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 (open now!) We've revived our interview series about publishing the first book and expanded it to include writers who are working toward publishing their first books. In this interview, Book Prize Coordinator Katie Schmid Henson talks with Prairie Schooner Contributor Naoko Fujimoto about shaping her first collection of poems.

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


2. Describe the process of constructing your first manuscript.

I recently finished constructing my first manuscript called, “Radio Tower.” Its original foundation was to contain forty five poems as my thesis to finish my English education at Indiana University South Bend in 2009. I named the thesis project, “Sinking Garden.” Since then, I have edited its existing poems, written several new poems, and restructured the poems’ order at least four times. Numerous titles had been created and discarded in the process. To be honest, with my young, optimistic attitude, I thought that it would be easier to publish a book after I had published a decent amount of individual poems in print and online magazines.

I had three big turning points for my manuscript and now fully understand the importance of meeting mentors at the right time. They guided me at my point in development and drastically shortened the maturation time for my writing skills, as well as taught me to manage my artistic explosions appropriately. Since I came to America about ten years ago, I have had three major mentors and many, many supporters to keep me on track.

My first poetic mentor was David Dodd Lee. With his earthworm-like-handwriting, he showed me what phrases and line-breaks worked and did not work. From him I learned fundamental poetry editing skills. My second mentor was Russell Thorburn, who helped me come up with my manuscript’s title. We had several emails and phone calls discussing only titles, and finally we fell in love with “Radio Tower.” The last mentor was Jeffrey Levine, who pushed me to strive to the next level of editing techniques and language art. He opened my eyes to see poems in ways that I had never imagined.

I strongly believe that polishing a manuscript is a group effort with someone I can trust to be honest and patient with me. With my personal cheerleading team (and my husband), I can finally say, “My first manuscript is ready.”

3. How did you conceive of ordering the collection? How did you decide which poems to include in the collection?

I believe that a poetry book must have a strong spine. With it, the work as a whole has to be a cohesive collection. Page after page, the book must have moments of inner conversation with a reader. It took me a long time to find my spine for “Radio Tower.” My poems reflect how a native Japanese person views life. These poems and images must flow well from one to another, so I listened to each poem carefully. I questioned myself as to why a particular poem needed to tie up with the ones before and after it. I wanted “Radio Tower” to be a classic first collection; therefore, I did not retain some of my experimental works and included only the best ones for the theme.

4. 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?

Yes. My one of poetic tics— or obsessions— was “Blue.” There is a lot of “Blue” in “Radio Tower.” I think that obsession did not bring problems. I told myself, “Picasso expressed himself in blue constantly, so why not my poetry?” I chose my “Blue” poems on whether they supported the spine of my book or not. Therefore, I did not include all my “Blue” poems in “Radio Tower,” but it would be wonderful if I could construct a “Blue” collection in the near future. And about tics: When I was young I saw a pantomime running a tick’s circus (there were no real ticks. A mime was acting like a tick trainer). It was full of imagination and laughter. If I treated poetic tics as bad things, some fantastic chemistry may not be born. I would like to say that the tics I keep are to purposely have fun with my obsessions.

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

No. But publications make me smile, they are like a gambling addiction. My old rule was to publish only in print magazines; however, my thinking has evolved over the years and I recently started submitting to online journals. Online media has the power to publish a poem, a picture/art, and audio readings together. For my first manuscript, it would be cool to have my own reading projected in my Japanese-English accent (My pronunciation may switch “L” and “R,” and I may confuse some listeners, sometimes intentionally. So I could say, “Also available in a printed version”).

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

I submitted my manuscript to publishers I respected. If I could aspire to have my work alongside their existing books, I submitted. If people suggested particular publishers, I sent to them as well. So far, I have submitted to twenty eight competitions (that was why I kept working in a full time office job.) One was a finalist for the 2015 Kundiman Poetry Prize.

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

Create more chapbooks. In my early poetry career, I really wanted to start with a major book, so I had never entertained the thought of creating chapbooks. Though, like my media-type feelings, this has evolved. I am currently working on four chapbooks, and I adore them. Their experience brings with it a new enjoyment and creative opportunities. Given the chance, I would like to design and paint my own covers and illustrations for them. Chapbooks have millions of creative possibilities. And I would also like to say, “Keep smiling,” even when receiving rejections and going though rough poetic times.

8. What is your favorite part of your first book?

All. “Radio Tower” is my blue virgin gleam.

Naoko Fujimoto is a native of Japan. Her recent publications are forthcoming in Cimarron Reviewthe Cape RockTangential Bird Piles, and Nano Fiction. She is currently juggling writing fiction and working at the office.