Congrats to long-time Getaway Faculty Member Renée Ashley whose
fourth book of poems Basic Heart has just won the 2008 X.
J. Kennedy Prize awarded by the Texas Review Press. While most
people only know Renée as a poet, she wrote her first novel,
Someplace Like This, before her first book of poems, Salt,
came out in 1991. When Someplace Like This was finally published
to laudatory reviews from Publishers Weekly, Kirkus
Review and Library Journal in 2003, it had been
circulating off and on for fifteen years! During that period she
wrote and published two other collections of poetry, The
Various Reasons of Light and The Revisionist's Dream
and has since published a poetry chapbook, The Museum of Lost
Wings. But Basic Heart was having a rough time.
Renée is dogged if nothing else, and her poems are dense and
frequently dark. In the nine years that it was circulating,
Basic Heart received 152 rejections. 152! But not all from
different publishers. She made a list of the publishers she
liked and kept sending her manuscript back to their contests and
open submission periods when the judges changed.
In that time, she took one poem out and put a new one in. Sure,
it had been a finalist for many contests and received many
generous rejection letters, but Renée never gave up. Jokingly,
she says "Just goes to show if you live long enough. . ." but
she is no fool.
"The articulation of craft in workshop feedback sessions is
invaluable," Ashley explains. "Community, like the one at the
Getaway, gives us the opportunity to do that. Peter's community,
in particular, gives us the opportunity to do it safely, with
support. We need that; we need, as well, to be reminded by
interaction with others that we work within the context of a
world of differences—not just inside our solipsistic little
heads. And, frankly, the dancing [at the Getaway hotel's disco]
Renée continued to read, to write, to read, to take classes from
writers she admired, to read and to master her craft. Did I
mention she reads a lot? Perhaps more than anyone I know. It is
this literary "professional development" that gave Renée
confidence in her work, to keep sending it out and not give up.
She knew it was good!
Rejection hurts, especially as the world fails to see what a
literary genius you are. However, it is a sad fact that more
writers submit their work to literary journals than subscribe to
them, and I suspect that more writers send their manuscripts to
publishers than buy their books. If you do not read and do not
study, you will not grow as a writer. You must practice just as
hard as any musician or gymnast. And if you are not enjoying the
process, well, then maybe you should give up. But if you are
working hard and having fun, then keep on writing and don't
surrender. At least not until you have surpassed Renée's record.
Here's her title poem:
By Renée Ashley
What can we do once we are ordinary?
—Lynne Sharon Schwartz
Sorrow has a horizontal habit; some souls' feet are bound.
Still the black bag of night is the structure of hope. Tonight's
Concert of blue light is riddled with the infinite; your
Stripped of bells – neither fool nor the absolute fire behind
That black gate. The trees read the air and, despite the
Script of your bones, you sing your savage door wide and wear
The heart, finally, as just a heart, poor vessel of all your
[Originally published in Poets on Prozac: Mental Illness,
Treatment and the Creative Process, Richard Berlin, ed. The
Johns Hopkins University Press, 2008.]
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