This is a guest post by Rena Priest.

So long as you write what you wish to write, that is all that matters; and whether it matters for ages or only for hours, nobody can say. But to sacrifice a hair of the head of your vision, a shade of its colour, in deference to some Headmaster with a silver pot in his hand or to some professor with a measuring-rod up his sleeve, is the most abject treachery, and the sacrifice of wealth and chastity which used to be said to be the greatest of human disasters, a mere flea-bite in comparison.” Virginia Woolf

I first read this quote from “A Room of One’s Own” while lounging in a bathtub in Spokane. I was 19, and it was cold, and a hot bath was the best, cheapest way to stay warm. I was very poor, and this idea that writing what you wanted was more precious than silver, well, it was exhilarating.

For many years I stayed true. I said as much of what I wanted to say as my abilities would allow. But recently, I’ve felt daunted by having so little to show for the years and effort I’ve devoted to writing. What I “want” to write has changed. I no longer want to write the truth in my soul. My soul has too much grief, too many expletives, and not enough flowers, birds, or sunsets to appeal to mainstream poetry audiences.

These days, I want to write the kind of poem that I can screen print on a pillow and sell on Instagram by the truckload. I want to write a sing-song children’s book that will fly off the shelves like hot-cakes so that I can cast off the shackles of my student loans.

Last year, for the first time, I made sacrifices from the hair of the head of my vision and went for the silver pot. At the urging of a colleague, I applied for and was awarded a grant from the National Geographic Society to write about a captive killer whale. I did the work. I researched, and I wrote and rewrote and rewrote again and again until I had a draft of something that someone else would perhaps pay money to read.

In the beginning, it wasn’t writing that I wanted to do so much as writing that must be done. I was doing it for the cause, and the byline. Eventually, the story drew me in. It raised questions in me. I became deeply invested in the whale’s fate. The more I learned about her, the more imperative it became to share her story. Nothing has ever felt so important to get right as the story of this whale, and I have never been so engrossed or challenged in my writing.

In the end, my vision aligned with the work, bringing me to this conclusion: If you don’t want to write something, you’ll half-ass it for a while until you chuck it and start over, or you won’t do it. But if you give yourself to the writing — authentically give yourself to it — you’ll be true to your vision. It can’t be otherwise. Not “a shade of its colour” will be sacrificed.

Publishing, however, is a whole other story. 😉

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Read “A captive orca and a chance for our redemption” by Rena Priest, just published in High Country News.

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Rena Priest is a poet and a member of the Lhaq’temish (Lummi) Nation. Her literary debut, Patriarchy Blues, was honored with a 2018 American Book Award. Her most recent collection, Sublime Subliminal, was published by Floating Bridge Press. Priest’s work can be found in literary journals and anthologies including: For Love of Orcas, Pontoon, and Poetry Northwest. She has attended residencies at Hawthornden Castle, Hedgebrook, and Mineral School. She is a National Geographic Explorer and a Jack Straw Writer (2019). She holds an MFA from Sarah Lawrence College.

American Book Awards

August 29, 2019

The Before Columbus Foundation has announced the winners of the Fortieth Annual American Book Awards. Created to provide recognition for outstanding literary achievement from the entire spectrum of America’s diverse literary community, the awards recognize literary excellence without limitations or restrictions.

The 2019 American Book Award Winners are:

Frank Abe, Greg Robinson, and Floyd Cheung (editors)
John Okada: The Life & Rediscovered Work of the Author of No-No Boy (University of Washington Press)

May-lee Chai
Useful Phrases for Immigrants: Stories (Blair)

Louise DeSalvo
The House of Early Sorrows: A Memoir in Essays (Fordham University Press)

Heid E. Erdrich (editor)
New Poets of Native Nations (Graywolf Press)

Ángel García
Teeth Never Sleep: Poems (University of Arkansas Press)

Tommy Orange

There There: A Novel (Knopf)

Halifu Osumare
Dancing in Blackness: A Memoir (University Press of Florida)

Christopher Patton
Unlikeness Is Us: Fourteen from the Exeter Book (Gaspereau Press)

Mark Sarvas
Memento Park: A Novel (Farrar, Straus and Giroux)

Jeffrey C. Stewart
The New Negro: The Life of Alain Locke (Oxford University Press)

William T. Vollmann
Carbon Ideologies: Volume I, No Immediate Danger, Volume II, No Good Alternative (Viking)

G. Willow Wilson (author), Nico Leon (illustrator)
Ms. Marvel Vol. 9: Teenage Wasteland (Marvel)

Lifetime Achievement Award: Nathan Hare

Editor/Publisher Award: UCLA Chicano Studies Research Center

Oral Literature Award: Moor Mother (Camae Ayewa)

The winners will be formally recognized on Friday, November 1, 2019, from 1:00-4:00pm, at the San Francisco Public Library Koret Auditorium. Congratulations one and all!

Congratulations!

August 14, 2018

It’s pretty exciting when there are names you know on lists of winners, and that’s the news today as Bellingham’s own Rena Priest is named an American Book Award winner for her book Patriarchy Blues (MoonPath Press). Congratulations to Rena and all of The 2018 American Book Award Winners!


 
The Before Columbus Foundation has announced the Winners of the Thirty-Eighth Annual AMERICAN BOOK AWARDS, which respect and honor excellence in American literature without restriction or bias with regard to race, sex, creed, cultural origin, size of press or ad budget, or even genre.

Among this year’s 18 winners are poets Holly J. Hughes, Passings (Expedition Press); Solmaz Sharif, Look (Graywolf Press); and Adam Soldofsky, Memory Foam (Disorder Press). The Lifetime Achievement award went to poet/writer/educator/activist Nancy Mercado, and the Editor/Publisher Award went to Ammiel Alcalay, General Editor of Lost & Found: The CUNY Poetics Document Initiative.

The Award winners will be formally recognized at a free public event on Sunday, October 22, 2017, from 12:00-2:30 p.m. at the SF Jazz Center, Joe Henderson Lab, 201 Franklin Street, San Francisco, California. See the complete list of ABA winners on the Before Columbus Foundation website.

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