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Taking the High Road for Poetry

Melinda Palacio -- January 31, 2010

Last week, I was surprised, though I shouldn't have been, by a conversation I had with a literary agent who gave me some "free advice" and suggested I give up poetry and devote all of my creative energy to writing novels. As someone approaching the writing life from solely a monetary perspective, the literary agent just didn't seem to get it. I'm very proud of my poetry publications and could not imagine a literary life without poetry. True, I'm building a literary career without the assistance of an agent and I write what I want, be it fiction, non-fiction, or poetry. Sometimes working with a small press is just the right therapy for a poetry-fearing world.

Melinda Palacio

As someone who works in multiple genres, I never know what I'm going to write when I sit down with a word or image. Sometimes the form gets out of control and the poem I had in mind turns into a short story. A year ago, I decided to make a trip I had been avoiding. I joined my sister Emily and we visited our father in Folsom prison. The weight and importance of this trip didn't surface until several weeks later when I started writing about the experience.

In one weekend I wrote twelve poems about my prison visit. When I started sharing some of the poems with fellow poets, my friend Susan Chiavelli announced that I had a chapbook in the making. Several of Susan's questions led to more poems. By March, some of the poems were published in literary journals; by May, I submitted my chapbook to seven contests. On August 31, Arthur Dawson of Kulupi Press called to inform me I had won their Sense of Place Chapbook Competition. This great news came after finding out my novel, Ocotillo Dreams, had been accepted for publication by Arizona State University Bilingual Press.

Opening a box of
poetry chapbooks

I didn't know which stars were aligned when I received the winning news, I was happy to see my hard work paying off. In June, I received a scholarship to attend the Squaw Valley Community of Writers for a week of poetry, hiking, and enjoying the natural beauty of the high Sierras. Squaw Valley is not too far from Folsom prison, and apparently, I hadn't finished my series of prison poems. Perhaps, I'll never be finished with the subject? During my week with the Community of Writers, I wrote one poem a day. For some poets, such as our poet Laureate, David Starkey, who committed himself to write a poem a day for an entire year, writing a poem a day seems like a piece of cake. Each day, I worried that I would come up empty handed. Luckily, the creative juices kept flowing and on one of those days I wrote "Jail Bird Bop for Pops". The poem was a surprise and a success. In the editing process of Folsom Lockdown, Arthur and the editors at Kulupi agreed to include my new prison poem in the chapbook. Many poetry contests specifically state that you cannot add new poems once your manuscript has been accepted for publication. I was pleased to have such flexible editors. They also allowed me to change the title of my winning manuscript.

Collaborating with Arthur Dawson and the editors at Kulupi Press has been a dream come true. They consulted with me on every detail from the cover, back flap, poem content, editorial corrections, and font plates. The result is a small, but power packed volume of poems I am proud of. With my liberal use of Spanish, this volume required a careful editor. Rebecca Lawton rose to the challenge and combed through the manuscript for any transcription errors. In an era when the idea of print books is becoming rarer and more expensive, I'm grateful there are artists and poets who still care about producing a quality poetry chapbook and I feel honored to see my collection in print. Arthur Dawson, Rebecca Lawton, and the editors at Kulupi Press did a fine job. I know I'm extremely lucky that they chose Folsom Lockdown as the winner of their Sense of Place competition.

While I work on my second novel, I will continue to send out poems for publication and search for a publisher for my full length collection of poems. Folsom Lockdown represents my first book in print. Online journals and e-readers may be the wave of the future, but there's nothing like holding a printed book in your hands, especially when you've penned it.

Advance Praise for Folsom Lockdown

"Folsom Lockdown is that rare literary song that jars the heart, the memories, the pains, as well as what's good in all of us. Prison is not just that place far away where your loved ones may be--the razor wire structures have now reached into our homes, our thoughts, our feelings, our psyche. Somehow, we're all behind bars. And Melinda Palacios' poems are a welcome reprieve that dares to illustrate how poetry and art are the only real keys to all our liberations. This is a poet for our time, in hard times, when so many are doing time." --Luis J. Rodriguez, author of "My Nature is Hunger" and other books as well founder/editor of Tia Chucha Press