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.