Interview with Rita McGregor -- Grand Prizewinner, Tom Howard Poetry 2009
When did you start writing poetry?
I started soul-wrestling on paper when I was about nine years old to help me sort out my path and keep my sanity, but didn’t try writing poems until we studied them in English class in high school. The number of poems I had written since I was a young adult could probably be counted on one hand. As an English Writing major I took a poetry class at MSUM with Mark Vinz because I was encouraged to stretch myself as a writer. I wrote “Baby Girl” as an assignment for class.
How did you arrive at the subject of your winning poem, "Baby Girl"? Was it based in whole or in part on personal experience?
This happened one winter day on my bus ride to school. I had started carrying a small Moleskin notebook in my backpack to jot down references to things I saw and heard—and what I had thought about. I usually pick events that meant something to me—that touched me in some way. I love those light bulb moments in life—whether they are epiphanies or quick flashes.
How many drafts of the poem did you make before you finally reached the perfect final?
I was brand new to computers at 48 years old when I started college in 1999—discovered cut & paste and have written on a computer ever since! Greatest invention ever! Since I am basically a creative non-fiction writer I start at the beginning of the particular story I want to tell and slowly work and rework my way to the end. It is a very slow process for me. I start from the beginning--over and over—tweak and tweak—sit staring at the screen remembering—try out phrases and words to see what fits most accurately. I can even take out sentences, phrases, or paragraphs and store them on a blank word document—or save different versions. So much easier than using reams of paper handwriting--crossing things out, drawing arrows, cutting up pages to save parts and throw others. I have no clue as to how I could even count drafts because of my particular labor intensive, repetitive process. And, in my excitement, I still sent the copy where I misspelled aisle! (Makes me laugh and keeps a person humble.)
Approximately how much time did you spend writing and polishing this poem?
I think I was working on this poem for around 10-14 days for a class assignment. After I have finally made it to the end, I leave it alone for at least a day, preferably longer. Then I can come back to it with a fresh eye. If I can do that repeatedly for double checking there will come a time I can make it thru the story without tweaking. Then I know it is done.
Have you tried other areas of creative writing?
I started out kind of diary journaling—soul wrestling—hashing things out on paper until I could understand the whys—and I never stopped. I’ve also been an avid letter writer and verbal storyteller all my life. I prefer to think of it as sharing my path—hehe! A lifetime of freeform, stream of consciousness writing didn’t prepare me for professional, polished writing for strangers in college. (As you can tell, I developed a lot of bad writing habits over 50 years—probably why I am more comfortable blogging.)
I think my only saving grace was I have always been a reader, too. Not that I had knowledge about all the wonderful writers I was introduced to in college—but I’d read a cereal box if it was in front of me. I went to college thinking I’d take up Social Work and got such encouragement for my writing that I changed my major and had dreams of an MFA in English Writing.
Have you enjoyed any previous successes?
I was at Concordia in Moorhead, Minnesota for three years. Won first place in a couple of the contests at Concordia—published in their student literary magazine. Was encouraged to submit to literary magazines my sophomore year by my mentor, Doug Carlson. I nervously sent out 30 submissions of a short story called “Soft Breaths”. It was eventually accepted and published by Inkwell Magazine, Manhattanville College, New York! And then again by The Troubadours Lantern, Woodstock, Illinois—and later by Red Weather, MSUM, Moorhead, Minnesota.
My health was quickly failing. I transferred to MSUM so I could continue as a part time student, but I was physically unable to graduate. I have basically been living as a recluse of sorts with my cat—housebound—for the past five years. Had a poem published in the local paper (won an over 50 writer’s contest shortly after I left school)—“I Mourn My Body Past”. But, other than that, I haven’t been writing in any professional manner for five years. The way I write—just too labor intensive for me physically to sit at the desk computer for hours anymore. Recently a lady I met online years ago looked me up, had always remembered “Baby Girl”, and out of the clear blue sky offered to enter it in the contest for me because I couldn’t really afford to myself. So I thank Barbara Elliott Carpenter for her faith in me as a writer. This is my greatest success!
Any words of encouragement that you'd like to share would also be much appreciated.
It’s never too late. Dreams can come true! Have faith and trust in yourself—your own voice. Write from your truth. Believe it when people encourage you. And when a door opens—walk through it!
I wondered how I could ever manage to physically write again. With the miracle of winning this contest, I have been given the gift of a possible solution. I just bought a nifty new laptop and have reinvested in myself as an “author”. No matter what else happens in my life—this was glorious!! I thank you from the bottom of my heart.
The Tom Howard Poetry Contest 2009 winning lists have been posted on http://writeway.exactpages.com and http://writing-events.blogspot.com (which also has the above interview).
