So You Wanna Win a Book Prize?

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In honor of the Prairie Schooner Book Prize (open now!), we've revived our interview series about publishing the first book. This week poet Kristi Carter, author of Cosmovore, talks about the importance of becoming familiar with the agendas of presses, wearing out your obsessions, and the surreal feeling of having two books picked up in the same month.

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

I've had two collections published, both in 2017, Daughter Shaman Sings Blood Anthem (Porkbelly Press) and Cosmovore (Aqueduct Press), and one that is forthcoming this year from dancing girl press.

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

Cosmovore was the first and the ordering was something I returned to about six times throughout its gestation. Perhaps there were even more that I'm forgetting! In the beginning, it seemed logical to focus on the relationship between the ex (a triangle-playing "you") and Cosmovore (the speaker of the poems shares her name with the title). However, as I went down the line the priorities of the manuscript shifted in such a way that while the weight of the ex-partner's abuse didn't become unimportant, poems that seemed more wistful about that failed relationship took second-place to the hateful thunder of the others, as those poems are where you really see what Cosmovore is capable of.

3. 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?

Us poets, and all writers and artists, are a really obsessive bunch. It was liberating for me to learn during grad school to lean into those obsessions, to really wear them out. Because Cosmovore is so transparently about consumption and reproductive rights, there was a pull toward the litany form that isn't as obvious now as it was during the construction. The use of dry humor was another concern, and when I re-read the manuscript I think it gets buried because of the rage that dominates the louder poems. 

With Daughter Shaman Sings Blood Anthem, the voice of the speaker was a major preoccupation. Since that manuscript isn't constructed around the use of a persona, like Cosmovore, the tics I noticed were some I hear about from many writers, mainly trimming the bookends of the poem. That and finding ways to make sure the reader knew who the poems were addressed to, without brow-beating it into them, were formal concerns I returned to consistently.

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

For Cosmovore, it was very simple which to include as the poems erupted in a short amount of time and were so clearly demarcated from the other things I was writing which weren't in the voice of that persona. I did also try to create a mirror series of poems from the perspective of Celeste, Cosmovore's opposite of sorts, but that didn't pan out. 

It was a different story with Daughter Shaman Sings Blood Anthem. I was working on a few different series during that time so I had to consider which poems should be kept separate and why. This was difficult as DSSBA carries that tradition of many poet's first books in that it functions somewhat like a poetic (auto)biography. I'm obsessed with the body and the confines of gendered experience, but what made poems ready for DSSBA was if they were about motherhood or daughterhood in some regard. Many of the poems that do this but didn't make it into DSSBA are in the full-length unpublished version (wink) or in the chap coming out from dgp later this year, as those focus on sexual orientation and gender performance.

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

Oh my. Well, embracing uniqueness and the reinvention failure can provide, here are the statistics as my best record-keeping seems to depict, with the inclusion of withdrawals, presses folding, etc. Cosmovore was sent to 14 places over the course of 5 years, with a submission hiatus of three years between 2013-2016, which I get into the why of in the answer to the following question. DSSBA I sent to 29 places over the space of ten months.

As for how I decided, I always look at the mission and the track record of presses and contests with attention to diversity and description of aesthetic agenda as well as artistic politics. It's no small accident that all three of my manuscripts got snatched up by feminist presses. I consider it an honor to participate in the continuation of those establishments and all the productive disruption they continue to bring.

I am also really excited that both manuscripts were embraced by presses that had interest in the content as part of their specialties, again that whole matter of aesthetic agenda as well as artistic politics. Porkbelly Press is feminist and queer inclusive with interest in the mythical and the body, so DSSBA made sense to Nicci Mechler (the editor there). Cosmovore plays with reality a lot, so Timmi Duchamp and the other editors saw potential in that aspect within the context of the press's other titles.

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

Keep going! I got some interesting ink on Cosmovore that discouraged me at the time before it found a venue with Aqueduct Press. There are more than a few peculiar things about the book, editors would respond to them while also telling me some form of "we don't know what to do with this," and those often felt more like setbacks than flags of interest cropping up. I returned to it when I started working on DSSBA because the spark was reignited plus it was fun to alternate between two very different manuscripts. I started getting ink and tiered rejections on DSSBA much sooner, and I'm glad I trusted the encouragement that lent me. As of now the extended version is getting personal rejections, finalist positions and that sort of thing too, so I'm persisting as best I can.

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

This question is cool and pretty necessary in the recent streak of politically themed call for work. Political as I am, I have been so refreshed seeing that movement grow after surviving many experiences with the guard that wants to pretend art and life do not overlap. It's always encouraging to have an individual piece find a place to fly its flag out in the world before the manuscript it belongs to is published. I'm always writing about a lot of things, so sometimes the thematic calls get a faster response. That said, getting any acceptance is important to the continuation of the production at some point—writers don't write in solitude in that sense. All I can say is I'm grateful, and luckily, stubborn.

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

Quite freakishly both of these collections were taken in the same month, though submitted at different times, frequencies, and far apart. During that time my partner and I were both navigating the last throes of our PhDs (I do not recommend this), so there was a sense of being stunned, a surreal sort of detachment that the acceptances forced me to look at. You see, when you're toiling day in and day out like that then someone comes and says, "Hey great job, we think this is pretty much done," you feel some sort of opposite pull is happening. Because of that, I did not know how to promote myself and my work, nor did I make the time to do so I wish I had. The books landed and everyone around me said, "What? You had a book taken—wait, two!?" So don't do that; instead blast it to the world that someone wants to make your book real. As soon and as much as possible, to bearable extents. The community-building most writers are participating in online makes this possible, but it requires good judgment and manners.

And of course, more than anything, before and after I shared the news, I was thrilled and honored.

9. If your book was a landscape, what would it be? How would people navigate it? [Editor's note: As a former Prairie Schooner Book Prize Coordinator, Kristi used to conduct this interview series. As part of our interview, I asked her to choose a question she used to enjoy asking other writers and this was her choice!]

With Cosmovore there is obviously the galactic element, but there is also a rapid-fire vacillation between urban and suburban ruins as well. It isn't that the book is set in a dystopia, it's just that the feminist themes allow regular dystopic tropes of everyday life to shine through! Like many books, it forces the reader to trust the poems, but I know it comes on more hot and heavy even in a predictable aspect of the reader-writer relationship like that. 

As for DSSBA, there are so many trees. Yew, birch, unnamed—all those trees create this dark, intimate space that's scary as well as nourishing and full of potential, much like relationships, such as motherhood. I would recommend entering the darkness of that forested area with a strong stomach and hungry eyes to get the most out of it. Maybe the reader can find there's a clearing with a fire somewhere inside. 


Kristi Carter is the author of Daughter Shaman Sings Blood Anthem (Porkbelly Press) and Cosmovore (Aqueduct Press). Her chapbook Red and Vast is forthcoming from dancing girl press. She holds a PhD from the University of Nebraska-Lincoln and an MFA from Oklahoma State University.