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KEN CHEN
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How to Win Writing Prizes at UC Berkeley
Essay, Satellite, Vol. 2, Iss. 6, April 2001

Don't believe what everyone else thinks--it's much harder to lose prizes than win them. Winning the Berkeley writing prizes that pop up each March, for example, confers the respect of one's peers and mentors, as well as near-infinite sums of money. Mediocrity, on the other hand, is difficult; the sub-Bronze medal winners get anonymity, which only perpetuates their long string of ego bruises--the parents never there at the little league games, being in and out of juvie twice before age 10, and perhaps the worst upshot of teen America's self-esteem woes: the entire genre of teen poetry, with its rich verbal catalogue: "blood," "rain," "doom," "Satellite."

The only other alternative? Arrogance, also known as the "You were just over their heads" approach to losing, with the non-winner cast as the literary Galileo, the intellectual rebel whose work escapes contemporary means of understanding. It's not that you weren't good enough--it's that you were too good, just like perennial losers Jorge Luis Borges, Norman Mailer, and Nabokov (all rejected by Knopf publishing) and that no-good insurance salesman Wallace Stevens (personally dumped by T.S. Eliot). Let's say you're just like them--probably even better, since your genius has yet to be recognized.

Well, it's time to recognize it. Want to win? Last week, Satellite went on a field trip to the Bancroft library, and after an afternoon of reading winning manuscripts, we've made this instruction booklet on how to do it.

1. Look bad. With the exception of the obligatory table of contents and page numbers, most of the winners didn't give a damn about production values or graphic design (what--you thought this article would be about writing?), with many winners going with Courier, generally agreed upon as the ugliest typeface of all time. Our guess is that Courier, with its inelegant resemblance to the modest typewriter font, functions as a visual cue to supplement the writing, as if to say: "Look, doesn't my manuscript look like it came from a typewriter? That's cause a writer wrote it!"

2. Show off. Students and professors both love one thing: Gimmicks! Remember, in the rock-paper-scissors game of composition, the lush lyric and precious marginalia beat wimpy realistic devices like dialogue or plot development any day. The easiest way to start is with prefatory quotes, preferably one by William Blake (used by two different recent winners). Be like Jose Alaniz, winner of the 2000 Eisner award, the highest literary award at Berkeley. Jose's interesting novel, Tales of Bart, begins with a quote from Pushkin, followed by an introductory passage (where the narrator stumbles upon the documents that are the actual novel), three office memos, court records, chat room dialogue, a Translator's Preface, a Preface to the Second Edition, and a multilingual museum log (and that's just before we stopped counting!). With literature evolving at this rate--in this PoMo formulation--soon enough Ronald McDonald's famed placemat style of the Twentieth Century will rank next to the Shakespearian sonnet and the haiku of Basho. If this sounds too hip for you, then just stick with big words--though size isn't the only factor. Here are some good ones from real poetry winners: incommensurable, boundary, hierarchy, absences, sapience.

3. Colon-operations. Have, fun: with punctuation! If you're doing it right, you're probably doing it wrong. Just to make sure, take every typographical mark you can think of; and--randomly--insert, them (!) into any sentence: of your 'manuscript.'

4. Write about writing. We do it in Satellite all the time.

5. Aphorism is the language of poetry. After all, what other kind of poetry other than aphorism has any practical value anyway? With a handy bit of one-line wisdom tucked in your brain, you can whip poetry out on demand--at parties, at the bus stop, at dinner, even in the comfort of your own home!

6. Be poetic, not normal. As Warren Liu wrote in his exceptional (no sarcasm intended) 1997 Eisner winning manuscript, "The trees no longer shape-shift into wings and forked tails. The lichen remains obscure" (from Comprador). Be like the lichen--obscure. This works better in longer doses, since lengthier poems teach the reader how to understand them. If your mind doesn't automatically produce visionary dynamos of starry incandescence, then just try surrealist parlor games. The most well known is exquisite corpse (you write a line, then give it to your neighbor, who writes another, and so on, with each person only responding to the previous line), but we also like the one where different people write unrelated questions and answers: What is the night? Only twenty-five cents and a broken face.

7. Be normal, not poetic; if you can't be unintelligible, at least be intelligible. The smaller poetry contests especially reward the legendary first person anecdotal poem--the most literal recording of the mundane world. Let's write one now! What kind of car does your dad own? What grocery store do you frequent? Do your parents love you? The result: Title: "Daddy" Poem text: "I would never forget / that night--you, your blue Ford pick-up, carrying / the brown bags out of Safeway. The moon was out, the sky pink / like the foxglove's intimate bell-shaped blossoms. And then, you / said you never loved me." The moon and the flowers are what people want from poetry; other good topics: love; death; childhood; Americana; nature in general; parents and the problems they present. On that note: the ending of the poem can be toggled back and forth (between love or not--love) depending on the desired effects.

8. Old World class or New World grit: One or the other. If possible, try to reference European painters from the last few centuries--preferably an obscure one with a distinctively European name (if you don't know any, then make one up: "…it was then that we saw the friezes of Spaghetti"). Cities are also good--especially when their level of foreignness equals their level of familiarity: London and New York are too close, and English. Russia--or, worse, Ghana, Lima, or Beijing--seem almost too far away. Paris, good; Spain, better. Venice? Perfect. Literal descriptions of architectures are also good, but only if you've actually been there. As for Russia (or Ghana, Lima or Beijing), they do work, if you're willing to be a minority about it. A poem about Bejing, for example, must really be about your Chinese mother, your great-grandmother's bound feet, your fascination with calligraphy, and that Asian side you suppressed in public schools run by (gasp!) whites.

9. The abstract was meant to mix with the concrete. Try it at home: I (physical verb) like (abstract noun). "I cry like rain" may be too sentimental, but the trick is in integrating the two seamlessly and randomly: "My tears like the trembling beauty…"

10. Be a graduate student. Probably but not necessarily the same as no. 11.

11. Be brilliant. This suggestion is the most difficult to implement.

 

All content, unless otherwise noted, (c) Ken Chen, 1998-2006. Ken Chen can be reached by email.

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