So You Wanna Win a Book Prize?

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In honor of the Prairie Schooner Book Prize and the Sillerman First Book Prize for African Poets, we've revived our interview series about publishing the first book. This week, Book Prize Coordinator Katie Schmid Henson talks with Bonnie Arning, author of The Black Acres, to be published in Spring 2017 as part of the Mountain West Poetry Series, about moving beyond the manuscript constructing advice you get in the MFA, and how to scare your fiancĂ© like you mean it.

1. How many books have you published, and where?

The Black Acres is my first book length publication. Its release date is set for the spring of 2017. 

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

Well, before I attempted to order my own poems, I sat down with a handful of books I admired as complete projects and mined them for strategy. Rebecca Lindenberg’s Love, an Index, Matthew Dickman’s Mayakovsky’s Revolver, Jericho Brown’s Please, and Louise Gluck’s Ararat became my instruction manuals. Before studying other collections, all I knew about order was the same weird book-building advice that floats around MFA programs: put your three best poems in front, bury your weak poems in the middle, save a strong poem for the end. But each of those collections is a cover- to-cover work of art. I stopped thinking about what I was doing as showcasing my best poems and started thinking of it as a project with an overarching goal. A few years ago I had the privilege of seeing Louise Gluck give a reading where she spoke about attempting to construct Ararat as a sort of novel in poems (which is my poor paraphrasing of the intelligent sentences she actually said). That idea intrigued me because I hadn’t before considered that individual poems could be used in conversation with each other to construct a bigger overarching narrative.

From there I began ordering in a way that allowed the narrative to progress—but in a manner that embodied the logic of a poem (being careful never be too direct or obvious). I decided to use section breaks as a way to alleviate tension and give readers small breaks. Much of the book deals with difficult subject matter (miscarriage, affairs, divorce, domestic violence). I paid close attention to the emotional volume of the collection at any given point and attempted to achieve a dynamism. Much like a successful piece of music, I wanted my narrative to emotionally crescendo and decrescendo. I was afraid: too much and my audience would be anxious; too little and they would be bored.

Once the poems were arranged in their sections I went through and looked for little kinks. For example, in one draft a poem ended on the image of spiders and the next poem began with spiders. If that connection was accidental (and it usually was) it became a question of either moving the poem or changing a few lines. For me, this was the strangest part! Up to that point, editing had been about the artistic value of individual poems. But here I was, changing lines that fit a poem because they didn’t serve the overall manuscript. In the end, I think the manuscript as a whole is far stronger than any one poem—and I’m proud of that.

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

Yes! When all the poems were put together I recognized that every poem ended on three images shot out in a row “blank and blank and blank.” I must love the rhythm of that pattern. But needless to say—it forced me to challenge myself to construct more creatively.

Like you, I did find a reoccurring verb: which was burn. At some point I recognized everything was burning—and that I paid attention to. The title of my book, The Black Acres, references the way the speaker looks at her choices as destroying her life; burning it down. I thought, why not play that up? So, for better or for worse, now there’s tons of burning.

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

When I first gathered work together, it was everything. I crammed together every decent poem I’d written in the last 5 years. As the project as a whole became a priority, I started to make cuts. First, I had to make sure each poem served the overall project. There were poems that I have published that I chose not to include because they didn’t fit.

Second, I had to make sure each poem was doing something different. For example, I had four different poems about miscarriage. Although I was emotionally attached to each of them, the manuscript didn’t need four. I had to pick the two that best served the overall narrative. Also, my personal nightmare was a reader turning a page and saying “ugh, another miscarriage poem?”  

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

I submitted EVERYWHERE. I spent a few weeks researching contests and open submission periods for all poetry presses. It was costly. I think I spent around $200 on reading fees. But I know each publisher gets tons of submissions and I wanted the best chance for my book. If I hadn’t gotten picked up last year, I’d be doing it again right now.

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

I think about myself a year ago. Some of my MFA friends were starting to publish their books and I was thinking, man, I wish I could be a real poet like them. I thought the moment I got a book contract, it would validate me as a writer and all my self-doubt would dissipate. If I had a book it would be easy to make myself write everyday. Or, if I had a book, I wouldn’t need to ask fellow poets if my poems are working. Unfortunately, none of that is true. I am the same writer I was before I signed the contract; and all those old fears of failure and inadequacy are re-directed towards my next project. Which is all to say, if you are a serious student of poetry who reads diligently and works on your craft, don’t doubt yourself. You are as much of a poet before your book is published as you are after.

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

For me, that’s an interesting question. I am not a poet who has had a ton of lit mag success. So far, only four poems from The Black Acres have appeared in literary magazines. Part of that is because I didn’t include all of my published poems in the book. It was important every poem served the overall project. However, the other part, if I’m being honest, is that my poems are not always ones that stand out in a slush-pile. Which is not to criticize my own work. When read cover to cover, I believe I’ve created a piece of art. However, not all of the poems are as strong when read alone outside the context of the collection. I’ve accepted that’s just the poet I am (or am right now). Especially as I start work on my new manuscript, I want the finished book to be something beautiful. If several poems receive individual success, great. However, I won’t be disappointed if that doesn’t happen.

8. What did you do when you heard it was accepted?

I terrified my poor fiancĂ©. I called him but could only manage to stutter, “Oh my God!” over and over again.  Of course he thought something terrible had happened.


Bonnie Arning is a poet from Albuquerque, New Mexico. Her first book, The Black Acres, will be published by The Center for Literary Publishing in the Spring of 2017.