I lost out on a book prize today—one I really, really wanted, from a press I admire, and which came with an optional residency in Italy. For the past two months, I've been in the running—first making the long list, then, just before Christmas, being notified that my manuscript had made it to the finals, along with five other manuscripts. One in six. That's not bad odds in the poetry book world, not bad odds at all. At Cider Press Review, it's not unusual for us to get 500 or more manuscripts submitted for a book award, if that gives you any inkling of what one-in-six means for a manuscript. I have no idea how many manuscripts were under consideration for this one book prize, but I doubt it was fewer than 300 or more than 1,000. Mine made it to the top six before the judges chose a book by someone else.
And I'm surprised by just how okay I am with the whole thing. I tend to be pretty relaxed about sending out work, basically blasé about getting rejection slips (or, as one writer I know calls them, letters of decline), almost as blasé about getting acceptances—although I'll be the first to admit that the latter feels much better than the former. The point is that my mood doesn't rise or fall based on what any given editor or reader thinks of my work.
In part, this attitude comes from my work at Cider Press Review. I know, from being on the receiving end of all those manuscripts (never mind the individual poems—I hesitate to even count those, but if you'd like an indication of what that entails, our submission period has been open for just under three weeks as I write this, and we've received almost 260 submissions—most of which contain three to five poems, so go ahead and do the math about what we're facing over the course of the next few months)…where was I? Ah, yes. I know, from being on the receiving end of all those manuscripts, that there are all sorts of aspects of awarding a poetry book prize that are way beyond the poet's control. I know what it feels like to fight for a manuscript and lose, what it feels like to fight for a manuscript and win (again, I prefer the latter), what it's like to think you know which manuscript an outside judge will choose only to be proven wrong. I know what it's like to make the phone call to tell a poet that his or her manuscript will soon be a book, and what it's like to write an email—like the one I got this morning—saying, in essence, how disappointed I am that a manuscript will not be a book, at least not this time around.
That knowledge makes not winning (I truly hesitate to use the word "losing" in this context—it's one thing to say I lost out on a prize, another entirely to simply say that I lost) easier. The email makes it even more so. At the same time, this manuscript is important to me, in ways that I haven't really figured out how to express. I've said before that it was important to me to do right by the poems I've included there, and I believe I've done so. And it's one thing for my poet friends to say they agree with me—no matter how much I admire them (and I do), they're still, after all, my friends—but it's another to have my work reach people I don't know with such power that they not only fight for it, but write me a note to let me know they were fighting for it.
I can't tell you how much easier it is to not have to wait anymore. Not winning is way easier than maybe winning.
I am not a fan of waiting. I never have been. It's not that I'm impatient, necessarily—poetry can't be rushed, not the composition and certainly not the revision. Teaching can't be rushed. Patience is a runner's friend: after nursing a sore knee over the summer and much of the fall, I want to get back to running 30-mile weeks. I want to get my long run up to 15 miles, just to prove to myself I can and to keep things interesting. I want to continue to get faster, too. But if I rush increasing my mileage, I'll get hurt. If I rush increasing my speed, I'll get hurt. So I need to be patient, and running is really good practice. I'm patient with students, with reading, with walking my mother-in-law—over the phone, no less—through adding a second email account to her Gmail, with any number of things. I'm not generally patient with myself, but I'm working on it. [Insert joke about how it's not going as quickly as I'd like here.]
Here's the thing I'm learning about patience: it's hard sometimes, sure, but it's much easier when I feel like I have some kind of control over things. In general, I like to take action. I like to move. If I want a new job (I don't!), I'll go find one. If I want a poem to appear in a specific journal, I'll send them work—again and again if I have to. I will, if something is important enough to me in the moment, drop everything else and focus my attention on doing everything I can to accomplish that goal. In general, I would rather be doing something; it doesn't always matter what it is.
With book prizes—with any publication, really—there isn't anything to be done. I've put together a manuscript I'm really proud of. The poems are strong, they do what they're supposed to be doing, and I've put them together in a satisfying order. I sent it out to some carefully-selected publishers. One of them announced a winner and gave no indication of finalists; one of them announced a winner and finalists and I wasn't on the list; an editor at a third sent me that really nice
rejection letter of decline this morning. A handful of
others won't respond for a few months, most likely. That's the way it goes. I
send it out and I wait.
The relief of today's no comes in it being time for me to do something again. Time to look up a couple of publishers, see where my work will fit best, send the manuscript out again. Time to look up a couple of more publishers for February (I try to send to two each month, but it's not a hard-and-fast rule). And yes, it's nice to get kind words from the handful of people I told about this particular book prize, nice to feel supported and loved and strong. Mostly, though, it's nice to take action.