An Interview With Longlisted Author Diane Raptosh
The Grammys celebrate music; the Oscars, movies. Tony Awards are for theatre, and the Golden Globes are for television. But what about books? For those, we have the National Book Awards.
Unless you’re an avid follower of book news, it’s easy to miss the National Book Awards (NBA), an event that deserves as much pomp and circumstance as any Hollywood red-carpet affair.
According to their website, the mission of the awards and the National Book Foundation is to “celebrate the best of American literature, to expand its audience, and to enhance the cultural value of great writing in America.”
So how does it work?
The National Book Awards, first established in 1950, are put on by the National Book Foundation and recognize the best in fiction, nonfiction, poetry, and young people’s literature. The foundation selects twenty individuals—librarians, booksellers, published writers, and others—who are divided up according to their specialty, to act as judges. Some of these are past winners or finalists of the award themselves.
Publishers nominate books they’ve published between December 1 of the previous year and November 30 of the present year. The author must be an American citizen, and writers cannot nominate themselves.
All five judges get their own copy of each book submitted for consideration—somewhere between 150 and 500 books, depending on the category. Each committee or panel then selects ten titles called the longlist. These titles are announced each year in September. This year, the schedule is…
Young People’s Literature — September 12*
Poetry — September 13*
Nonfiction — September 14
Fiction — September 15
*Check out the winners so far here.
Less than a month later, the longlist is cut in half as five Finalists from each category are announced (this year, on October 4). Finally, the National Book Awards Ceremony and Benefit Dinner takes place in mid-November—an affair much anticipated by all, since not even members of the National Book Foundation know who the winners are. There, the announcement is made, and the winner of each category is presented with $10,000, a bronze trophy, and an honor great enough to last a lifetime. This year’s announcement will take place November 15.
A special interview…
In anticipation of the coming awards, we caught up with local author, professor, and poet Dr. Diane Raptosh, whose book of poems, American Amnesiac, was on the longlist in 2013 for poetry. Shortly after being longlisted for the NBA, Dr. Raptosh was named Boise’s Poet Laureate and Idaho’s Writer-in-Residence. Be sure to check out her interview with HigleyFox below, as well as a sample from her upcoming publication, Dear Z: The Zygote Epistles. You can purchase her books on almost any online bookstore, including Amazon, and from her publisher, Etruscan Press.
HigleyFox: In 2013, you were among ten authors selected for the National Book Awards longlist for poetry. Did you have any idea ahead of time that your book was being considered?
Diane Raptosh: The editor of Etruscan Press, Phil Brady, told me he was submitting American Amnesiac for consideration for the National Book Award. I thanked him profusely for doing so, and then I basically forgot about it.
HF: Authors cannot submit their own books for the National Book Award, but must be nominated by their publisher. What was it like waiting to see if you would be named on the longlist? Did you have any knowledge of other poetry novellas that you suspected might be considered?
DR: As I said, I basically forgot about the fact that the book had been submitted. I did not even track the date that the NBA winners would be announced. It is dangerous and foolhardy for a writer to wait around to see if she has won a prize. The writing world is highly unpredictable—known mostly for rejections. I did not know what books in any genre were being considered for the NBA that year.
HF: Your most recent book, Human Directional, came out in 2016. What is it like to write a book after having been longlisted for the National Book Award in poetry, not to mention having been named Idaho's Writer-in-Residence and Boise's Poet Laureate? Did you feel pressured? Inspired? Were you still able to write for yourself, without considering what award committees might be thinking?
DR: I felt hugely honored to be Boise's Poet Laureate and Idaho's Writer-in-Residence. They gave me opportunities to serve the communities of Idaho, which pleased me very much. Verse is serve's anagram. I aim to serve as a poet. This fact both pressures and inspires me.
Being longlisted for the National Book Award was the biggest professional honor of my life. I was shocked when I woke up that September morning and checked my emails and found one from them. I did feel a little more fearful than usual about writing anything after Amnesiac. I poured my mind's heart into that book, and it ended up paying off. I did feel nervous about the fact of Human Directional following that mini-opus. But HD is a very different kind of book. It is a kind of dervish dance, a romp through consciousness, a playground of form and content. I see it as a second (and lighter) book in what I consider to be a trilogy that started with Amnesiac. I am working on the third book now. It is more ambitious, like Amnesiac was. It will take on a lot of big issues, which I discuss in #4, below. That manuscript is both serious and playful, as are most things I write.
I never, ever wonder what award committees might be thinking. I stay rooted in the world of the mind and the imagination: the writing world, which for my purposes takes up residence at my kitchen table. I do not write to win awards! I write poetry to survive an increasingly brutal world, to be perfectly honest. I've been studying America closely for a long time, and I could see many of the present American brutalities coming. I began to feel despondent—not so much for myself, but for others, our more vulnerable communities—what Amnesiac refers to as "the we." I had to write my way out of a sense of collective despair. That was Amnesiac. I don't necessarily write for myself, per se, except inasmuch as writing poetry helps alleviate some anxiety—if what I write lifts the veil of social realities and reinvents what seems to want to be there. The greatest—or perhaps the only—hope for homo sapiens lies within the human imagination.
HF: What are you working on now, and what are your goals for this next project?
DR: I am working on a new book of poems, the working title for which is Dear Z: The Zygote Epistles. The last of a trilogy in verse, this manuscript will comprise a series of epistles directed to a newly fertilized zygote—what one of the poems refers to as "the great human maybe." These letters will take on issues ranging from the modes and limitations of production and reproduction to symbolic systems and sentience. They will also meditate on cell lines (for science) and cell phones, speculative life and artificial intelligence. So too, they will consider selfhood, citizenship, and identity—national and global—in the age of big data, white nationalism, and totalitarian capitalism. Along the way, the poems will riff on Moby-Dick and draw on current events as well as meet with some musicians: perhaps Dionne Warwick and the Beatles.
HF: What tips do you have for writers, and particularly writers of poetry, looking to get published or bring their writing to the masses?
DR: My advice for writers is to pay close attention to the world, to watch and, especially, to feel what is going on, to resist the numbness that screens and spectacles and technologies hope will set in. Staying awake and alert is one of the most important things that a poet can do. This takes a lot of time, solitude, and courage. Young poets should not be terribly worried about publishing their work right away. They should instead be paying attention to their instincts and intuitions about how to proceed. They should be feeling how deeply unsatisfying are the marketplace's offerings: what I call in a poem from Human Directional those "frilled lean-tos daily dispensed to us." The young poet's job is to help the world dream a new face for itself. In short, a young poet should set out to rewrite the world. Doing so will naturally, with patience and over time, bring her writing to the masses and into the pages of books.
A sneak peek from Diane Raptosh's current project, Dear Z: The Zygote Epistles:
Be sure to check back on October 4 for our take on this year’s NBA Finalists and again on November 22 for a recap of 2017’s NBA winners.
Special thanks to Eric Raptosh for the use of his photo of Diane Raptosh.