First off, a quick congratulations to Paul Guest, who just revealed that his book Notes for My Body Double has won the Prairie Schooner Prize. This puts him in an elusive club, joining my friend Frannie Lindsay, of poets who have had both their first and second books published via prestigious contest wins.
Frannie's first book, Where She Always Was, won the May Swenson Award; her second book, Lamb, is forthcoming as Perugia Press’s 2006 Intro Award winner. I'm a big fan of the cover, pictured here.
I've been thinking a lot about first books lately, when and how to take the plunge: it's an overlooked fact that the odds of someone's manuscript being ready for publication, and the readiness of that poet to be the author of his/her first book, are extremely unlikely to happen at the same time. I've been following Kate Greenstreet's terrific series of interviews with poets on how their first book did (or did not) change their lives.
One recurring theme in the Q&As is that the poets who made the happiest transition beyond initial publication were those who were already actively invested in another phase of writing when the first book finally made it into print. Which makes sense...except, in practice, until that earlier collection receives the outside validation, I suspect we continually ask ourselves: is this my real first book? Is this my new, better self? Shouldn't these shiny new poems squeeze out those dusty old ones? If I just shuffle and reshuffle and pay my $20 fees and hold out another 8 months, will Louise Gluck recognize my singular genius?
Just keep writing, I know. A friend was warning me, just the other day, to not throw the baby out with the bathwater just because I was excited with some new work. Then she admitted that she, too, was thinking about reincarnating her first book manuscript--allowing only a few core poems to survive from the previous version. Shut up. Keep writing. I know. I know.