We asked former Dorset Prize Winners to share their tips on “Making Your Dorset Manuscript.” Here, Amaud Jamaul Johnson, 2004 Dorset Prize Winner, shares his honest advice:
Maybe you’ve been at your desk for three semesters or the better part of a decade, and you are exhausted or excited or numb. Maybe you are afraid to let it go, or you just want to be free of the damn thing, “the manuscript.”
For me, deadlines always feel like bombs ticking. Red wire, blue wire; submit or wait? I’m not sure why I procrastinate. Maybe I hesitate because I want the poems to feel a certain way, “feel right,” as if the work is a whole living thing, completely separate from me. Books aren’t children. Yes, they talk back. They surprise you. They can make you proud.
Trust your obsessions and your obsessiveness.
Word. Phrase. Line. Sentence. Stanza. Repeat. Breathe. Repeat.
Forgive yourself for what you couldn’t accomplish, and celebrate what you discovered. Your poems depend on you. That voice in your head, what’s been there since you were a child, built from wonder or rage or a quirky sense of humor, that voice doesn’t care about graduate degrees or fellowships or awards. It just wants to be in the world. You have to be an ambassador for your work.
News flash: It’s not going to be perfect, but you have to be at peace with what you’ve made. All choices are risks. Don’t get caught up in percentages. Push the button. Pity the judge.
Amaud Jamaul Johnson is the author of two poetry collections, Darktown Follies (Tupelo, 2013) and the 2004 Dorset Prize Winner Red Summer (Tupelo, 2006). A former Wallace Stegner Fellow in Poetry at Stanford University, and Cave Canem Fellow, his honors include a Pushcart Prize, the Hurston/Wright Legacy Award, a MacDowell Colony Fellowship, the Edna Meudt Book Award, and the Dorset Prize. His work has appeared in American Poetry Review, Kenyon Review, Best American Poetry, Callaloo, The Southern Review, Crazyhorse, Narrative Magazine and elsewhere. He teaches in the MFA Program in Creative Writing at the University of Wisconsin-Madison.