The flyer at your right contains all the particulars, but, just for fun, here are the main events:
The flyer at your right contains all the particulars, but, just for fun, here are the main events:
Karen Brown received the 2011 Prairie Schooner Book Prize in Fiction for her book Little Sinners and Other Stories, which is forthcoming from the University of Nebraska Press. Her first collection of short stories, Pins and Needles, received AWP’s Grace Paley Prize for Short Fiction and, in 2007, was published by the University of Massachusetts Press. Her work has appeared twice in the PEN/O. Henry Prize Stories, in Best American Short Stories, The New York Times, Good Housekeeping, and in many standout literary journals, including Epoch, The Georgia Review, American Short Fiction, TriQuarterly, and Five Points. Currently, Brown lives in Tampa, Florida and teaches creative writing at the University of South Florida. You can learn more about her work at her website.
Do you have a specific criteria of things you’re looking for in a story when putting together a collection? That is, are you writing from the beginning toward something central thematically, or in the content, and the stories come together because of a common focus, or is it just a matter of allowing the book to coagulate on its own, of writing stories without a collection in mind, and seeing what themes and styles emerge? Did the process change with Little Sinners and Other Stories from how you did Pins and Needles?
I don’t write stories with the intention of putting them together as a book, but I’ve found that I go through thematic phases, so that batches of stories seem to deal with similar themes, or have a similar tone. This was the case with Pins and Needles. I was writing a lot of stories very quickly, and they all seemed to have women exploring their own sexuality. The trouble was how to organize them so that “married woman having an affair in kitschy motels” came next to “pregnant teen seducing guy at work” and not “married woman having an affair in a vacant 1950s ranch.” With the new collection, I did do more selecting from stories past and present, so there’s an older story—one of the first I ever published, and a brand new one I added in the editing process with U of Nebraska Press. There are stories in the new collection that were written at the same time the Pins and Needles stories were, but didn’t fit in that book (“married woman having an affair with suburban neighbor”).
Is there a secret strategy you can (or are willing to) reveal about how to win a book contest? The Prairie Schooner Book Prize is the second you’ve won in the last few years, with Pins and Needles taking the 2006 Grace Paley Prize in Short Fiction of the AWP Award Series. Winning two prizes is pretty good, and your work bears this out. Is there a secret?
Before I won the Grace Paley Prize I’d submitted manuscripts for several years to AWP and the other short fiction prizes as well—Prairie Schooner, Drue Heinz, Flannery O’Connor, Mary McCarthy. I was a semi-finalist years ago for Sarabande Books’ Mary McCarthy Prize, and last year Leaf House was listed as a semi-finalist. I, too, thought there must be a strategy, but looking back the only strategy I can see is that I kept writing new stories, that the stories seemed to get better, and that I kept changing the manuscripts to include the newer, better stories. Pins and Needles was the result of my putting together the last fourteen stories I’d written.
The studio MFA seems to be more and more popular these days—and MFAs more ubiquitous in general. As someone who took a creative PhD track, do you think there is something missing in a purely studio curriculum, as opposed to a writer’s formal education that is heavy on literary study?
Writers don’t need to learn how literary theorists approach creative works, unless they are interested in practicing in that field themselves. I enjoyed the exposure to literature I might not have normally read, but I think writers at the graduate level can pursue this intensive reading without having to study critical works and come up with paper topics. Most writers I know read widely. No two writers will derive the same thing from what they read, and I think it’s better to cultivate reading as a writer, than undergo a formal study of literary works.
Rituals play a prominent role in Little Sinners and Other Stories, particularly sexual rituals, the rituals of birth, and those of friendship. The stories have such power because of the ways in which the characters violate their society’s sense of propriety while at the same time participating in quasi-sanctioned rituals. Often these are people either at the end of adolescence or the beginning of middle-age, vulnerable people who are willing to transgress. Is there something you look for when writing a new character that places them in this kind of moral limbo? Or do your characters find their way to these sorts of trouble on their own?
I think the goal is to create a character with a problem, and for many of my characters lately these problems arise when they clash with the unspoken rules of the world they come from—the pastoral landscape of the suburb, with its sense of safety, and carefully maintained landscaping—a world I grew up in. It’s a place I understand, one that relies on continuity and tradition, and where rituals are often used to mask transgression. Regardless of what happens, or what the characters do, the lawn is still cut on Fridays, the Memorial Day tradition continues.
