As a rule, poets have neither agents nor big contracts. Their art is seldom put to the test that most writers of fiction endure: will it sell? Untethered by such considerations, it seems, they are free to be true to their particular aesthetic, focussing on writing good poetry rather than what might appeal to the largest audience. And yet, this purity of purpose comes with a price: who will publish them? For most debut poets, the first and often only way to see their work move into the world as a cohesive collection is to win a prize. While there are, certainly, prizes given to established poets, the Lenore Marshall Poetry Prize, for instance, or the Wallace Stevens Prize, awards for the unknown poet are harder to come by. Among the latter, the Walt Whitman Award (Academy of American Poets/Louisiana State University Press), The Bakeless Prize for Poetry (Bread Loaf Writers' Conference/Graywolf Press), The Dorset Prize (Tupelo Press) and The Honickman Prize (American Poetry Review/Copper Canyon Press), stand out.
Tomás Q. Morín is the latest winner of the 2011 APR/Honickman First Book Prize and his collection, A Larger Country, will be published by Copper Canyon Press in the Fall of 2012.
TQM: I've long felt I didn't possess the kind of luck needed to win a contest. I'm not trying to discount the amount of work that goes into researching and entering a contest, it's just once it leaves your hand you have no way of knowing if it'll land in the hands of screeners that will like your work enough to pass it along to the next round of winnowing. Winning the APR prize is thrilling not just because I'll be humbly joining the list of previous winners whose work I admire. And if that isn't enough, the wonderful Copper Canyon will be putting the book out. What more could a guy ask for?
RF: You have said that poetry anchored you when you found yourself adrift among strangers. Do you think all writing is an effort on the part of the writer to hold steady? And, if so, does the "outsider" have a head start on writing about the world, one that the complacent or the person who fits the norm, lacks?
TQM: When I started graduate school 1,500 miles away from home, I felt lost and adrift. Poetry and its traditions steadied me because as soon as I fell in love with a poet's work, I would discover the poets that had influenced him and hunt them down. Writing made me feel part of a family that I was just discovering. Now, for other writers poetry might not be an anchor, so much as a rudder or mast or compass. I think it depends on the person. At this point in my life poetry is the sail.
As for outsiders having a head start, I think their advantage is in having spent a lot of time observing the world in detail because let's face it, if you never get invited to a party you're going to have a lot of time to contemplate why no one wants to see you dance or drink lousy beer with them. Of course, transforming this self-reflection into art is another matter.
RF: You reached out to one of America's best-known poets, and her current poet laureate, Philip Levine, to ask him if the poems you had been writing were worth anything. His response (one poem was good, all three show you don't know the first thing about writing poems!) convinced you to enroll in an MFA program to study the craft. Obviously, though, you already had a poet's disposition toward the world. Can you share the most significant thing you learned about the craft through the program?
TQM: One of the most significant things I learned was to trust my vision. By vision I don't mean anything grand like what Einstein or Gandhi had. What I mean is the unique way each of us sees the world around us. Because I was overly sensitive to criticism as a graduate student, this was a lesson I ended up learning the hard way. One day a classmate innocently commented, "You know, your poems are very male." The feminist in me immediately balked and thought, hmm, I can fix that. I then devoted all my energy into making my voice as gender neutral as possible. I was for all intents and purposes castrating my poems!
After about a year of writing god-awful poetry, it dawned on me that of course my poems were going to sound very male for the very simple reason that I was a man! After that realization I was happily back to writing poems that fully represented me. Since then I've tried not to think about the various parts that make up who I am. The moment you start privileging gender, race, culture, etc., over all the other elements that form a part of who you are, I think as an artist you run the risk of creating a caricature of yourself. If you just write and don't think about it, then often as not the authentic you will be who shows up for work at the page.
RF: Your grandparents looked after you when you were very young, something that is increasingly rare in mainstream America. From them you learned to become comfortable with surrealism, the fantastic, acknowledging their right to exist beside the linear, the ordinary. To what extent do you think the stories of the past (generations, histories, battles), are relevant to your poetry and your understanding of the present?
TQM: The stories my grandparents told me about the supernatural are important to me because those stories, not to mention the Old Testament, expanded my concept of what a story could contain. They would not have thought twice about Gregor Samsa awakening as a beetle. There would have been no disbelief to suspend. Their first thought would likely have been the same as mine when I first read the "Metamorphosis": "Poor guy. That's rough." Consequently, if you grow up hearing about ghosts and burning bushes, then you won't think twice about putting a yeti in a poem or transforming Miles Davis into a reaper of souls. My grandparents taught me that we live in a world of mystery we will never fully understand. That's a troubling concept for some people. As for me, not only am I ok with that, but I rather like it. I mean, who would want to know everything? How boring would that be?
RF: You say you don't write political poetry and yet your poem, "112th Congress Blues" is one of the best I've read, its musicality and syntax perfectly fitted to your topic. And your poem for Laika (the dog that was launched into space and died), takes on human presumption and cruelty head on and again it is done beautifully. As an artist do you feel that blending politics into art is detrimental to the latter?
TQM: Thanks for the kind words about the poems. It's funny, I don't see the poems as political; at least not in the same way that propaganda is. And yet, both poems clearly express my stances toward stupidity and cruelty: I despise them. This is certainly political, though not in the two-party, electoral way that people tend to think of politics. Before that important lesson I learned during my MFA program about being true to my vision, I would have worried about offending people by allowing too much of myself into these poems. The result would have been terrible. Luckily, I wised up and saved us all from wasting our time reading one more stale, passionless poem without a backbone.
RF: To come back to your award, to what extent do you think a judge's sensibility affects their choices in a contest? Does it matter at all or does good writing rise to the top regardless of who is reading it?
TQM: I could be dead wrong, but I think the aesthetic of a writer judging a contest matters immensely. For some your style might be too formal while for others it could be too experimental. Every year since I started entering contests I've researched the work of each judge to determine if my style and sensibilities might appeal to him or her when it came down to picking a favorite. For this reason I haven't entered the contests that have been judged by writers I admire immensely like D.A. Powell, Fanny Howe, C.D. Wright, etc. Over the last few years they've judged many contests which I've stayed away from. Also, it's incredibly expensive. The contest fees add up quickly so it's also just practical when you're thinking about your wallet to only target the contests where you feel you might have a real chance. I joked recently about how I wished Joseph Brodsky would hurry up and judge a contest because I thought he'd really dig my aesthetic. The punchline is that Brodsky's been dead for 16 years now!
Tomás Q. Morín teaches literature and writing at Texas State University and his poems have appeared in Threepenny Review, Slate, Boulevard, New England Review, and Narrative magazine.