“Publishing a volume of verse is like dropping a rose petal down the Grand Canyon and waiting for the echo.”
— Don Marquis, 1878-1937, journalist, humorist and poet
(best known for creating Archy, an imagined cockroach who had been a poet in a previous life and left poems on Marquis’ typewriter by jumping on the keys )
As a young child, my favorite book was The Carrot Seed, by Ruth Krauss. It’s a simple little book—sparse illustrations colored only in orange, brown, and golden-yellow with just a line or two of text per page in large print. It’s a story about a little boy, Ms. Krause doesn’t give him a name, who plants a carrot seed and tends it every day with care, with faith. Everyone around him tells him the seed won’t grow, but every day the little boy waters his seed, pulls any weeds around it, believing against all odds in his little seed’s potential to sprout. The last page is an illustration of the boy carting away a huge carrot in a wheel barrow.
Earlier this month, I landed my own carrot. After years of working on a first book of poetry, sending my book manuscript out to publishers, shaping and reshaping the manuscript, swapping in and out poems, having faith—if faltering at times—that a collection of my poems could have value in the world, I received news that my manuscript has been selected as the 2011 FutureCycle Press Poetry Book Prize Winner. In addition to a monetary award, my book, Mosslight, will be published this fall.
I don’t know how long the little boy had to wait for that big carrot, but getting the phone call from FutureCycle Press Publisher Robert King took a lifetime of scribbling in notebooks and 8 or 9 years (I’ve lost track) of trying to get a book publisher to say, “Yes!”
I haven’t yet opened the drawer where I’ve kept lists of all the poetry book competitions I’ve submitted to over the years. In the world of literary poetry publishing, book competitions are almost the only way to turn a collection of poems into a first book of poetry. I have a fat file comprising dozens of ways to say ‘nope, you’re not the winner this time.’
I also have a slender file of letters and, more recently, printed-out emails announcing my manuscript as a finalist or semi-finalist. As anyone who knows me will tell you, at first it’s exciting to be a finalist; it’s an affirmation that something good is going on in the poems, and I’m grateful to make the cut. But after a while, you feel like you’re always the bridesmaid and never the bride.
Usually only one or two books see publication out of anywhere from a couple of hundred to over a thousand manuscripts submitted to any one poetry book competition.
Some people play the lottery. I’ve been gambling on my poetry book, and the odds may actually be tougher. We won’t talk about how much money I’ve invested in ‘reading fees’ to enter my poetry book manuscript in competition after competition. Good thing I have a day job that allows me to be more than a starving artist.
When people ask me how I’m spending the prize money, I like to pretend I’ve bought my first kayak, a lightweight touring ‘yak, 14-feet and a bit too orange, for getting out on all the water that swells and trickles here on the redwood coast—bays, lagoons, coves, sloughs, rivers, lakes, and open ocean.
For years I promised myself that when my book is accepted for publication, I’ll get my own kayak—rather like my mother saying she’d take a trip to Santa Fe to study with Navaho artists when her ship came in. (Sadly, her ship never arrived.)
In truth, my husband bought the kayak. He believes fiercely in my work, but I think we both worried that I might be 90 before my book reached publication, and, well, I might be too arthritic to get in and out of my wetsuit. So he went online, placed the order, and we waited for my skinny ship to arrive. Engineered for a female paddler and shipped cross country from LL Bean, my kayak arrived two days before I got the news about Mosslight being selected for publication.
Ah, if I’d only realized that I needed to buy the ‘yak first and then the book publication would come.
What I think when people ask about the prize money is that it seems like a partial reimbursement for all those reading fees. It’s almost an award for me publishing the poetry books of so many other poets over the years, since ultimately that is what my reading fees accomplished.
Honestly, I’m happy to have supported other poets in launching their books as well as a host of small, under-funded nonprofit presses. We have to support each other because there is so much incredible poetry that never gets to find its audience, that doesn’t get to touch people—and we really do need more “touch” than “tech,” more that’s visceral than virtual in this FaceBook vs. face-to-face era.
Right now I’m still just looking at the check in disbelief, and I guess I do need to get around to cashing it. But forever my little book of poems and my sleek roto-molded kayak are joined.
I was under the weather when the long LL Bean box arrived. After my husband removed the cardboard and bubble wrap, all I could do was sit in my new, orange boat in our driveway, glaring orange PFD snug around my chest, paddle cool against my palms atop the cockpit, looking up at the dense afternoon-blue of the sky. Wind gusted up the ridge, making the goldfinches lurch and struggle. My hair whipped my cheek, my ears flooded with humming. A small flock of wild band-tailed pigeons swirled, landing awkwardly into the crown of a redwood while my calico mewed through a screen, puzzled. Five miles from the ocean, I could hear the surf as if a distant voice saying, ahhhhhhh.
Three days later, still feeling a bit spent but buoyed by that phone call from Mr. King the day before, I took my boat out for her maiden voyage, a leisurely paddle on the Mad River just above its mouth to the Pacific.
I paddled almost silently under the limb where a black-crowned night heron perched staring into an eddy, then watching me cautiously with his dazzling red eyes. Three cormorants hunkered down on a mud flat, a black curtain of wings spread wide. Mist lifted off of the water, became fog for a while, then dissipated into grey clouds.
The ‘yak cut easily through the skin of the river’s surface. Along one bank, moss collected among stones, glistening, wet in the muted morning light. I smiled. Mosslight gets to go live in the world now. I looked down at my audaciously orange kayak. My big, bright carrot—it’s real.
Thank you to Publisher Robert S. King and Editor/Designer Diane Kistner and the various internal and external editors and readers of FutureCycle Press who believe in my work enough to publish Mosslight this fall.