In some of the stories, it’s like you start writing about the crowd in the beginning of the narrative and wait until the last moment before narrowing in on the character who takes center stage. Is this something you have contrived as an author, or is your process a little more by the seat of your pants? I guess, by the end of the story (in your writing process) is it important that you be surprised by the story as well? And not just by what happens, but even who the story is about?
I do like being surprised by a story. It wouldn’t interest me to write it if there wasn’t the promise of something I didn’t expect waiting for me at the end. Sometimes, though, mid-way through, I realize the ending. Then it’s just a careful, sort of picking-my-way-over-stones to get there.
If it were possible to do so, what advice about writing would you give yourself five years ago?
I think I might tell myself to listen to my instincts about when a piece is really finished, and not rush to be done with it. The process of revision is just as important as the first draft.
What are you working on now?
I’m revising a novel, an expanded version of the short story “Little Sinners” that appears in the new collection.
The 2012 Prairie Schooner Book Prize is currently accepting submissions through March 15. More information can be found on our website.
From Georgia, Sofala is a first-year Ph.D. student in poetry, with a specialization in women’s and ethnic studies, at the University of Nebraska-Lincoln, and she holds an M.F.A. from the University of Wisconsin-Madison. Sofala has most recently taught at Augusta State University, where she also worked as the Textbook Manager for the University’s campus bookstore, and her poems have been published in journals such as Anderbo, Inner Weather, The Literary Bohemian, and The Peacock’s Feet.
The annual Prairie Schooner Book Prize, which next opens for submissions on January 15, 2012, is in very good hands. Please help us in welcoming Hali Sofala to the Prairie Schooner team!
Interview with Kara Candito, by Marianne Kunkel.
Kara Candito is the author of Taste of Cherry (University of Nebraska Press), winner of the 2008 Prairie Schooner Book Prize in Poetry. Her poems and reviews have appeared or are forthcoming in Blackbird, AGNI, Kenyon Review, Gulf Coast, and others. She has appeared in Best New Poets and has received an Academy of American Poets Prize as well as scholarships from the Bread Loaf Writers' Conference.
MK: Your poem “Epic Poem Concerning the Poet’s Coming of Age as Attis” (Prairie Schooner, Spring 2010) candidly, and at times unflinchingly, examines the experiences of a young boy. What drew you to elaborating on boyhood and what about this task, if anything, was challenging?
KC: I’ve always been drawn to art that blurs the lines between what we often see as fixed categories: male/female, heterosexuality/homosexuality, innocence/experience. In writing “Epic Poem,” I wanted to speak honestly and compellingly from the fraught place of adolescence. Entering into the mindset of a fourteen-year-old boy was a way of convening with my female self at that age through a different lens. In fact, many of the objects and memories that surface into the poem are my own—the TV tables covered with the presidents’ faces, the constant buzz of pop culture, and the obsessions with sound and solitude. This poem was actually a pure pleasure to write, because as I was writing it, all of the elements that matter to me as a writer—invention, memory, and imagination—seemed to coalesce on the page. I don’t have that experience too often!
Your imagery in “Sleeping with René Magritte” is stunning, a fitting quality since it is a poem that profiles the famous painter. The poem’s concluding simile in which you describe “watching / the weather gather like the hem of a dress / we trip over and back / into ourselves” is especially lovely. Striking imagery shows up in much of your poetry; how do you go about constructing an image, and does imagery serve the same purpose in each poem?
I’m obsessed with Lorca’s idea of the hecho poetico, or poetic fact. I love how the images in his poems can’t be subsumed or explained, how they become their own irrational, hermetic matrixes of meaning. I think René Magritte’s paintings are visual enactments of poetic facts. Each object in a painting like Homesickness (1941) is concrete and recognizable, and yet the associations between the objects—a man (with wings on the back of his tuxedo jacket), a bridge, and a lion—are simultaneously ambiguous and deeply emotional. They evoke the experience of homesickness without describing it. When I craft an image, I try to get at the irreducible, irrational dream-logic that governs any intense experience, as a way of circumventing explanation and offering the reader a less mediated version of a private reality with which he or she might identify.