The Annual $5,550 Margaret Reid Poetry Prize for Traditional Verse is open! The $5,550 Tom Howard Short Story, Essay and Prose Contest is also now open for entries, but will close on March 31, so now is the time to lodge your story or essay before the judges are swamped by the last-fortnight rush!
And also open of course is the current $5,550 Tom Howard Poetry Contest for Verse in All Styles and Genres. The website for the Tom Howard Poetry Contest is http://tomhowardpoetry.bravepages.com
As you know, these Newsletters are issued only twice a month (usually on the first and fifteenth days). Sometimes it's necessary to get information across more quickly, so I've started a blog, http://writing-events.blogspot.com
In addition to http://writing-events.blogspot.com, I've got some other good news, not only to help contestants in all three of our competitions, but to improve writing skills in the community generally. The Searchwarp website has started a page of Advice Columns and I've been appointed the Writing Advice Editor.
This is a grand opportunity to get answers to the questions I'm often asked at writers' events, e.g. "How can you prevent your characters from taking over a story or novel?", "Is traditional poetry still popular with readers?", "What are the advantages and disadvantages of writing a story from a first-person point-of-view?", "Why can't rhyme be used in free verse? My teacher said this was not acceptable. Why not? She couldn't give me a reason!" I'd love to answer questions like these, but I'm not allowed to write the questions myself, but YOU can send me these and similar questions by using the SearchWarp Advice Column 'ask for advice' form at http://SearchWarp.com/Advice-Columns/Prose-and-Poetry-Advice
This year, the prize pool for our prose and poetry contests has been increased to $5,550 (including a First Prize of $3,000). Entry fees have not been raised. The entry fee for the prose contest remains at $15 for each short story or essay up to 5,000 words in length. There are ten cash prizes in all, but the judges do reserve the right to award extra cash prizes if they so desire. For the last prose contest, the judges awarded no less than $500 in additional prizes, bringing the total prize pool up to $5,850 instead of the advertised $5,350!
To enter your poems in our current poetry contests, you will find full information at http://margaretreid.exactpages.com OR http://poetrycontests.exactpages.com. You will also note that although the prize-money has been increased, entry fees do remain at $7 for every 25 lines.
Unlike almost all other poetry contests, we impose no limits on the number of lines or number of poems you may submit. For the prose contest, we do impose a limit of 5,000 words, but there is NO MINIMUM wordage and also NO RESTRICTION ON THE NUMBER OF ENTRIES you may submit.
For full details, you can also visit the home page of http://www.winningwriters.com and click on the contests at the top left of the screen.
As stated above, the Tom Howard Short Story, Essay & Prose Contest is open. Entries will close on March 31, 2010. Again, let me make it clear that we are seeking entries in ALL categories, including "literary" fiction, but most particularly we would like to award prizes to popular, everyday, mainstream stories, essays and prose, as even a casual glance at our anthologies of winning and commended entries such as Keep Watching the Skies! An Anthology of Prize-Winning Short Stories will soon make plain. Humorous stories and essays are also most welcome. You'll find full details at http://shortstorycontest.0catch.com
The latest Margaret Reid poetry anthology is Love & City Dreaming: Poems by Margaret Havill Reid. Margaret's range and versatility in this book provide an excellent guide to the verse we are seeking for the Margaret Reid Prize.
You'll also find plenty of rousing titles and attention-getting poems in our previous anthologies of winning entries such as SAILING IN THE MIST OF TIME: Award-Winning Poems in which 108 award-winning and commended poems are gathered together in a large-format, 196-page book!
Finally, a plug for my book, Write Ways to WIN WRITING CONTESTS: How To Join the Winners' Circle for Prose and Poetry Awards, NEW EXPANDED EDITION If you've been wasting your time and money sending great stories and magnificent poems to Contests that immediately place them in the reject basket, here's an essential book to help you select the right contests. For example, there are a number of prestigious Poetry Contests that NEVER award prizes to traditional verse, even though they imply in their rules that such forms are acceptable. And there are very few prose or poetry contests that will award prizes to humorous entries, even though this restriction is not so much as hinted at in their rules. So how do you separate a suitable contest for your work from one in which you'll just waste your time and money? One of the key recommendations in my Write Ways to WIN WRITING CONTESTS is that you take a look at some of the entries that have won prizes in previous contests. This will give you some idea of the types and varieties of stories and prose pieces that have won prizes in the past. For our own prose contest, for example, I recommend the two "Watching" books: "Watching the Skies" above, and WATCHING TIME: Anthology of Prizewinning Essays & Short Stories