So You Wanna Win A Book Prize? with R.A. Villanueva

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Gearing up for the upcoming Prairie Schooner Book Prize deadline (March 15th, submit now!), we are reviving "So You Wanna Win A Book Prize?" for a one-off interview with 2013 Prairie Schooner Book Prize in Poetry winner R.A. Villanueva. Enjoy!


1. You won the Prairie Schooner Book Prize in Poetry in 2013 for your collection Reliquaria, what were you doing when you heard the news that you had won? How did you feel?

Because its counter often becomes my satellite office, I was walking towards Ted & Honey, a small coffee place near our apartment. It was the start of the week. July.

There was a missed call from an unknown number. There was a voicemail that I had yet to check and, for some reason, instead of playing back that message, I cut straight to returning the call. When the voice at the other end picked up, he introduced himself as Kwame Dawes.

This is, if I recall correctly, the gist of our conversation:

KD: “Did you know that you were a finalist for the Prairie Schooner Book Prize?”
Me: “Yes.”
KD: “Well, I think you’ve won the whole thing.”
Me: “…”
KD: “Hello?”
Me: “I really hope you’re sure.”

To that, Kwame laughed and promised that he was certain. He offered sincere congratulations, his too-kind words about the manuscript, a clarification about what to expect next. I have to confess that by that point things had already gone all Matrix slow-motion.

I remember asking him for permission to tell my mom and dad.

2. How does Reliquaria fit in with your larger body of work?

There’s this moment in the fossil record christened the Cambrian explosion, a period of 80 million years or so where plant and animal life flare and change in staggering ways. Eyesight and the senses develop, the air we breathe comes to be; organisms and ecosystems go from simple to increasingly diverse in a relatively small amount of time and much of what we share the world with radiates out from there. No one has yet to conclusively explain why this all happened or how.

Which is to say, Reliquaria marks a kind of Cambrian moment for me. Or, maybe Reliquaria represents the mysterious arrangement of influences and experiences that’s allowed for kinds of mutations in my work. Actually, it’s more than likely that Reliquaria is the thing and what triggered these things all at once.

3. What project(s) are you working on currently that you are most excited about?

I’ve been re-reading Richard Hugo’s The Triggering Town. In “Writing Off the Subject,” the first essay in the book, he contends that one’s “initiating subject should trigger the imagination as well as the poem.” That line’s been rattling around in my skull for weeks.

Hugo and, by extension, Teju Cole (see his story “Hafiz” and his “Winter Sequence”) have driven my ongoing attempts to engage with Twitter as a stream of “initiating subjects” and occasions for poems.  Here, for instance, is “Fossils;” when its couplets are read together on @caesura as an interlocking feed, a sonnet of sorts should materialize. And here’s another: “Lake View.”

In terms of editorial projects, Tongue: A Journal of Writing & Art is a literary magazine that I’ve been helping design and build since 2010. It branches outwards from defining “translation” in its most elastic, most generative terms. Developing the first two issues of Tongue—and cultivating @TongueJournal and our Tumblr, Marginalia—has been a source of great joy and pride for me. Right now, we’re on the verge of Issue Three, due out later this year.

4. One of our mottos here is “Writing that moves you.” Where is the best or most memorable place your writing has taken you? This can be an actual destination on a map or a more mental/emotional journey.

The Basilica of St. John, Ephesus, Turkey
Cementerio del Norte, Manila, Philippines

5. What/who are you reading lately?

A quick survey of what in stacks on my desks at home and at NYU:

Gina Apostol, Gun Dealer’s Daughter
Jason Bayani, Amulet
Tom Bissell, Magic Hours: Essays on Creators and Creation
Jorge Luis Borges, Labyrinths
Natalie Diaz, When My Brother Was an Aztec
Tarfia Faizullah, Seam
Carolyn Forché, The Country Between Us
Chip Kidd and Dave Taylor, Batman: Death By Design
Jamaal May, Hum
Alissa Nutting, Tampa
Rowan Ricardo Phillips, The Ground
Mary Ruefle, Madness, Rack, and Honey
George Seferis, Poems
The Anchored Angel: Selected Writings of
José Garcia Villa, ed. Eileen Tabios

And often open in my tabs:

Boston Review’s essays on poetry, especially Rachel Galvin’s excellent writing

Essays, reviews at The Los Angeles Review of Books: I’m continually returning to pieces like “Shakespeare Performance Art” by Lili Loofbourow, “In Hell, ‘We Shall Be Free’: On Breaking Bad” by Michelle Kuo & Albert Wu, and “We Can Be Heroes: Poetry at the 2012 Summer Games” by Lynn Melnick, Liam O'Rourke, Meghan O'Rourke, Paisley Rekdal, Gabrielle Calvocoressi & Lytton Smith

At The Atlantic: all Ta-Nehisi Coates, everything

6. Do you have any advice for the writers submitting to this year’s book prize?

Take care with the structure of the manuscript. Shape with immediacy, dynamism, and coherence in mind. Know, for instance, that your first line and those first few pages are the vanguard of the book. You want them strange, dilemma-rich, leading the charge.

That being said, on a broader level, it also matters that you have patience with—and faith in—your work. Especially when it feels like you’re counting syllables and listing off-rhymes in the dark. Trust, in part, being said no to. Be humbled by how strangers are trying their damnedest to hear the heart inside your poems’ machinery.

I printed out this excerpt from a 1998 Paris Review interview with Philip Levine and pinned it to my wall (italics are mine):

“Many young poets have come to me and asked, How am I gonna make it? They feel, and often with considerable justice, that they are being overlooked…I always give the same advice. I say, Do it the hard way, and you’ll always feel good about yourself. You write because you have to, and you get this unbelievable satisfaction from doing it well. Try to live on that as long as you’re able. Don’t kiss anyone’s ass. Wait and be discovered or don’t be discovered.”

I’m grateful that Reliquaria found its home. I’m grateful, too, that this book took years to get here.

The winner of the 2013 Prairie Schooner Book Prize in Poetry is R.A. Villanueva for his manuscript Reliquaria. His writing has appeared in AGNI, Gulf Coast, Virginia Quarterly Review, McSweeney’s Internet Tendency, Bellevue Literary Review, DIAGRAM, and elsewhere. A founding editor of Tongue: A Journal of Writing & Art, his honors include the 2013 Ninth Letter Literary Award for poetry, fellowships from Kundiman and The Asian American Literary Review, and scholarships from the Geraldine R. Dodge Foundation. He is currently a Language Lecturer at New York University and lives in Brooklyn.