This year’s Prairie Schooner Book Prize Symposium featured you reading from Taste of Cherry. Your poems bring such life to language through their arrangement on the page, how do you perform them in a way that does justice to their appearance in print?
Once, when I was particularly nervous about reading my work, my friend Anna Journey gave me some great advice: think of yourself as a devotee to the poems, and read each one the way it sounded when it appeared in your head, or as a draft on your computer screen.
Even if it means moaning “ooh-la-la!” or channeling my grandmother’s Italglish, even if it means embarrassing myself, I’m just the messenger.
You just completed your Ph.D. in creative writing at Florida State University in Tallahassee. Many creative writers might enjoy traveling to such a sunny, tropical climate to write. What about you—what is your ideal writing space? What does your current writing space look like?
I just moved to Wisconsin to begin a professorship, so my new writing space is still under construction. I really like to work on a big, flat desk, surrounded by a kitschy pastiche of familiar objects. I have this David Bowie poster that absolutely must hang somewhere in my writing space. In fact, I think of Bowie as my ideal self, if I were a musician. He’s audacious without taking himself too seriously, and unapologetically into sex and swagger.
It’s funny that I’m particular about my writing space, because I often “write” the initial drafts of poems when I’m traveling in a car, bus, or airplane. I also find the shower inspiring.
Poets’ Quarterly’s Valerie Wetlaufer remarked of Taste of Cherry, “We are hypnotized, besotted, and we want to follow along with the speaker, past the end of the poem.” Currently, what creative works are you reading that are hypnotizing and besotting you?
I’ve been reading William Kulik’s translation of French surrealist poet Robert Desnos’ work. Desnos’ capacity for wonder and brutality really blow me away. In “Rope,” he writes: “If I like trains, it’s no doubt because they go faster/than funerals.” His work takes fragments from everyday life—observations, tastes, and textures—and makes them magical and disturbing.
The Book Prize Competition is still ticking along. We're close to having a list of finalists, which makes us both excited and a bit sad. We receive so many wonderful books that we hate to be compelled to choose only one. Yet this is the situation we've put ourselves in, so we read on.
We've said it before, I know, and we will continue to say it: Thank you to everyone who sent us their work. As writers who also enter contests, we're well aware of all the emotional and intellectual work that goes into the process. The rest of your family and friends might not understand how complexly you feel about contests, but we do. And we thank you for selecting your best work and sending it, winged with hope, to us.
Look for a final announcement in July!
Our new book prize coordinator, Cody Lumpkin, wanted to draw your attention to this year's prize. And he added this:Now in its eighth year, the Prairie Schooner Book Prize has sought to award and publish some of the best in fiction and poetry being written today. Since the contest began in 2003, Prairie Schooner and the University of Nebraska Press have annually published one short story and one poetry collection out of many worthy entrants. Past winners have included new and established writers such as Paul Guest, K.L. Cook, Jesse Lee Kercheval, Kara Candito, Brock Clarke, Anne Finger, and Kathleen Flenniken, whose poetry collection Famous was chosen by the American Library Association as one of twenty-five Notable Books for 2007.
Yes, it's a pop song. It's late in the day, we're gearing up for the new semester, and I'm feeling a bit drained of mental energy. I'd turn to the book that's on my desk, but Anne Finger's Call Me Ahab (last year's winner of the Prairie Schooner Book Prize in Fiction), but the book requires a bit more attention than I can give it. I'm not surprised that it's a very good book, but I'm surprised at how many directions it moves--and Finger brings such authority to the writing that I'm willing to follow her.
And this brings me to reading, generally. Or, instead, in the specific instance of editorial reading. First, I'm delighted to read Finger's book because I don't--can't!--look at them while the contest is going on. So I discover the excellent choices our judges make well after the fact. Second, I'm going to echo something Hilda Raz notes at her speaking engagements: I only read as an editor early in the day. Before I've begun answering phones, responding to emails, and fretting over the daily slings and arrows of the lit journal business.
My question to you (and I know you're out there, even if you don't speak back to me) is this: when do you read? Do you have different times of day for different reading tasks, different engagements with the delights of words?
