidestepping here but I suppose the thing I remain most interested in, in The Careless Seamstress,is my use of Setswana alongside English or Englishes. At any rate all my English is a palimpsest of all the languages I speak. I’m happy with how and where Setswana is made visible in the book. I worked hard to not just chuck words, phrases and proverbs about the page. Craft matters to me, I’m unapologetic about that, so I tried to do my job as a writer but you don’t always get that ‘right’. I love Setswana and when I’m home-home I codeswitch as part of everyday language anyway so that bit feels very me, I suppose. 

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

TD: On a practical level read the submission rules carefully, and though it’s not required it never hurts to read some of the APBF catalogue to see what your fellow writers are thinking about and how they choose to grapple with their preoccupations. On a whimsical level, write as though no one but you will ever read the manuscript then bring all your experience as reader/listener and writer as well as all your inner editorial voices to bear on the manuscript. Do not submit your MS without reading it out loud to yourself. Please – and here’s a thing I try to remember – there’s no shortcut (really); you’ll always have to do all the work before practicing selectivity. For all that, these things take a lot of hard work and luck and you can only control one of those things so ...

Tjawangwa Dema is author of The Careless Seamstress (University of Nebraska Press, 2019) which received the Sillerman First Book Prize for African Poetry. A Bristol based poet, teaching artist and live literature producer her chapbook Mandible was published in 2014 as part of the African Poetry Book Fund’s boxset series. A 2012 Fall Resident of the University of Iowa’s International Writing Program and former chairperson of the Writers Association of Botswana, TJ holds an MA in Creative Writing from Lancaster University. She has given readings and facilitated workshops in over twenty countries including Brazil, India, South Africa, Singapore, Denmark, the USA and Germany. In addition to appearing in various journals and anthologies her work has been translated into Spanish, German, Chinese and Swedish. She is an Honorary Senior Research Associate at the University of Bristol and co-produces the Africa Writes literary festival in Bristol.  More at tjdema.com