Yesterday I blogged about judging the Washington Prize. 2011 was The Word Works' first year using an electronic submission method, which resulted in about a fifty percent increase in submissions. Once the decision was finalized by the judges, we learned that we’d chosen work by Mike White, a native of Canada who earned his doctorate at the University of Utah, where he now teaches. Though his poetry has been widely published in literary magazines, this will be White’s first published poetry collection, entitled How to Make a Bird with Two Hands. I asked him to describe his experience with book contests, as well as to talk about his title and aesthetic.
How long had you sent your manuscript out to the contests? About how many contests did you enter? Did you revise the manuscript during the process?
I’ve been sending out the manuscript for about five years, though the current
version of the manuscript scarcely resembles the original. Before winning the
Washington Prize, I probably entered 20-25 different contests, some on multiple
Had you entered the contest for the Washington Prize prior to this year?
I’d been a semi-finalist at The Word Works in 2010. Following the announcement of that year’s winner—Brad Richard—I received written feedback on my manuscript from the judges. I couldn’t possibly assimilate all of the varied comments and suggestions, of course, but it was really rewarding (and ultimately constructive) to get a snapshot of how the manuscript was being received once I sent it out into the ether.
Your collection is unusual because of the number of short poems (ten lines or less) it contains. What is it about the short poem that attracts you?
What attracts me to the short poem is the sense of risk involved. Even at a purely
physical level, the short poem is surrounded by white space, islanded. There’s
no place to hide in a short poem, no room for what William Carlos Williams
called “ornament and encrustation,” no time for meaning and significance to
slowly accrue. It all has to happen in the blink of an eye. For this reason, I think
that the best short poems, whether written by William Carlos Williams or Issa,
draw our attention back to words, to the inherent strangeness of words and their
potentially magical combinations. Here’s Issa, for example, with his unique
fusion of humor and pathos:
In spring rain,
how they carry on,
The successful short poem enacts an interesting paradox: on some level, the
poem seems most obviously a gesture of humility, but there’s also great hubris in
thinking that a handful of words can generate a complex, rich experience.
Would you talk about the significance of the collection's title, specifically its ambiguity.
The title How to Make a Bird with Two Hands suggests, broadly, a creative,
transformative act. More specifically, the title could hint at origami construction,
as well as the shadow puppeteer’s crude magic, a minor God-like capacity to
project winged movement onto a screen; but the title is also meant to evoke
simultaneously the image of a two-handed bird, a human-avian hybrid figure.
Likewise, in the poems, identity is shown to be fluid; it can be shaped and re-
shaped, formed and deformed; it can challenge our established categories.
The poems often explore the complex interactions between humans and other
creatures, whether a crow or a tree or an angel, or, as one poem would have
it, the “tentacled motherfucker” who lives beneath our urban wildernesses.
I’m not sure all of that is captured in the title, but it’s a start! I also liked the
monosyllabic solidity of the title, which reflects something of the collection’s
One of your manuscript's great strengths was its organization. You were able to include short meditative lyrics alongside poems with titles like "Death for Bad Guys Tastes Like Candy" (a favorite of mine.) How did you arrive at the book's order?
This is not a book that is tightly organized around a particular subject matter.
There is also no consistently identifiable “I” in the collection. All of which
presented a challenge in terms of producing a cohesive manuscript. In the course
of much shuffling and reshuffling, I was striving always to link the poems through
thematic resonance. Ideally, I wanted a reader who was moving through the book
not to know what was coming, to be constantly surprised, but also to recognize
the echoes of preceding poems. Meaning accumulates, I hope, in the interplay (with an emphasis upon play) between poems in the collection.
I leave you with the final poem in How to Make a Bird with Two Hands, which nods toward Auden’s great poem, “In Memory of WB Yeats”:
To peel an orange
by its own light
is to make nothing
and the scent of orange
on my hands
that is nothing
(originally published in The Evansville Review)