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 Stephanie McCarley Dugger, winner of the 2014 Vella Chapbook Contest, talks about letting go of deadlines, dashes vs. white space, and the importance of feeling connected to a larger writing community.

How many books have you published, and where?

I have one full-length collection, Either Way, You’re Done (Sundress Publications), and one chapbook, Sterling (Paper Nautilus Press).

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

It took me about ten years to write the poems for the collection. I didn’t write with the manuscript in mind; I was just writing poems—most during my grad programs. Once I had enough to consider putting them together, I went through countless drafts. I landed on the poems that became Either Way, You’re Done, but struggled with ordering them. Nearly every friend I have has had these poems strewn out over their living room floor at one point or another, us shuffling and reshuffling and scooting around on all fours to reach this paper or that one. Eventually, I realized the poems were about journeying; that was the lightbulb. I was able to see the two sections clearly (“home” and “leaving home”), and then the order came fairly naturally from there.

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?

I did! I’m sure there are many that I haven’t noticed, but one that I found pretty early on was an overabundance of dashes. There must have been at least three or four in every poem. I figured out that I was using the dashes as space filler, indicating some pause or deep breath. Once I caught on to that, I replaced many of those dashes with white space, which helped me better understand the form for the poems. There are still a lot of dashes, but I cut them down quite a bit.

Someone pointed out that several poems had qualifying phrases associated with voice/speaking (“I should say…,” “What I should have said…”). At first, I tried cutting those phrases, but they were necessary to many of the poems. Once I realized how much the collection was about voice—about needing to speak and not being allowed or able—I decided to go with it. I also ended up mentioning a lot of kids’ games in the book, which wasn’t intentional. I still haven’t completely worked that one out.

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

That was one of the hardest parts of putting together the manuscript. I had this vision of what I wanted to include, and it certainly didn’t turn out that way. I was having trouble finding cohesion in the poems. I shifted the order around over and over, kept writing new poems, but I couldn’t find the thread. Then I decided on a whim to enter a chapbook contest. I think it was helpful that I hadn’t planned it and didn’t have time to obsess over it. I picked a handful of poems that I thought spoke to each other and worked to create an arc. Once Sterling was published, I realized I actually had two different arcs—one larger (that became Either Way, You’re Done) and one smaller (the chapbook). For the full-length collection, I pulled out the poems that worked with the larger narrative, wrote some new poems, and that became Either Way, You’re Done. It broke my heart because I had to cut some poems that were important to me, but they served a better purpose in the chapbook, and I’m happy with that.

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

I have two very different experiences with submitting. Sterling, the chapbook, was an anomaly. I sent it to two contests; it was a finalist in one and won the other. But I submitted the full-length collection to almost 50 presses (most of them contests) for about 5 years before it was really ready. I submitted to the presses that were publishing my favorite authors, publishers that I knew from submitting to journals, and any press that offered free submissions (submissions are expensive! Especially for students). Once the chapbook was published, I heavily revised Either Way, You’re Done and then only sent it to a few places. It was a finalist in a contest, but ultimately it wasn’t through sending it out that the book got published. After I had given a reading one evening, an editor at Sundress approached me and asked if I had a manuscript. I sent it to them, and they decided it was a good fit.

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

I’d tell her to be patient. I spent so many years thinking I had to get a book out right away (and it had to be done a certain way), that I was running out of time. Maybe it’s because I’m older and came to this whole process later in life, but the closer I got to 40, the more I felt like I had to catch up to something (I don’t know what). It was only after I decided to be slow down that things finally came together.

And I want to tell her to trust her voice. I struggled (and still do) with understanding if and where my work fits in with the larger writing community. I think much of that comes from where and how I grew up, and it’s something that can paralyze me—has sometimes kept me from writing, submitting, or reading, even when I was feeling pressure to beat that ridiculous self-imposed deadline. But then an editor heard my poems, found value in my work, and published the collection. That was a dream-come-true (I know that’s cliché, but it’s accurate), and it was very far from the rigid process and timetable I was imposing on myself. And it proved that I was part of this community that I so fiercely admired. I wish I could tell the younger me that there is a magical outcome to all that work.

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

Yes. I have done some of my best (and most aggressive) revising after publishing a poem in a journal. I might be the worst person about revising. I have a hard time knowing when something is finished. I think it’s done, send it out, and then it goes live or arrives in print, and I suddenly find all sorts of problems with it.

But as true as that is, I also think it undermines the purpose and joy of publishing. I do love publishing individual pieces and it’s a very important part of the process for me (outside of revision). Getting to read a poem of mine alongside other writers’ and artists’ work gives me a new perspective on my own work. I can see where a poem might move within a manuscript or where it might help another poem in the collection. But I think more importantly, it helps me see value in my poems. It took me a very, very long time to call myself a writer. It’s something that was so far out of my reach when I was younger that I wouldn’t even consider taking on that label, so I often have a hard time believing my poems have value to anyone other than me. Publishing individual pieces reminds me that this work is part of something much bigger than my own writing space.

What did you do when you heard it was accepted?

It’s all a blur, but I had several celebration dinners over the next few days. The first was with my friend, Susan, who was in the office with me when I found out. She’s the one who got to see me nearly fall off my chair. There was an email that included a list of comments the editors made after they read the manuscript. They were encouraging and uplifting and all-around beautiful, and I remember thinking that I would need that list in the coming months to remind me that this was actually happening and that the book really was deserving of publication. I read those comments to Susan and we gushed about them, then I printed the list and used it as my tether for the next year while the book was in the editing phase.

Stephanie McCarley Dugger is the author of Either Way, You’re Done (Sundress Publications, 2017). Her chapbook Sterling (Paper Nautilus, 2015) was winner of the 2014 Vella Chapbook contest. Her work has appeared in The Boiler Journal, Gulf Stream, Heron Tree, Meridian, The Southeast Review, Spoon River Poetry Review, and other journals. She is an assistant professor at Austin Peay State University and is Assistant Poetry Editor for Zone 3 Press.