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. This week, Book Prize Coordinator Katie Schmid Henson talks with National Poetry Series Winner and Ruth Lilly Poetry Fellow Marcus Wicker about the process of writing and organizing his manuscript, knowing when to excise swear words in your poetry, the benefits of literary citizenship, and the best way to celebrate when you win one of the most prestigious poetry prizes in the country. 

How many books have you published, and where?

One book, from Harper Perennial.       

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

I didn’t realize I was writing a book until I started using titles to diagnose a draft’s essential, or at least surface function. A few early pronouncements: In Ambivalence of the Immortal Light Heavyweight, Mr. Flavor Flav. Talking to Myself about the Trees. Poem Ending with RuPaul Flash Dancing in a Sequined Dress. Talking to the Man in the Mirror. With a little nudging, I realized beneath those awful titles were the themes of adoration and inner voice—tropes that evolved into a series of “love letters” and “self-dialogues.” I like the generative process of constructing a series; the idea being that circularity leads to layering which leads to complication.

Initially, Maybe the Saddest Thing began with ars poeticas, then self dialogues, followed by love letters, followed by poems about desire, poems concerning masculinity, and ended in hip hop. I tried to sell myself on that version of the book for a while, but with each straight-through read, I found it harder and harder to reach the end. It felt, for me, like trying to complete a Rubik’s Cube—repetitive and impenetrable. I think my instinct to regulate the collection with some visible, thematic overlap was correct, but the execution was stifling.

The next draft featured one poem from each series or thematic block placed back to back, which achieved the obsessive, cyclical reading experience I was chasing, while adding some variety. Only then did the manuscript begin to really take shape. Only then was I able to make my poems converse. For instance, if you read the first seven pieces without coming up for air, you’ll note that a spare lyric about a mute boy, self-dialogues featuring Richard Pryor and Jim Kelly, and epistolary addresses to Justin Timberlake and Pam Grier, work in concert to both populate, and question the concept of authenticity—a notion I wasn’t necessarily thinking of while writing the poems independent of one another.

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?

Ha! That’s great. I think you should keep them. I’m totally pro blooming and aching. For me, maybe a proliferation of fire imagery and the word “fuck?” I gave a reading from an early draft in front of an older audience on Martha’s Vineyard and felt bashful enough to censor myself. Later, I removed a portion of those fucks from the book (though obviously not my vocabulary). I kept the fire.

The one serious tic that emerged when I started purposely penning poems toward a book: this habit of ratcheting a piece inward, toward the “I,” once it called for a volta. Eventually, the tic started to feel like a poetic crutch, and it is; a crutch I removed from a number poems where unwarranted or seemingly cheap. But at times—at it’s most sincere—this move allowed me to be productively self-conscious. To check a speaker’s point of view for something like mansplaining, or to make certain the poem itself isn’t too certain in what it already knows. You can see me doing this is in “To You” (the second one), which employs a tonally tough depiction of an obscene rap performance and questionable concert-going mother before shifting the lens, “What type of man would let a child in this poem?” I suppose learning how to better manipulate the tic was good for my tool kit in general.

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

I wish I had a smart answer to slide you here but the truth is, a little time and distance helped. After the book was summarily rejected I decided to get ruthless about which poems were reflective of my intentions/poetic sensibilities, and which were apprentice pieces. I mostly figured this out after grad school at the Fine Arts Work Center. There I cut poems that made similar arguments, keeping the best one or two. And I wrote new ones. I also threw out poems that didn’t progress the book’s movement— several of which were published in perfectly good magazines! That was one of the tougher pills to swallow at the time, but it needed to be done.

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

Too many places. I started sending out a manuscript before I finished my MFA. I wanted a book so badly that “where” was secondary to “Right now.” I googled book contests and sent to most all of them. I could sport three or four months-worth of Southern Indiana rent with the money I wasted pushing a premature script, if that gives you an idea. Eventually, I read every first collection I could find in the library, then submitted a tighter book to presses I thought might  1) be open to my work, 2) published well-made (read pretty) books, and 3) venues promising good distribution.

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

A. The most obvious advice is to be patient. The first year I began submitting I was a finalist for a contest from a good press, and had they published that immature version, I probably wouldn’t have the pleasure of this exchange.

B. Again, be patient. Some of the most excellent books don’t find a home right away. It’s just the nature of publishing.

C. Craft two working versions of your book: one with all the strongest, most arresting poems frontloaded, and the real version, in your back pocket, for when the book is selected. Doing so might help your book make it through the first round of readers.

D. Yes, writing is a solitary pursuit, but once your book enters the world, it helps to have a system of believers and supporters. Be a good literary citizen. Cultivate meaningful relationships. It’ll be good for your book and better for your heart.

Has publication changed your writing or manuscript construction processes?

Sure. Most notably, my mind starts to do its cartographer thing without much ushering now, drawing intersections and bridges between the last few poems I’ve written and poems I may pen in the future.

What did you do when you heard it was accepted?

I split a pint of cognac with my pops in my parents’ basement. I called all my closest writers friends and shared the news. Then told them they weren’t allowed to share the news.

What was the most surprising thing about the publication process?

The galley approval process. Harper assigned three or four proofreaders to my book, none of them poets. The gulf between a press’ style guide and a poet’s style, at least this one’s, can be wide.

What is your favorite part of your first book?

The wealth of seriously wonderful people MTST has put me in touch with, in person and virtually. It’s altogether humbling. Oh, and the cover. The cover’s really righteous.   

Marcus Wicker is the author of Maybe the Saddest Thing (Harper Perennial), selected by DA Powell for the National Poetry Series. Wicker's awards include a Ruth Lilly Fellowship, Pushcart Prize, as well as fellowships from Cave Canem, and The Fine Arts Work Center. His work has appeared in Poetry, American Poetry Review, Oxford American, and many other magazines. Marcus is assistant professor of English at University of Southern Indiana and poetry editor of Southern Indiana Review. He serves as director of the New Harmony Writers Workshop.