Interview About The Miller Williams Arkansas Poetry Prize
What makes University of Arkansas Press a unique part of the publishing community?
We’ve been publishing poetry (as well as many other kinds of books) for about three decades. That’s a long time as presses go. I think the fact that there have been only two regular poetry editors (Miller Williams, the co-founder of the press, and myself) has resulted in a kind of consistency that may not always obtain when guest judges pick the books.
Another thing that may set us apart is that we do everything anonymously, from start to finish. We don’t allow names or acknowledgment pages in the submission so that we can approach each ms with absolutely no previous impressions. If a reader recognizes a ms, he or she returns it to the Press to be reassigned. We are very proud of how fairly our competition is run.
Finally, I actually edit each book with the poet. (We also have separate copy editors.) I’ve been told by many of the fifty or so poets that we’ve published during my tenure that they’ve never been edited before, other than copy editing. It’s like the poet and I do a seminar together on the book.
Please describe the contests of the University of Arkansas Press? How long have you been running these contests? What motivated you to start the contest?
We have one contest each fall (submission period is September through October each year). The winner receives a $5,000 cash prize as well as publication. We also usually publish three additional finalists. Complete guidelines can be found at: http://www.uapress.com/geninfo/poetryguidelines.html
The contest as it is now began during my tenure (2002). Arkansas had published three of my books, which were submitted over the transom as books were back then. Later, I applied for a job as a visiting writer and ended up teaching there for three semesters. The Press was going through a transition, with a new director, Larry Malley, and he began to talk about the possibility of having a formal contest to accommodate the growing number of strong poetry manuscripts as well as his desire to be more inclusive. He asked me if I would be interested in running it and I jumped at the chance, though it meant giving up my relationship as a poet with the press.
Beginning in 2010, we have awarded a $5,000 cash prize honoring Miller Williams. Lucinda Williams is Miller’s daughter and she gave a benefit concert to help raise the money for the prize.
What sort of qualities do you look for in a manuscript or piece of work that you are considering for publication or for becoming a finalist in the contest?
We are looking for powerful and skillful use of language and metaphor, as well as a sensibility behind the poems that is compelling and fresh. We have no preferences as to style. We are looking for excellence. We try to be as eclectic and open as possible. I think the anonymity helps with that. It increases the diversity of the voices we publish.
Do you have a specific aesthetic preference? How would you describe that aesthetic?
Everyone has aesthetic preferences, including me, but I try to put them aside when judging. I have published a wide variety of poetic styles. However, I can say that authenticity (not to be confused with sincerity) and originality are important. I can be swayed by a very fresh voice, however that voice chooses to express itself.
What is the most exciting part about running The Miller Williams Arkansas Poetry Prize? What has been most challenging?
The most difficult part is turning down poets we have published in the past, especially since I don’t know they have submitted and cannot respond personally to them.
The most exciting part for me is discovering these wonderful books. I believe we are in the midst of a literary and poetic Renaissance, for a variety of reasons—greater upward social mobility, more MFA programs, extended life expectancy, etc. The result is that each year we receive exciting books and have the privilege of publishing them. I also really love working with the poets one-on-one and line-by-line to make the books the best they can be.
What is the next exciting thing happening with the University of Arkansas Press?
Next year’s contest!
Enid Shomer has been editing the University of Arkansas Press Poetry Series since 2002. She is the author of four books of poetry and three of fiction. Her first fiction book, Imaginary Men won both the Iowa Fiction Prize and the LSU/Southern Review Fiction Award, both given for the best first collection by an American author. Her second book of stories, Tourist Season (Random House, 2007) won the Gold Medal in Fiction from the state of Florida. Her newest book is the novel The Twelve Rooms of the Nile (Simon & Schuster, August 2012), which is being published globally in English. Her interview with BBC radio about the new novel can be heard at the BBC 4’s “Open Book” website (http://www.bbc.co.uk/programmes/b006qp6p/episodes/player).