Wednesday, February 07, 2007

Always a Bridesmaid Never a Bride: Breaking the Curse of the Finalist

In May of 2004, I learned that Floating Bridge Press had chosen my chapbook as a finalist in their yearly competition. One of my poet friends informed me, finalists never go on to win the award, they simply disappear. At the Hugo House reading in June, I met Michael Bonacci, whose chapbook, The Former Saint Christopher, had won the 2004 Floating Bridge award. He shared with me that his collection had been a Floating Bridge finalist several years before and after he spent considerable time revising it, his chapbook was chosen for publication. After our conversation, I was determined not to disappear and I was inspired to revise.

The 2004 version of my chapbook, In the Convent We Become Clouds, was loosely unified by the themes of women and water. It contained poems about various women in my family, a result of genealogical research, and some poems based on my experience in the convent. In beginning the process of revision, I decided to focus on just one theme—the convent. I pulled the family poems and from July to February, I wrote solely about the convent I realized that I enjoyed this self-imposed structure, focusing on a single theme, challenging myself to create something fresh as I moved from bible to medieval saints to my current life as poet, mother, wife. I was pleased with the revised collection and with enthusiasm, entered the chapbook in the 2005 Floating Bridge competition.

In mid May I received a letter saying, once again, my chapbook was a finalist. Of course, I was excited and looked forward to the reading, but I was also perplexed as to how I could revise the collection to make it stronger, how I could identify the places where it fell short. At this point, instead of looking at the collection as simply a group of convent poems tightly related by theme, I began to view the chapbook as telling a cohesive story about a woman who entered the convent, struggled with her vocation, made the decision to leave, and what it was like for her to re-enter society. I rearranged the 2005 version and, in the process, discovered that there were holes in the story, areas I needed to work on so that the narrative had smoother transitions and a consistent voice. And here, I had to give myself permission to be creative with my own story. I have always struggled with the idea of integrity in writing poems, that I must be true to my experience as it exactly happened, but I finally realized that I am neither a non-fiction writer nor a creative non-fiction writer—poetry does not have such restrictions. I decided to play with my personal story, to take a risk. What would my mother think when she read a poem in which I disrobe in the confessional, seduce a priest? I think loosening up my attitude about staying precisely true to the facts led to a dynamic tension in the collection. The poems flirted with the sacred boundary of religious disrespect. It became clear that mingling sex and God in a single poem either brings out laughter or indignant anger in the reader and both delight me.

In February of 2006 I sent this new version of my chapbook to the Floating Bridge competition and in April, I received news from Susan Rich that my chapbook had won. Yes! In the following weeks, I worked closely with Ted McMahon in the editing process before the manuscript was sent to the printer. I appreciate the amount of input I had, not only in catching errors in the final draft, but also in being consulted when any changes were considered and even being asked about the color of ink. By this time, my chapbook had become like a child to me, and I was delighted to be allowed to hold its hand as it grew into a real book. Now that the collection is published, I have found the Floating Bridge editors to be extremely helpful in setting up readings for me and in getting the word out that the chapbook is available for purchase. And lastly, I am simply grateful to Floating Bridge for publishing a book about an ex-nun! I had several editors from other presses return my manuscript with little notes indicating my collection was too “pious” or too “offensive.”

Thank you, Floating Bridge!

Annette Spaulding-Convy
Author of In the Convent We Become Clouds
Winner of the 2006 Floating Bridge Chapbook Award


Blogger bevjackson said...

Congratulations~ Thanks for sharing your process. (not sure I'd ever have your self discipline in my own work).
This is great news.

4:38 AM  

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