“For Want of Water”: The Incredible Honor of Recognition from the National Poetry Series
November 02, 2017
I didn’t know that my poetry collection For Want of Water had been selected as winner for the National Poetry Series for a good week or two after Gregory Pardlo had chosen it, but that was my fault. I’d spent the summer with my family in Sonora and had turned my phone off. When we returned to the United States, I was walking through the airport when the caller ID from “Princeton, NJ” flashed on my phone, and I answered it because I was curious what sort of telemarketing came from Princeton. It was Beth Dial from the National Poetry Series.
I remember plugging my unphoned ear with my finger to hear her through the terminal’s noise. I couldn’t believe it. The National Poetry Series is an award that’s just so big, I’d never conceived of my manuscript as actually having a shot at winning. Winning the National Poetry Series is the poet’s equivalent of winning the lottery (unless you’re Jeffrey Schultz and you win twice because you’re just that good, or you’re Sam Sax and your voice is so recognizably brilliant you go straight from the National Poetry Series to the James Laughlin Award), but me, I’m a Filipina immigrant with a state school education, whose poetry comes from the brown and Southern border. I’ve always told myself that my path would be not a path of access, but a more quiet path of my head down, and work. Just work. And at the time, I was finishing my application for tenure and promotion at the University of Texas at El Paso, for which I’d learned the numbers to explain the harsh nature of trying to publish in poetry. Ours is an industry in which well-regarded presses may now only have one-month-long annual submissions periods (if they have open submissions at all) for poetry, during which presses may receive 1,400-2,000 full-length manuscripts to publish only one or two books. That’s a 0.05%-0.14% acceptance rate.
Further, it’s historically more difficult for writers of color, particularly writers of color who write about and write from their experiences in non-assimilationist ways, to get published with big presses, as those who’ve canonically been in power have historically been male and white. Publishers Weekly’s 2016 survey of publishers resulted in 88% of respondents self-identifying as white, with many in the industry identifying as “female” and frustrated with the pay gap, though there’s no mention of people who identify outside of “male” or “female.” That is not to say we only choose the work that we identify as our own, but there are very real consequences for writers of color, genderqueer and nonbinary writers when who is looking at their art cannot find in there something recognizable to attach to, because poetry is about sharing, between a reader and the words, something very human, and vulnerable.
I live in a world in which the art that is commodified more often than not does not look like what I’d call “my own.” This isn’t poetry, but a few months ago, I found myself sobbing and stupefied watching the documentary Don’t Stop Believin’: Every Man’s Journey on Netflix. It was the first time I’d seen, through a mainstream US platform, a face like mine with features like mine in Arnel Pineda’s face, with a dark mouth speaking my Tagalog (the language I still dream in), not as a maid saying something snarky just before she left a room as blurred body, but as a face—a subject upon which the camera focused. I’m not a crier. I’m proud of that, though it’s a result of a physically abusive past where crying just meant getting hit harder.
But I couldn’t stop weeping looking at Arnel Pineda, because such a mirror clicked so essential a something in me that I hadn’t even known was missing. How could I, a Southeast Asian woman writing from a non-occidental lens (in my second language of English) about the Mexican American border (as I taught, so thought, through my fourth language of Spanish), have ever considered winning the National Poetry Series as truly possible for me?
I’d only submitted to the contest because it’s what a working poet with a manuscript does.
But what I’d been blind to behind the hard numbers were the extraordinary humans at work in the industry too, like Gregory Pardlo, and the people of the National Poetry Series. The other judges for that 2016 competition were Terrance Hayes, Allison Joseph, Ada Limón and David St. John. And the 2017 judges were Tyehimba Jess, Cornelius Eady, Fady Joudah, Louise Glück and Paul Guest. This…slow shifting of the faces, and the cultural experiences they support in others as they themselves write, has everything to do with Daniel Halpern and how he pulled together top-tier publishers for poetry. And in turn, that vision asks those judges to see in those “blind” unnamed manuscripts of strangers’ art, something recognizable and human, a vulnerability they can understand.
So through the terminal noise, I heard Beth’s voice.
Then she said “Gregory Pardlo.” As in the lyrical powerhouse. Then she said “Beacon Press.” As in Beacon Press of James Baldwin’s Notes of a Native Son, as in Beacon Press of Martin Luther King Jr.’s papers, as in Beacon Press headed by the indomitable Helene Atwan who has been using her editorship as a practice in social justice for decades. Then I really didn’t believe Beth’s voice.
It’s easy too for people to be flip about academics in poetry, and to want to disown the academic artistic experience. But another story is this: I turned in my tenure application two days after the National Poetry Series was announced. The National Center for Education Statistics says that in Fall 2015, while 42% of all Associate Professors in all fields in this country were white and male, and 35% were white and female, only 3% were Black males, 3% Black females, 3% Hispanic males, 2% Hispanic females, 7% Asian/Pacific Islander males, 4% Asian/Pacific Islander females, 1% were designated “two or more races,” less than a percent were designated “American Indian/Alaska native,” and the results don’t even mention the faculty who identify with another ethnic or indigenous identity, or faculty who recognize themselves as trans, genderqueer or nonbinary. I strongly suspect those percentages lower drastically for who is tenured in the Arts and Humanities.
Poetry, Gregory Pardlo, the National Poetry Series, Helene Atwan and Beacon Press gave me that too with For Want of Water: job security. Security to teach and speak freely as a woman of color to first-generation-college students on the border, students with faces brown as my own. Though I don’t carry the private school education nor the status quo’s usual markers of “excellence” that are often demanded from faculty of color in ways that white faculty need not always prove, somehow, because Creative Writing programs are one of the few places in academia where one gains authority through publishing, not necessarily by pedigree, someone like me is employed. How we’ve academized the art of writing can collapse some bit of the distances of race, class, geography, and gendering: look at the faces of faculty at Creative Writing programs emboldened in their English Departments, such as at NYU or University of Southern California. Writers are often the faculty of color, and the faculty who aren’t heteronormative, who can be institutionalized into power, access. I've been publishing for seven years, have been studying poetry seriously for fifteen years, and as I look back at the time, at every critical point in my artistry, someone has risked believing and advocating for me. With institutional power behind me, I can advocate access for others now too.
Jeffrey and I ended up doing the calculations for the National Poetry Series. Because the contest ends with five books each with a separate press, we were luckier than other poetry contest folk. Our book acceptance rate was less than 0.36% for each of the winners. Jeffrey, Sam and I get to hang with the wonderful Chelsea Dingman and William Brewer. And because of one man’s belief, one great writer’s advocacy—Greg’s, suddenly, shockingly, I get to be a Beacon author.
Since For Want of Water started shaping into a book from its manuscript, and because Beacon’s publicist Nicholas DiSabatino is amazing, I’ve gotten to write for and publish in such places I could never before have dreamed, like The New York Times Magazine, selected by Terrance Hayes, Poets & Writers, LitHub, the Academy of American Poets (poets.org), Guernica, Hyphen, and somehow too, this Pinay face of mine has recently stared up from the cover of American Poetry Review. And now, just in these last weeks, there’s a book. A book!
To just say that “this has changed my life” would be a crudeness of language. Sometimes I still think, what if Beth hadn’t kept calling for those one to two weeks? What if they’d just moved down to the next person down the list?
About the Author
Sasha Pimentel is the author of Insides She Swallowed, winner of the 2011 American Book Award, and For Want of Water. Born in Manila and raised in the United States and Saudi Arabia, she is a professor of poetry and creative nonfiction in the bilingual MFA Program at the University of Texas at El Paso. Follow her on Twitter at @SashaRPimentel and visit her website.