Published on February 26th, 20140
The Persistence of a Poet
Although the word “Won” somehow doesn’t seem right for Dagold or the thousands of other poets who annually enter their manuscripts in poetry prizes. Perhaps a more appropriate term would be “worked his butt off for years” to finally land a hit and get the Gerald Cable Book Award.
In 1993, when Dagold graduated from the University of Oregon with his MFA, he had a few good publications, a completed poetry manuscript and a terminal degree from a reputable Creative Writing Program. He was classmates with Chang Rae Lee, who would sell his first novel Native Speaker to a trade press before he even received his degree, and we all know Lee went on to be one of the most important North American fiction writers of our time.
Other classmates also went on to publish books and get jobs in creative writing programs, so Dagold assumed he was headed in the same direction.
He was doing pretty well as an emerging poet.
“My first journal publication was in 1993, the poem “Radio Tuning,” which won an AWP Intro Award and was published in Indiana Review.”
“Right after my MFA, I spent some time, months, really writing every day, and I took those poems and some poems from my MFA thesis and made a manuscript called Carbon. That manuscript was a finalist two years in a row for the Anhinga Press Prize.”
But like a majority of brilliant young poets who graduate from MFA’s, he didn’t seem to get much closer to his dream.
He continued to write, continued to publish, and he finished multiple drafts of his poetry collection, which would ultimately receive the title Bastard Heart.
After years of sending out poems, applying for fellowships and gigs, Dagold had to find a way to make a living, and he started building cabinets. He kept finishing various drafts of his poetry manuscript, and for years, as other aspects of life confronted him, “I let it sit in a desk drawer.”
Like the manuscript in the drawer, Dagold “entered a dark period, a period of spiritual dissolution, one could say.”
“I don’t mean I’d given up the idea of writing, of being a poet, of teaching, of one day having a book, of one day having more than one book, and so on.”
Like a true writer, he couldn’t not write.
“I’d imagined for so long publishing a book. I couldn’t imagine a life in which I didn’t keep trying to make that happen. I mean I really couldn’t imagine it. A life without publishing a book seemed like not my life.”
He took Bastard Heart from the drawer, revised more, submitted to more contests and publishers and spent over $3,500 on entry fees alone.
“I entered about twenty (poetry contests) each fall and twenty each spring, that’s 120 competition fees totaling $3,000. Add copying and postage and miscellaneous office stuff . . .$3 ,500 is probably a conservative estimate.”
After receiving no response from most and being a finalist in a few, like the Philip Levine Poetry Prize, Dagold’s book finally hit.
His first book of poems Bastard Heart is finally out, and it’s a prize winner.
He didn’t give up on the university job either, and he is currently ABD at the University of Utah, where his dissertation is a collection of poems.
The poet Paisley Rekdal, who is a member of his dissertation committee calls Bastard Heart “Gorgeous.”
Lidia Yuknavitch, herself a University of Oregon graduate, writes, “Bastard Heart is the most important book of poetry I’ve read in years.”
So all the years of persistence, all the work, the disappointment, all the money to get a book of poems published by a small Oregon press, was it worth it?
“Yes,” says Dagold. “And, yes. It’s difficult to describe how much it was worth it.”
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