Reflections on The Editors Prize

Today’s blog post comes from Katie Bickam. 

When I was a kid, I had ages picked out like benchmarks for all of my accomplishments.  By thirteen I should have been properly kissed.  By eighteen I should have moved away from home.  By twenty I should have met “the one.”  (Southern women are ambitious in this way.) By twenty-five, I should have been “discovered” – recognized in some way for whatever it is I set out to achieve.  (When I was small, it was an Oscar or my own stand-up comedy show.)  Some of these goals got moved around a bit, and some of them didn’t.  A kid named Knox Hutchinson kissed me pretty successfully around twelve, and contrary to all reason, I actually married my husband at twenty.

So after I decided around twenty-one that I wanted to write poetry, and after I went to graduate school at twenty-four to stretch my muscles, and after I wrote a poem or two that someone liked enough to print, I started to think twenty-five might not be out of the question to really plant my flag.  But my twenty-fifth year was dark and very quiet.  I was writing poems that I think actually tinkered with my mental health, and I was writing them hard.  I knew they would be important, but they came slowly and at a real cost to my happy life.  I sent them out in little sections to a few contests, but after a handful of “This isn’t a good fit for us” letters in early winter, I slipped into the melancholy of short days and decided twenty-six, or thirty, or someday would have to do.

The only fiction class I ever took taught me one thing: shoving coincidences into your stories is the most surefire way to let people know you’re an amateur.

But this isn’t fiction, (and I am an amateur), and the truth is that on the eve of my twenty-sixth birthday, I was standing in my kitchen drinking tea that had gone cold and listening to my dog’s steady breathing when the phone rang and Clare McQuerry told me my poems had won The Missouri Review Editor’s Prize and the five glorious thousand that came with it.  An hour later, my husband had me in a cocktail dress at an Italian bistro and was introducing me to the waitress as “The Winner of the Missouri Prize Thing.”  Part of me wanted to make sure she knew I was the twenty-five-year-old winner of the Missouri Prize Thing who had begun becoming glumly comfortable with the idea of not being a writer, but I thought it might be indelicate to belabor the point over my cosmopolitan.

I know it’s probably unhealthy (and maybe even bad luck) for writers to gage their success by publication or prizes (or arbitrary benchmarks).  For me, the practice was a lesson in disappointment until the night it wasn’t.  I can’t even honestly say the win canceled out all the hurts that came before it, all the rejection letters and form-emails.  I know there will be more no’s before there is another yes, maybe hundreds more before another yes like this yes.

But who am I kidding?  I live for the yes.  I stood in a room in Columbia, Missouri holding a copy of my bound work, a room with people lining the walls, making that good noise after each of my poems, a room where my husband, who I met right on schedule, saw me shine in utter poetic rockstardom.  What else is there but to try to do it again?

Winning this prize lit me up, especially looking at the other two winners who were so distinguished and poised and obviously far more familiar with this level of awesome.  Half of me feels like I cheated, like that secret part of Super Mario Brothers where you can take the special exit and skip most of the game to get to the castle at the end.  The other half of me knows that I am a pretty decent poet, and I’m standing up straight these days.

I hope if there is anyone reading who is on the fence about sending her work out, she will send it with foolhardy gusto.  Doubt yourself even as you’re licking the stamp, but send it.  Eat the second pint of Ben & Jerry’s to medicate the rejections before, but send the manuscript.  Send it even if it feels like a long shot.  In fact, only send to places that feel like long shots for a while.  Be in a rush for it.  Forget your poise for a while. Be entirely unrealistic. Take enormous risks, and sometimes take them sooner than you think you should.  The only person who really knows how many rejection letters you’ve received is you, and you never have to tell.

The Missouri Review is a beautiful place to begin my story as a poet.  Being a part of their publication has been the greatest affirmation of my writing life, and if anything, it has only made me hungrier.  Twenty-six is half over, and I have work to do!

You can enter the Missouri Review’s Editors Prize contest here. 

Katie Bickham was born and raised in the Deep South and finds much of her writing turning itself toward her home state of Louisiana. After receiving her BA in English and MA in Liberal Arts from Lousiana State University in Shreveport, Katie took Steinbeck’s maxim (“You can never really write about a place until you leave it”) to heart, and is nearing the completion of her MFA at Stonecoast at the University of Southern Maine.  Her poems have appeared in The Missouri Review, Deep South Magazine and The Road Not Taken: A Journal of Formal Poetry. Katie teaches composition and literature at Bossier Parish Community College and enjoys life in a very old house with her husband and rescue dogs.

Be Lucky (Or, How To Plan The Editors Prize Weekend)

This morning, I’ve been discussing the Editors’ Prize Reception with TMR staffers Evelyn Somers and Kris Somerville. Here’s the basic consensus: the event went just about perfectly and we have no idea why this is the case.

