So You Wanna Win A Book Prize?

Mari L’Esperance Talks about finding the “right home” for poetry

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This is the first entry of our new three-part series in which Hali Sofala, our Book Prize Coordinator, speaks with some of our past Book Prize winners to get a sense of how Prairie Schooner's Book Prize has played a role in their careers, and what advice they might have for future Book Prize contestants. Today, we're featuring her interview with Mari L'Esperance who won the Book Prize in Poetry in 2007.   


1. You won the Prairie Schooner Book Prize in Poetry in 2007 for your collection "The Darkened Temple", what were you doing when you heard the news that you had won? How did you feel?


My husband and I had just had breakfast at Louisa's Place in San Louis Obispo on our way back to the San Francisco Bay Area. Before we got on the road, I checked my voicemail and there was Hilda's voice, telling me she had "some very exciting news" and would I call her "right away". Well. My mind went blank. It could be any number of things, I thought to myself, trying not to feel hopeful. Back on the freeway, my husband driving, I called Hilda and got the news that my book had been selected for the prize. How did I feel? Numb, mostly. Shocked. Speechless. Not elated because my head was too much in a muddle. It was not the response I imagined I'd have upon hearing the news that every first-book poet dreams of experiencing.



2. How does "The Darkened Temple" fit in with your larger body of work?


I suppose my "larger body of work" has been concerned with loss—of human connection, place, meaning, culture and identity—and the poems in The Darkened Temple fall into this general category as well.



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


Today, I'm most excited about "Coming Close: Forty Essays on Philip Levine", an anthology I've edited with poet Tomás Q. Morín that's forthcoming in May of this year from Prairie Lights Books, a new imprint of the University of Iowa Press. We each have essays in the book as well. It's a marvelous and diverse collection, if I may say so myself, with contributions representing Phil’s five-plus decades' long teaching career, from his earliest years in Fresno to his last years of teaching at New York University. At 85, Phil's taught and mentored hundreds of poets over the years and we're thrilled to be able to give back to him, and to his students and readers, and to poetry, in this way.



4. One of our mottoes 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.


When I'm deeply immersed in the act of writing, am in "the zone" or "dream space" where my entire self—body, mind, heart, spirit—is fully engaged in putting words together and the world disappears and nothing and no one else matters… I guess I could say that's the most memorable place my writing's taken, and takes, me, when I invite in the experience (my ongoing challenge).



5. What/who are you reading lately?


Today I read Korean American poet Lee Herrick's second collection "Gardening Secrets of the Dead", a deeply moving, and quietly political read. Also, I'm happily making my way through Miranda Field's gorgeous 2002 collection "Swallow" and Caitlin Grace McDonnell's long-awaited debut "Looking for Small Animals". I'm reading mostly women poets lately and am not sure what that's about, but I'm following my impulse. Another recent read is Sharon Olds's amazing "Stag's Leap", her strongest collection yet. She was my teacher in graduate school and is a fierce and accomplished poet.



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


Don't rush to publish. Make sure your poems are ready for prime time. If they're not, hold off until they are. If you have a nagging feeling that a particular poem is "filler," take it out. Better to have a shorter manuscript than a mediocre one. Above all, feel good about your work. When submitting, try to let go of expectations; there will be other opportunities. Keep working on other things—not necessarily poems, but something other than obsessing over your submissions. Know that, if you've done everything you can to make your manuscript publication-ready, it'll eventually find the "right" home. Trust in the process. Go on with your life.



Read more about "The Darkened Temple" here:,673946.aspx




Born in Kobe, Japan to a Japanese mother and a French Canadian-American father, Mari L'Esperance was awarded a Prairie Schooner Book Prize in Poetry for her full-length collection "The Darkened Temple", published by the University of Nebraska Press in September 2008. An earlier collection Begin Here was awarded a Sarasota Poetry Theatre Press Chapbook Prize. With Tomás Q. Morin, she has edited "Coming Close: Forty Essays on Philip Levine", forthcoming in 2013 from Prairie Lights Books, an imprint of the University of Iowa Press. L'Esperance's poems and prose have appeared or are forthcoming in "Beloit Poetry Journal", "Many Mountains Moving", "Poetry Kanto", "Prairie Schooner", the "Prairie Schooner Book Prize Tenth Anniversary Reader", "Salamander", "Zocalo Public Square", and elsewhere and her poems have been nominated twice for a Pushcart Prize. Her reviews have been published in Seattle's "International Examiner", "Connotation Press: An Online Artifact", and "Pirene's Fountain". A graduate of the Creative Writing Program at New York University and a recipient of awards from the "New York Times", New York University, Hedgebrook, and Dorland Mountain Arts Colony, L'Esperance lives in Los Angeles.