Writing a book mostly feels like a solitary pursuit, all those hours spent at your desk drafting, revising, and – nowadays – submitting manuscripts and collecting rejections online. This past April, when I traveled to the Willow Books LitFest in Chicago as one of ten finalists for the press’ book-publication contest, I worried about what I would read at the awards event, balanced my happiness at being a finalist with what felt like a slim chance of winning the grand prize of a book contract, and practiced my “not-disappointed” face for when they would announce the winner.
But as I arrived in Chicago, I came to realize that the awards ceremony was, in many ways, a foil for bringing together an instant community of poets and prose writers of color. Each interaction was an opportunity to discover the uncanny things we had in common. I carpooled with Rich Villar to LitFest, and we discovered our common admiration of Dunkin’ Donuts coffee and Martín Espada’s poetry, not necessarily in that order. E.A. Moore’s poetic deconstructions of race resonated with my academic research on the topic. Brian Gilmore’s writings about Washington, D.C., were ironic love letters to the pre-gentrification era of my adopted hometown.
It wasn’t until Angela Narciso Torres and I were both standing on the stage as the grand-prize winners in poetry and prose, stunned (and each thinking that the other’s name had been called when the big announcements were made), that we found our uncanny common ground. She had started her poetry book manuscript, Blood Orange, in the same place where I had finished The Four Words for Home, my memoir: Ragdale, an artist’s residency in Lake Forest, Illinois, north of Chicago. Now, we’ll both have our first books published on Willow Books, hers this fall and mine in the spring of 2014. (Rich Villar, who received the Editor’s Choice award, also has a book of poems, Comprehending Forever, coming out on Willow in February 2014).
I returned to Ragdale this past summer to finish one final revision of my manuscript before publication, and had a chance to meet with Angela, who lives nearby, at the place where both of our books were nurtured. The staff were wonderfully generous, grabbing photo and video ops on the idyllic grounds of the residency, and eager to talk about future opportunities to collaborate (stay tuned!).
But most of all, Angela and I relished the opportunity – now that the frenzy and euphoria of the day we both learned our first books were going to be published had shifted to the work of getting said books into print – to compare notes. We talked about which rooms we had stayed in at Ragdale (Albert’s Room for me and the Playroom for Angela), what the gift of time and a beautiful space rife with artistic history had done for us. And we talked about the long journey to book publication: the rejections, the tough critiques, the almost giving up – But not. Just. Yet.
And we reminisced about the ten finalists we were lucky enough to share the honor, and a stage, with, and how much we appreciated their work: in addition to the aforementioned, S. Li, LaTanya McQueen, Nagueyalti Warren, Joseph Rios, and Jacqueline Johnson. We’ll all appear in a finalists’ e-book next spring.
Meeting the Willow Books Literature Awards finalists, communing with Angela this summer, and spending residency time with fellow artists at Ragdale have all reminded me that despite the solitary nature of writing, we have so much potential for community. And that we truly need each other.