Follow Harriet on Twitter
On NPR a few days ago, Derek Walcott confessed to feeling terror at the blank page—the terror of someone wondering whether he can do it again, whether he can make a successful poem again. The interviewer laughed with some disbelief remarking that even the great Nobel laureate could feel such terror. Walcott insisted, “Anyone [meaning any poet] who tells you otherwise is lying.” I can imagine that in the face of mortality and with the desire for longevity and the continuation of a legacy of presence in the minds of people who live after us, even the great poets of our time, as arrogant as they might be, must wonder about their greatness.
They have seen, after all, quite “great” writers—quite famous poets—fall by the wayside a few tears after their passing; poets who are briefly revived by loyal fans at AWP panels and commemorative events at MLA. But most of us say, that is, at least, a good problem to have. In other words, it is always better for someone else. And maybe that is what keeps so many of us never quite feeling successful even if we are.
The poet who wins a first book prize and publication has entered a very trying period after struggling through an even more trying period. The period of waiting for someone to say, “This is a good book,” and orchestrate to publish it, can be a painful one. Receiving rejection after rejection can be debilitating, especially if your friends and acquaintances are picking up awards and seeing publication. I understand that feeling. Forty contests and publishers rejected my collection Midland before Eavan Boland selected it for the Hollis Summers prize. Forty! I kept sending it out because I knew it was a good book. But forty? Yes. And this was to be my sixth book of poems. I had already won awards for my poetry and yet this was happening. I took solace in the conviction that my work was just not current to the American ear. Midland was my first book to be published by an American publisher. But I knew then that this was a way of coping—a narrative to beat back the sense of failure and inadequacy that I felt about my work.
One imagines, then, that the world will change dramatically and completely once a book is published. It does. But the publication creates all sorts of headaches. Nowadays, I have noticed that many of my published poet friends have published each book at a different press. Typically, their first book is a prize winner for a first book contest. The publishers will tell you that this is a one time only deal and many of them say that they don’t publish anything but first books for the first book prize. Sometimes, however, publishing houses that publish beyond first books prove to be unwelcoming of the second title by the poet largely because they may not have been involved in the selection of the poet for the first book in the first place. The selection of winners of first book prizes is done by a guest poet who does not attempt to select work that falls into the aesthetic tastes of the press.
The result is that poets with a first book have to start looking again for a new press to take their second books. And this is quite a debilitating thing. One feels fully betrayed by the process. One feels especially betrayed by the hoopla around winning a prestigious prize can be deceptive and seductive. If it is a first book, there is relief, there is excitement at the fulfillment of a dream, and there are all the accolades and affirmation that one will get. So when that is taken away after three years of trying to get the next book accepted, when various presses reject the work and when one has spent hundreds (even thousands) of dollars on contests, there can be a tremendous let-down.
Some poets will eventually get a press (usually a less prestigious one) to take the second book. But it is this process that I think can have an impact on the poet’s development. The collection one puts together to win a contest is going to be markedly different from the collection one puts together if that poet is safely situated in publishing house. Risks are hard to take. You are forced to organize your manuscript not for an informed reader who is looking to like your work and knows what you work is doing in the first place, but for an underpaid graduate student or freelancer who will have to read in a day some three hundred manuscripts, and make a complete decision about the work. This person will read the first two poems, then skip to the middle three, and then go to the final three. If they are not held by them, they will state simply, “I am looking for 10 collections out of the thousand before me now. I am certain that there are going to be at least 10 flawless collections that begin beautiful and end beautiful. I can simply discard any collections that have one or two questionable poems.”
The quest is for a certain kind of perfection. The quest is for the poem that can be digested and assessed in a few seconds. The quest is to eliminate not include. There is just no other way to judge a contest. To write books that are always having to meet that criteria is to write the same book again and again. It is also to be constrained into a conservative and predictable style and approach—the style and approach that will always lead to a short-listing of one’s work.
There were many things wrong with the “good” old days. And there are many things good about the “bad” now days, so much so that I am mostly a fan of the bad now days over the good old days. In the “good” old days, though, poets got published by a publisher with the understanding that the publishing will stay with that poet and allow the poet to develop the craft, and to develop a career with the security of knowing that she would have a place that was committed to the work for the long haul. This is largely why some of the early collections of quite great poets from the past cannot be called sterling. Some of them are experimental—they chart a shift in sensibilities and aesthetics. Some of them represent the important development through risk-taking that would mark and generate the most significant and defining work of their careers. The security of having a publisher committed to your work cannot be overstated.
I have such a relationship with my UK publishers, Peepal Tree Press. They have kept me in print since 1994. My editor, Jeremy Poynting, knows my work very well, knows my tics and tricks, and has a remarkably useful ear and eye for the line that he recognizes as my line. When I think of the next book project, I do not have to wring my hands wondering about what the editorial board is going to say this time. I know that Peepal Tree is there for me. Not everything I write will go through, but I always have the feeling that this is a joint decision. Nowadays, I push for my success as a writer because I know that it means that Peepal Tree is a success as well. Peepal Tree has watched me grow and encouraged it. I would never have been able to send my third book of poems out to a contest with any hope of winning an award. Prophets is a book-length poem with an ambitiously epic scope, a sensibility and language that is rooted in Jamaica and a work with a markedly religious overtone—not doctrinaire or even ideological, but openly exploring the day-to-day implications of Pentecostalism in Jamaica through a language that is sensual, that invokes myth and reggae and that is best described as risky and experimental. I am glad they allowed me to do this work because it is still one of the books I am most proud of.
The poet who wins a first book prize will have to start all over again after a few years. But the decision that poet will have to make after winning the prize and seeing publication, is where to go next. Usually, the excitement and attention that comes after an award can lure the poet into feeling as if her marquee value and pedigree has somehow gone up. That poet may also feel as if certain presses are just a little below them in terms of prestige given their appearance in Poets & Writers, reviews in the NY Times, Time Outs all over the place, and shortlistings for major national prizes. She is correct, actually. The A-list of publishers would be fitting places for her work and it would seem only logical to accept such an offer if it came along. But the challenge of such prestigious houses is that many of them have an impressive roster of luminaries at the height of their career and when the competition for publicists and advertisements and support emerges, the new star is going to suffer. Often it is actually more useful to work with a medium-sized house that will stay committed to the poet for the long haul. But it is a tough call.