Report from the Field: On Publishing a First Book at [almost] 50
In the summer of 2015, I opened the covers of a book and read aloud to a sizable audience inside an elegant black box theater. The title of the book was At the Border of Wilshire & Nobody, and the name on the front cover was mine. The theater was not located anywhere near Wilshire Boulevard, but on a Minneapolis college campus, where six of those audience members had read the book before it was a book, and decided to make it one.
It was a month before my fiftieth birthday, but it felt like a perfectly timed gift.
“Because the way you grow old is kind of like an onion or like the rings inside a tree trunk or like my wooden dolls that fit one inside the other, each year inside the next one.”[i]
I had tried to publish a book once, years before. Long before friend was a verb, long before Submittable, I purchased a box of mailer envelopes and a roll of stamps, and sent my hopeful manuscript out into the world. Some bigger agencies wrote back some very nice rejections (we love it, but we’re not sure what to do with it), and some smaller presses named it finalist, runner-up, honorable mention. A famous novelist selected one story for publication in the Sunday magazine of the Los Angeles Times, the newspaper I grew up reading.
But that’s as far as it went. One day, I placed the manuscript in a drawer and figured that was that.
“I am working out the vocabulary of my silence.”[ii]
In the years before I turned 50, I worked for 22 of them at a rewarding and demanding job as an elementary school teacher. This meant I could either spend the few hours I carved out each week writing, or I could continue searching for publishers and going to the post office. I wanted the manuscript to find a home in the world, but I wanted to write more.
In truth, want was more like unhinged desire. As if anyone who’s ever written by choice had any choice in the matter.
Who knows where the desire was born. Long before I was 50, in the years of 1970s feminism, my father told me the world was changing for women, that I could be whatever I wanted when I grew up. I adored books, but that I might ever write them myself was unimaginable. Nobody I knew—male or female—was a writer, and my beloved father, suffering an intransigent depression, took his own life before I arrived at an age of decision.
“Gal, you sho looks good. You look like youse yo’own daughter.”[iii]
Sometimes my mother says I’d shoot myself if I had to write a book. But she’s the one who carted me to the North Hollywood library every week, where I’d stare at a bronze statue of Amelia Earhart and wonder who she was, tall with a propeller at her side. She’s the one who arranged to use a family friend’s address, so I could go to the good public schools that weren’t the ones in my neighborhood. And my now-78-year-old mother is the one who will take time off work on the busiest weekend of the season to see her first-generation-college-student daughter be awarded a doctoral degree at the age of 51.
That I went to college at all seems a kind of miracle. All through my growing up years, I adored school the way I adored books, but I understood college to be for moneyed families, not ones whose fathers killed themselves because they couldn’t pay the bills; or whose mothers spit nickels to buy their daughters fashionable jeans, so they wouldn’t feel different among the other girls at the school where they weren’t even supposed to be.
In the world I knew, in the years before I was 50, a woman might go to school to learn a well-paid skill, but if the skill could be learned while on the job, well, so much the better. And if the job landed a well-paid husband, well, that was the best scenario yet.
“but you women are writing your own Book of Migration”[iv]
In the years before I was 50, I did go to college, and I did learn the skills of a worthwhile profession. I married, not a wealthy husband, but a good, hard-working man who built the desk where I write.
I went to college a second time, and then a third, tuition paid by my rewarding and demanding job. I kept writing, and even began publishing my work.
But it was only in my 40s that the years led to poetry.
“everything happened at the instant of passing”[v]
When poems first began arriving in my notebooks, I could tell what they wanted to be, but for all my schooling, poetry writing wasn’t something I’d ever studied, and I didn’t yet know how to craft fragment into form.
I kept writing until it was time to learn more.
My teaching salary earned enough to pay for half my initial education as a poet, but it was a woman who had earned a doctorate in her 50s who paid the balance. It was a remarkable, life-altering gift that set me on a path that felt as if it had been waiting there all along. And it was the generosity and example of the poets I met along the way that propelled me forward.
Most of those poets I met through books; others I met in my own city. Lynne Thompson was one of the first I met in person, a Los Angeles-born poet whose first full-length collection, Beg No Pardon, was published when she was 56. Of her own later-in-life start, she says, “In my mid-40s I recall just feeling the certainty that I’d feel truly complete if I was trying to craft the best poems of which I was capable.”
If I was late, I was also in very good company.
And as everyone already knows, the best times are at the after-party.
“a woman can’t survive / by her own breath / alone / she must know / the voices of the mountains / she must recognize / the foreverness of blue sky”[vi]
It’s Lynne who tells me about poet Virginia Hamilton Adair, who published her first book at 83. Though Adair wrote poems steadily throughout her life, it wasn’t until she retired from a long career as a university professor that she collected them into Ants on the Melon.
Another poet who published a first book in her 80s is Anne Porter. Porter raised five children and began writing more seriously in her 60s, after the death of her husband. Twenty years later, her 1994 volume, An Altogether Different Language, was named a finalist for the National Book Award.
