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Thursday
Jun042015

Winning the Lambda Literary Award

On Monday, June 1, I spent two hours in the car, round trip, driving to and from the dentist’s office. It was one of those incredible late Spring Iowa days. Everything is green. The crops are planted, and starting to grow. The sky is blue. There are white, puffy clouds that add to the beatific scene, but do not threaten rain. I thought about how much I love Iowa, and how happy I am to live here.

Later that evening, while having dinner with my parents at their home, my cell phone started buzzing. Having just returned from the dentist, face still numb, mouth sore, head a little fuzzy, I remembered: The Lambda Literary Award ceremony was tonight! And: according to the messages, my book won. I didn’t believe it at first. Hadn’t the ceremony only just started? I refreshed Twitter, looking for evidence. A friend texted me congratulations. My editor, Bryan Borland called. My parents cheered for me, and I sat there, stunned. My best friend from college phoned. “Did you just win the Lambda?” she asked. “I guess so!” She recalled me as a fledgling poet at Bennington College, talking about the dream of winning a Lammy. “And now you’ve done it! I’m so proud of you!” I teared up. It still didn’t feel real!

I worked on my first two books simultaneously for about ten years. I wrote what will be my second published work, Call Me by My Other Name, which is a very specific project, a novel in verse. Anything that didn’t fit there, got put in the manuscript that, through many revisions and additions, became Mysterious Acts by My People. I had been sending CMBMON out for several years, always a bridesmaid, never a bride. Several editors told me it made a better second book. Though that baffled me at the time, I completely agree now. I started piecing together all those other poems, crafting them into a cohesive collection of loss and pain and joy and love. There are poems in MABMP that are difficult to read. Some I’ll likely never read aloud at events. They’re still too real, too raw. It means so much to me that other people read these poems and liked them.

 

I try hard not to think about this side of things when I’m writing. I don’t want my fears of what a reader will love or hate to cloud the composition process. So finding myself here, being praised feels difficult (I know; what a nice problem to have!) and strange. I have a reputation for being very hard on myself. My MFA advisor, Erin Belieu, teased me about my refrain that praise doesn’t do me any good when I long for criticism. I felt so desperate in the early years of being a poet for knowledge of how to improve. The truth is, it takes time. And praise, especially this kind of formal acknowledgement of my accomplishments, does, in fact, do me quite a bit of good. Almost a decade later, I’ve been writing alone in a room, and I’m tired of my own echo. It does help to know I ought to keep going, keep writing. Knowing that there are people out there who have gotten something out of my poetry is an overwhelming feeling. I think about how much it would have meant to me as a young queer kid in a rural area to come across a book like mine. To know she wasn’t alone. That there were others out there, that it was going to be ok. That would have meant the world to me. In fact, writing and being queer are intimately entwined for me, not because it’s the only thing I care to write about, but because writing poetry coincided with an important shift in identity for me. A realization about myself and who I hoped to be and become in this world. Poetry helped me figure out my desires and my fears, helped me process my past and long for a future. It connected me to a queer community, even if only on the page (though I have been lucky to find and build queer writing community, through the Lambda Literary Foundation’s Emerging Writers Retreat, my queer peers at the University of Utah, and through Adrienne, and Sibling Rivalry Press). And books, of course, are communities as well. For over a decade, I’ve purchased all the Lambda poetry finalists’ books in the Gay and Lesbian categories. They became my friends, some of my favorites. They accompanied me along this journey. I’m so grateful for each of them.

Over the years, people have cautioned me, not to let myself be pigeonholed into the label of Lesbian Poet, as if that identification somehow, in their eyes, lessens my work and my accomplishments. Some have even told me I must hide all signs of my sexual orientation from prospective employers, which would, of course, mean erasing many of my accomplishments. Fortunately I disagree. I’m a poet who doesn’t just happen to be a lesbian. I am a Queer Poet and that queerness is evident in my poetry, both in form and content. It’s an identity of which I am incredibly proud, a hard-won identity, and a label I’ll gladly claim.  Winner of a Lambda Literary Award for Lesbian Poetry? There’s no hiding that, now. Yes. Thank you. Yes. This is the greatest honor. This will keep me writing when I doubt myself (which is all too often). Thank you, thank you, thank you. Thank you to every professor I had who encouraged me. Thank you to every professor I had who discouraged me, and galvanized me to prove them wrong. Thank you to the Lammy judges! Thank you to every friend and classmate who read my work. Thank you to my pets who put up with me sitting still for hours reading and scribbling in a notebook. Thank you to my family for their absolute, unconditional support, especially my parents, and my brother and sister-in-law, and my beloved niece. Thank you to my publisher, Bryan Borland, and to every single person who bought or borrowed and read my book. Thank you.

 

If you haven't already bought my book, I hope you will. (You can get it directly from the publisher here.) But I hope you will also buy and cherish the books of my fellow nominees. They are all so good, and it's an honor just to be on a list with them.

Haiti Glass by Lenelle Moïse, Janey’s Arcadia by Rachel Zolf, Last Psalm at Sea Level by Meg Day, Like a Beggar by Ellen Bass, MxT by Sina Queyras, Only Ride by Megan Volpert, and Termination Dust by Susanna Mishler.

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