It’s January, the winter session where I teach, and since I don’t teach during this span, I try to reserve some of this time to send work out — individual poems and the two book-length manuscripts I’m currently circulating. A couple of months back, I was reading my Poetry and noted in the back an announcement about the Emily Dickinson First Book Award. It’s a $10,000 cash prize — wow! — but also publication by Graywolf Press, which made me swoon a little bit. AND (my favorite bit) it is a prize for a poet of forty or over. A refreshing moment in the age of the prodigy, dontcha think? And yes, I am, age-wise, qualified for this award — so I filed this opportunity in my January pile; the deadline is in February.
Today, I got around to visiting the link provided in the announcement in Poetry — and I saw mostly what I had expected to see regarding page lengths, format, etc. But — D’OH — I’m in trouble. Here’s why:
“Writers who have had chapbooks of poetry printed in editions of 300 copies or more are ineligible.”
My first chapbook, A Thirst That’s Partly Mine, won the 2008 Slapering Hol Press Chapbook Prize and was published in a numbered edition of 500. ATTPM is, uncontroversially, a chapbook — a lovely hand-sewn saddle stitch, a smallish number of poems, a letterpress cover with a die-cut window. Sixteen poems, twenty-four pages. But published in a (generous!) edition of 500. I don’t think anyone (okay, anyone who cares about such distinctions) would dispute that it’s a chapbook. (You, sir, are no chapbook!)
My second chapbook, Luck, was published in an edition of 250, but its twenty-four poems end on page 48, and because of that particular number, I have been disqualified from submitting to a different “first book” competition. I could argue that since the text of the poems begins on page nine of the chapbook, it’s not, strictly, 48 pages of poetry. But, um, really? No. Hell, Luck‘s not saddle-stapled — it’s got a SPINE just wide enough to have WORDS on it AND a glossy cover with a picture of me on the back. If it walks like a book and quacks like a book…..I think that someone (whether or not they cared about such distinctions) might call it a book. I might call it a book. Hey. Can I just call it that?
Seriously, though. I am a little disappointed at not being able to send my book-length (it’s fifty-two mss pages) work to the Dickinson First Book Award, but I’ll get over it. Am already mostly over it. Just as I got over not being able to submit to, er, “younger poets” opportunities. In fact, let me take a moment to further soothe my mild and passing disappointment by reminding myself of the following fact: editors selected two smallish manuscripts of my poems (mine!) to publish. And by publish, I mean: attentively and lovingly steward my poems into bookish form; help me edit/shape the work further; help me share my work with a larger audience. These are poetry loving people, and they have loved my poetry well.
Beyond the ephemeral disappointment, though, is the (equally ephemeral?) matter of semantics, numbers, the “biz,” etc. I think that stuff is kind of interesting. I have blogged previously about what “published” means, (here, briefly), (here, too, sort of) and I find myself today ruminating about what a “book” is, to various audiences, for various purposes. A book has its materiality, its “thing-ness” (witness my giddiness above about things like letterpress covers and spines), but it is also a symbol, a sign, a signal. Ditto chapbooks, yes? Are chapbooks JV? Are they hipster object d’art? Does the Poetry Foundation assert, via its first book award guidelines, that I have already published a “first book?” I have come to no new or crystal-clear conclusions about the (chap)bookness of (chap)books, not today, not yet. I continue to be a long-time lover of the chapbook — from my few years as a publisher of them in the mid to late 1990s (Ultima Obscura Press), my fifteen years or so avidly collecting them, my use of them in the classroom, my teaching friends how to sew basic saddle-stitches and Japanese stab binding, etc. And of course, I also foster deep love for book books. I just finished reading one today and am going to dive into the pile for the next one to keep at bedside. And there’s the audiobook I’ve got going on the iPod for getting through the ninth circle of treadmill. Speaking of which….