On Saturday night, TMR hosted our Editors’ Prize Reception and Reading at the Country Club of Missouri. Entering from the north end, friends and supporters walked into an L-shaped room with the podium to the left, six banquet tables in the middle, and off to the right and around the corner were a range of hors d’oeuvres along with (most importantly) the bar serving all the wine and beer we could handle. Note: we can handle a lot. When I rolled in, the most obvious thing was that there weren’t enough chairs. The room was packed, and country club staffers were scrambling to find more chairs and keep those warming trays of hors d’oeuvres filled. For those that haven’t given or been to tons of readings, all sins are forgiven when the room is at capacity. And we were.

We also had a wonderfully diverse crowd. One of the things we try to do with our public events is make sure that we get the Columbia arts community that exists outside of the university to attend. While there were plenty of professors, graduate students, instructors, and undergraduate interns in the room, at least half of the room consisted of people from outside Mizzou. Which is what we wanted. Being able to think “I don’t recognize that guy” before introducing myself is another goal of events like this.

All three of our prize winners—Rachel Yoder (fiction), Katie Bickham (poetry), and Terry Ann Thaxton (essay)—were able to attend, and if you’ve ever tried to fly into Columbia Regional Airport, this is no small feat. Each read from their work in the spring issue; their readings were engaging, crisp, and captivating. Being able to hear the authors who publish the work in TMR is a treat, something we only get to experience once a year, and the work was just as terrific aloud as it was on the page.

Mike Petrik introduced Rachel, and had this to say about her story:

Her short story “The blood was the mountain and the mountain was the bear,” is a story that stays with you. When I read it for the first time, I was immediately impressed with this author’s ability to deliver such a powerful and complete narrative along with individually arresting images and scenes. I read many other contest submissions that day and in the days that followed, but I found myself returning to her story, telling it again to myself in the author’s words and through her images: a man pedaling to the point of utter exhaustion, the body of a mammoth bear spread out on a table—among others. I know I just gave you one, but it is a story that needs no preamble.

Poetry editor Austin Segrest introduced Katie. Here’s an excerpt from his excellent introduction:

She’s a double threat virtuoso of form and voice. And, indeed, to call her poems masterful, as I’m inclined to do, invites a dark irony, since mastery—and all the dark passages of its historical charade—and the labor on which it always depends—is precisely Katie’s subject. Katie’s approach is hard-won, head-on, unsparing, and makes us examine our American inheritance.

This too was a nice wrinkle: we actually had the Editors’ Prize issue available at the reading! This is always a challenge to do. Because the Editors’ Prize is our spring issue, and because the travel schedule for the three writers can’t be established until we pick our winners (late December), we’re in a bit of a pickle when it comes to setting up the event. In spring semester, we need to avoid conflicts of interest with our Saturday night schedule, dodging Spring Break, Easter, Valentine’s Day or weekend, and all the end of the semester/graduation events that arise in April and May. That’s just the schedule: we of course need to finish production of the issue as well. The stars just aligned for us this year and the new issue arrived in our office late Thursday afternoon, just forty eight hours before the reception.

There is another thing we can’t control: the weather. Talking about the weather might seem a little banal (digression: it really isn’t, though. When you’re talking to someone about the weather, you’re really finding out if you dealing with someone agreeable or disagreeable, discovering if who you’re speaking with sees the world the same way, if they’re open to conversation, kind of a social agreement to be cordial, and maybe more) but I really feel that having breezy, sixty degree weather makes a difference. Several years ago, our Editors’ Prize event was on a cold day that closed with sleet. We were all a little miserable then. Last weekend? Post-reading, we took our writers to Ragtag, our favorite Columbia hang out, and we were drinking whiskey and wine on the patio because the weather was just that warm and perfect.

For all the planning that went into this event—and believe me, there was so much that went into it—many things are ultimately out of our control. We roll with it. Which is why we are so delighted and stunned this Monday morning that it went as well as it did. We’re grateful to everyone who made it happen: our staff, our undergraduate and graduate interns, our graduate editors—Mike Petrik, Claire McQuerry, and Austin Segrest—who gave the introductions but also ran the contest this past fall and made it the total success it was, our arts community for supporting us, the Country Club staff who were professional and sharp all night long, and all of our readers and supporters who make The Missouri Review the magazine that it has become over thirty five years.

And, of course, our biggest thanks is to Katie, Terry, and Rachel. Every issue of The Missouri Review is dependent on submissions from writers all around the country, and we’re proud to showcase the very best of this work. Not only did these three women give us their best work, they were willing to take the time out of their busy schedules to make the trip to Columbia and read. We heard so many wonderful things about their writing, their reading, and how wonderful they were to spend time with. Thank you, thank you, thank you!

Follow Michael on Twitter: @mpnye