We learned this week that Rynn Williams, the winner of the second Prairie Schooner Book Prize in Poetry, has died. The circumstances of her death are still not clear. She leaves behind a family, though I don't know much about them, even as I've been thinking a lot about who they might be and what they might be going through.
I have had her book, Adonis Garage, here on the desk in front of me for most of this week. It's full of life, desire, of New York, of looking back that's neither nostalgia nor regret but not quite celebration either of a time of glam and costume that rarely gets revisted, at least in verse.
And I want to post a piece that Rynn published in Prairie Schooner and read when she visited us a couple of years ago:
was crucial to the Scarsdale Diet--and despite Miss Trevor,
staunch vegetarian, appalled--I sucked down whole birds.
Intricate ribs, dense gray thighbones, the way
dark tendons fell away--who cares if the diet was useless?
I was fourteen, I'd just lost my innocence.
Giddy from grease, protein and hormones,
the heat of the city playground in August
and the thrill of Miss Trevor's frank disdain,
I was tossing gristle on a pile, licking my fingertips,
nothing but chicken and boys to devour:
Robert and Frankie, Skip and McVey--
seeing the world through a haze of roast meat--
all those boys, all that warm flesh, sinew and fat,
juice on my lips, those piles of shiny bones.
We've sent notification letters out to all our contestants, so they should have the news already. We want to say "thank you" to everyone who participated; it was another big year, and we received so much great work from so many fantastic writers that the choice was, once again, staggeringly difficult. We are proud to announce our 2009 winners:
Fiction Winner: Ted Gilley (Bennington, VT) for Bliss
Ted Gilley is a native of southwestern Virginia but has lived in New England for 30 years. His poems and short stories have appeared in Poetry Northwest, Northwest Review, Prairie Schooner, Rattle, The National Review, New England Review, Free Verse, and many other magazines and anthologies. Awarded grants from the National Endowment for the Arts/Vermont Arts Council and the McCullough Library in 2007, Gilley won the Alehouse Press (San Francisco) national poetry competition in 2008.
Runner Up: Garth Risk Hallberg (Brooklyn, NY) for The Descent of Man: Stories
Garth Risk Hallberg is the author of A Field Guide to the North American Family, a novella. Other writing has appeared in Glimmer Train, Slate, and the anthology Best New American Voices 2008. His fiction has earned Pushcart Prize and Believer Book Award nominations and fellowships from New York University's MFA program and the New York Foundation for the Arts.
Poetry Winner: Shane Book (San Francisco, CA) for Fourth World
Shane Book's poetry appears in journals in the US, UK, and Canada and in many anthologies, most recently Gathering Ground (University of Michigan Press, 2006). He was educated at the University of Western Ontario, the University of Victoria, New York University, the Iowa Writers’ Workshop and Stanford where he was a Wallace Stegner Fellow in Poetry. The recipient of scholarships to Cave Canem, the Jack Kerouac School of Disembodied Poetics, and Breadloaf, his awards include a New York Times Fellowship in Poetry, the Malahat Review Long Poem Prize, an Academy of American Poets Prize, and a National Magazine Award.
Runner Up: Nicole Cooley (Glen Ridge, NJ) for Milk Dress
Nicole Cooley grew up in New Orleans, Louisiana. Her new book of poems, Breach, about Hurricane Katrina and its aftermath, will be published by Louisiana State University Press in March 2010. Her first book of poetry, Resurrection, won the 1995 Walt Whitman Award and was published by LSU Press in 1996. Her second book of poetry, The Afflicted Girls, about the Salem witch trials of 1692, came out with LSU Press in April 2004 and was chosen as one of the best poetry books of the year by Library Journal. She also published a novel Judy Garland, Ginger Love, with Regan Books/Harper Collins (1998). She has received a Discovery/The Nation Award, a National Endowment for the Arts Grant and the Emily Dickinson Award from the Poetry Society of America. Her poems have appeared in The Nation, Poetry, Missouri Review, Pleaides, and Mississippi Review, among other magazines. She is an associate professor of English and Creative Writing at Queens College—City University of New York where she directs the new MFA program in creative writing and literary translation.
Please join us in congratulating them!