Porter’s collected poems, Living Things, were published when she was 94. “[People] think this is supposed to be the end of this and the end of that. But you can’t always be so sure that it is the end.”
“Here, one calendar takes eighteen years. / I am three. One day is an eyelash.”[vii]
Time expands, and then shrinks. If we’re lucky, it expands again, a continuing spiral, like the hill path I run most mornings before settling at my desk to write.
In the years before I was 50, I kept writing and reading and learning how to craft fragment into form. I worked at my rewarding and demanding job. I paid the bills on time. I got up early every morning. I went to bed again at night.
And then I watched, as the good and hardworking man who built that desk suffered devastating bouts of depression, the last with force enough to split our marriage, though not my unhinged desire to make things out of words.
“We die. That may be the meaning of life. But we do language. That may be the measure of our lives.“[viii]
In the years before I was 50, whenever someone in my childhood universe would die, my mother’s mother would rest her chin on her elbow and sigh, You never know.
I’ve sometimes appropriated my grandmother’s words to optimistic advantage, as in, You never know what happiness waits around the corner, or, You never know what astonishing poem you might write next, but the truth is she only ever said the phrase to mean, You never know when death might visit.
Maybe both meanings are important. At whatever age one comes to it, art-making seems to be helped along by a combined attitude of hope and an urgent sense of the finite.
“Just remember you are standing / On a planet that’s evolving.”[ix]
What happens when hope collides with urgency, when encouragement propels one word after the next and out into the world?
The author of 13 books of poetry, Ruth Stone published her first collection at 44, and then not another until she was in her mid-50s. But it was her tenth book, Ordinary Words, that garnered the first of the many prizes to come, including a 2002 National Book Award for In the Next Galaxy. She was 87 at the time.
In her acceptance speech, Stone spoke to the constant presence of poetry throughout her life: “like a stream that went along beside me . . . my life went along here, and I got married and had three kids and did all the things you have to do, and all along the time this stream was going along.”
That generative stream continues well into the twenty-first century with the Ruth Stone Foundation, which “seeks to provide poets and artists time, space, and opportunities to create new work and share it with a wider audience.”
Amy Clampitt is another poet who used her later-won public success to make a difference for others. Clampitt published The Kingfisher when she was 63, and then eight more books over a brief span of 11 years. Before her death in 1994, Clampitt was awarded a Guggenheim, an Academy of American Poets Fellowship, and a MacArthur Prize, with which she purchased a modest house that now provides residencies for poets to create new work.
This is how encouragement can intervene with silence. This is how one poet’s hope can extend beyond the finite time of her own art, no matter what age she started making—or publishing—it.
“That the tree still held all the birds that ever sang there.”[x]
In the years before I was 50, I placed a manuscript in a drawer because I didn’t know what else to do with it. I might not have written again for a long while. I might not have started writing poems ever. But unhinged desire did lead to poetry, and it was because of the support I received from others that the drawer didn’t shut completely.
That first book isn’t the one I published at nearly 50, but as my grandmother used to say, You never know.
“brilliant woman, i like to think / you whispered into her ear / instructions”[xi]
In the years before I was 50, there once was a girl whose father tucked her in every night with a bedtime story. Every morning, she watched her brother go off to school; and every afternoon, she filled large sheets of paper with long lines of scribble, readying for the day she could go, too.
Every week, her mother drove her to the building where the bronze pilot stood, tall with a propeller in her hand. Inside, the rooms were filled with books, and the girl could take home 10 at a time, any book she wanted, for free.
Time expands and shrinks, and then expands again. And sometimes time meets up with itself on the spiraled path.
“The old woman sits beside me, teaching about / the people of each place in connection with all things. And she asks me again, / ‘How strong is your love?'”[xii]
One day, in the years just before I am 50, I notice an elderly woman walking up the steep hill by my house. She is reading a how-to poetry book as she walks, and I stop to ask if she writes poems.
Oh, I’ve been trying!! she says. But I want to understand prosody—and then, from memory, she recites a poem about one of her twin daughters who died. The prosody sounds exactly right to my ear, and I tell her I like the poem very much, because I do. I tell her I am sorry for her loss.
She tells me she is 84, and I tell her I am 48. Magic numbers, she says.
I have not seen her again on the path, but maybe someday I’ll open the covers of a book and there she’ll be.
Notes & Additional Resources:
[i] Sandra Cisneros, “Eleven” from The House on Mango Street. (New York: Vintage, 1991). First published in 1984, the now classic coming-of-age novel has sold over six million copies. Both the English and Spanish editions appear on the California Department of Education Recommended Literature List, which is how I first came to know (and love) it as an elementary school teacher. The book’s flash fiction form was radically unique at the time and encouraged me (and, I hope, my students) to write in ways that felt true. The first Chicana writer to receive a MacArthur Fellowship, Cisneros talks with journalist Maria Hinojosa about her most recent book, A House of My Own.
