Recently one of my mentors passed away: Angayuqaq Oscar Kawagley, professor emeritus at the University of Alaska Fairbanks. Oscar was my mentor through my Master of Arts in Cross Cultural Studies and my Ph.D. at UAF. As a writer, I often need someone in my corner telling me, “Go for it. You can do it.” Oscar was such a person. Oscar encouraged me to look outside the box, to explore other ways of knowing, other ways of looking at the world. My experience being his apprentice prepared me for the second year in my MFA. During the second year, students in UAA’s MFA are required to create and participate in a community relevant project.
Anchorage Daily News photo
So when I found myself living in Puerto Rico at the U.S. Coast Guard Air Station Borinquen, I decided that the perfect master’s project would be to start a writers' group. After all, I had a captive audience; I lived behind a guarded barbed wire fence. I knew there would be people like me who felt a bit uprooted. Puerto Rico, despite being an American commonwealth, is very foreign.
My husband, Howie Martindale, is in the same MFA program, also the poetry genre, so as soon we arrived in our temporary home in Puerto Rico, we announced the new writers' group in the base newsletter. The base command took the creation of our writers’ group very seriously, considering it essential to the moral and well-being on the base. Our first members consisted of an enlisted corpsman, a local Puerto Rican man who worked on base, the base librarian, and the nearby military school’s librarian and her teenage daughter.
During the year and a half we spent in Puerto Rico the writers’ group members changed as some members moved away, were transferred, or got out of the Coast Guard. New members included a retired Puerto Rican U.S. Army officer, a young mother from Hawaii, and the wife of a Border Patrol pilot.
For me, the writers’ group accomplished several things; it helped dull my homesickness for Alaska, helped me learn to be a mentor, and provide a much-needed community service to the air station.
But my mentoring stint didn’t stop at an adult writers’ group. After a few months of facilitating the adult writers’ group, I started a teen writers' group. Several teens had inquired about joining the adult group but I had felt, at thirteen and fourteen, they were too young. As it ended up, in the teen group I had five teenagers; one male and four females. It was a blast! I had no idea I would be so inspired by teenagers but their enthusiasm was incredible. During the first session, I sat open-mouthed, listening to their conversations as they went back and forth about their day in school. I had forgotten what it was like to be a teen. For each session, I baked cookies and for one hour we ate cookies, talked about school, their lives, and then wrote a bit. They’d leave with a writing prompt for the next week.
Shortly after the teen group started, a young girl, age twelve, approached me about attending the teen group. I knew that my teen group wasn’t for her, so I asked her if there were other young writers that would be interested and before I knew it I had started a group for ages 9-12. We met once a week for an hour. The younger group was very different from the teens. They had enough energy to power a diesel light plant in my hometown of Wrangell. It took all my parenting-teacher skills to facilitate this group. But it was worth it. Again, I got a firsthand insight into the quirky working minds of that age group. I still remember one young writer's story about an escape pod from Puerto Rico to New York.
All in all, I mentored nearly thirty writers. I had no idea that my MFA project would grow into something that fit me so well. Creating and facilitating a writers’ group is something that you can do, too, Dear Reader. Especially if one is looking for an MFA project idea. I used a free space at the local library for the adult group and the younger groups were held in my home.
Now, as I move to Kodiak, Alaska, I’m considering starting a teen and adult writers’ group on the Coast Guard base. One of my young writers, now age thirteen, is being stationed in Kodiak too. Since she learned we were being stationed together, she’s been pleading with me to start another writers’ group. Am I ready for another round of mentoring? In my mind, I can hear my former mentor Oscar Angayuqaq Kawagley telling me, “You can do it. Go for it.” Yes, Oscar, I think I will.
The bridesmaid, dressed in peach chiffon with a giant bow on the back of her gown, is not the one everyone in the room is gawking at. The groom smiles at his bride; the wedding guests snap photos of the bride. The bridesmaid is sitting off to the side sipping a bit too much champagne wishing it was her special day. That’s how it feels in the literary contest world to be in the place of runner up, honorable mention, or a finalist: almost, but not quite. For about seven years I’ve been submitting to literary contests. I’m tired of being the bridesmaid. I want a big silver or gold sticker on the front of my book like UAA Professor Linda McCarriston has on the cover of Eva Mary. I want to be a prize winner like Derick Burleson, Anne Caston, and Ernestine Hayes.
For me, the problem always was money; literary contests fees are expensive. I started sending stuff out when my husband and I were both poor-starving-college-students. I spent a couple hundred on submission fees and postage. That time, I didn’t even get an honorable mention. I tried again a couple of years later. Again, not even a mention.
Then I noticed that some contests offered a subscription to their literary journal or a copy of the winning book. I figured if I entered those contests at least I’d get something in return for my investment. Typically, a book contest entry fee (reading fee) costs between $20 and $30 dollars. A chapbook contest runs around $10-20. And a single poem contest can be around $10. At one point, I only sent my work to single poem contests because ten bucks for a reading fee wasn’t so bad. But I never won. I’m a perpetual bridesmaid. I received honorable mention in the Harold McCracken poetry contest at UAF. I was a finalist (twice) for the Joy Harjo Poetry Award. I was a finalist for the Winning Writers War Poetry Contest and received honorable mention in Boulevard’s Emerging Poetry Award. Is the literary contest route worth it? Sometimes a writer can spend years and a ton of money entering contests.
Here are some of my literary contest tips:
1. Only enter reputable contests (CWLA’s Kathy Tarr sends out contest information to students, and contests are regularly announced in Poets and Writers magazine, AWP's The Writer's Chronicle, and on www.newpages.com).
2. Check to see if your university offers a contest or if a regional journal or writers group has a yearly prize. Often they don’t have a “reading fee.”
3. Enter “first” book contests not “first or second book” contests.
4. Enter contests for students in MFA programs.
5. Enter contests that offer you something in return: a literary journal subscription, a copy of the winner’s book.
6. When you are first starting out, enter short story, novel excerpt, or poem contests. Those reading fees are easier on the wallet.
After entering hundreds of contests there was one thing that changed my mind about being a bridesmaid in the literary contest world: writers often credit their stint as bridesmaids. Wait a minute, I thought, the writing life must be similar to life in Hollywood where actors and directors claim they “almost” won: an Academy Award nominee. What a great idea! After this year, I can say that I am a Pushcart Prize nominee. Definitely, the writing life has its advantages over other professions. Where else can people brag about their near misses? I don’t think I want to know if my doctor almost won a prestigious prize. I’d wonder why she wasn’t competent enough to win in the first place.
Eventually, entering contests did pay off —I won first prize. No, I didn’t get a book prize, I received a Ray Troll autographed t-shirt. I had submitted a poem to Alaska 49 Writers’ Ode to a Dead Salmon Contest and won first place. Now, whenever I wear my Ray Troll t-shirt I don’t feel like such a bridesmaid. I’m a grand prize winner!
After my MFA is finished this year, I might try the literary contest circuit again. I think I have a strong manuscript and I do have experience in rejections. Also, the internet makes it easier to enter with Submishmash and the push of a PayPal button. When I first started entering contests I had stack of manuscripts and manila envelopes on my kitchen table. But the real reason I’ll continue to enter literary contests is that I can still imagine myself dolled-up in my peach chiffon gown blushing at a podium as I accept my newly published book with the shiny gold star on it.
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