[iii] Zora Neale Hurston, Their Eyes Were Watching God (New York: Harper Perennial, 2006). Hurston wrote the groundbreaking novel, her second, in just seven weeks following the award of a Guggenheim Fellowship. She was 46 when it was published nine months later, in 1937.
[iv] Lynne Thompson, “A Sorceress Strolls New Grass” from Beg No Pardon (Florence, MA: Perugia Press, 2007). The recipient of a 2016 City of Los Angeles (COLA) Fellowship, Thompson’s most recent collection is Start with a Small Guitar published by What Books Press.
[vi] Joy Harjo, “Fire,” How We Became Human: New and Selected Poems: 1975-2001 (New York: W. W. Norton, 2002). Born in 1951, Harjo received the Wallace Stevens Award by the Academy of American Poets in 2015. Her memoir, Crazy Brave (New York: W. W. Norton, 2012), details her journey to becoming a poet.
[vii] Robin Coste Lewis, “Mother Church No. 3” from Voyage of the Sable Venus (New York: Alfred A. Knopf, 2015). A recipient of a 2015 National Book Award, Lewis published her first collection of poetry after a brain injury changed the trajectory of her life.
[viii] Toni Morrison, “Nobel Lecture,” nobelprize.org, 1993. Now in her 80s, Morrison published The Bluest Eye, her first novel, at age 39 after bringing a host of other authors—including Gayl Jones, Henry Dumas, and Toni Cade Bambara—into print as an editor. Her eleventh novel, God Help the Child, was published in 2015.
[x] Harriet Doerr, “The Extinguishing of Great-Aunt Alice” in The Tiger in the Grass (New York: Viking Penguin, 1995). Doerr, a native of Southern California published her debut novel, Stones for Ibarra, at age 74. In a 1995 interview for the Los Angeles Times, Doerr comments on the role of luck in publication, noting that her first book “was turned down everywhere.”
[xi] Lucille Clifton, “daughters” from The Book of Light (Port Townsend, WA: Copper Canyon, 1993). In addition to 13 collections of poetry, Clifton wrote many books for children. Remembering the beloved and celebrated poet in the New Yorker, Elizabeth Alexander observed: “Clifton’s poems are committed to truth-telling in the face of silence.”
[xii] Amy Uyematsu, “The Return” from The Yellow Door (Pasadena, CA: Red Hen Press, 2015). A high school math teacher for over three decades, Uyematsu has published four collections of poetry and was a co-editor of the pioneering 1971 Asian American Studies anthology Roots: An Asian American Reader.
A Dozen Resources for Fashionably Late Writers & Their Timely Friends:
- An occasional contest sponsored by the Poetry Foundation, the Emily Dickinson First Book Award is designed to “recognize an American poet of at least 40 years of age who has yet to publish a first collection of poetry.”
- Founded in 1997, Perugia Press supports emerging women poets with publication of a first or second book through its annual contest.
- Brainchild of the wondrous Two Sylvias Press, The Wilder Series Poetry Book Prize is a poetry contest for emerging or established women over age 50.
- For over 40 years, Persea Books has been an active supporter of literary inclusivity and education. The Lexi Rudnitsky First Book Prize in Poetry sponsors publication of a first full-length collection by a woman, along with a cash advance and an opportunity for an all-expenses-paid residency at the Civitella Ranieri Center.
- The Oregon-based press Concrete Wolf publishes a first full-length collection by a poet over 50 through its Louis Poetry Book Award.
- Sponsored by the Poetry Society of America and open to poets over 40 who have published no more than one book, the Robert H. Winner Memorial Award “acknowledges original work being done in mid-career by a poet who has not had substantial recognition.”
- For creatives over 35, The National League of American Pen Women awards the Shirley Holden Helberg Grants for Mature Women in the categories of visual art, letters, and music.
- Northern California-based Bay Area Generations supports inter-generational collaboration with its mission “to bring together writers of different generations in a spirit of adventure through a submission based reading series and related activities.”
- With a view towards offering “a diverse range of paths as models,” Bloom is an online literary site “devoted to highlighting, profiling, reviewing, and interviewing authors whose first major work was published when they were age 40 or older.”
- A regular feature of the online arts and culture magazine, The Millions, “Post-40 Bloomers” highlights authors whose first books debuted when they were 40 or older.
- Persimmon Tree characterizes itself as “an online magazine of the arts for women over sixty,” but their Archive, especially, provides a treasury of voices of interest to many.
- Curated by Rebecca Foust, Poetry Sunday features the work of women poets over 40 and appears in the online magazine, Women’s Voices for Change.
MARCI VOGEL is the author of At the Border of Wilshire & Nobody, winner of the 2015 Howling Bird Press Poetry Prize. Her poetry, essays, fiction, and translations appear in a number of publications, including Jacket2, Quarter After Eight, Waxwing, The Critical Flame, and The Account. A first generation college-student, she will earn her doctorate in creative writing and literature this spring from USC.