BOOKS a THE CULTURE Indiana, Lipstick, and Algebra BY MARCELA SULAK The Year We Studied Women By Bruce Snider The University of Wisconsin Press 80 pages, $24.95 T he gates to the world of professional poetry publi cation, unlike those to the world of professional fic tion or nonfiction publica tion, are almost constantly guarded by a three-headed beast called The First Book Contest. Only rarely do publishing houses read first book poetry manuscripts directly. Hence, the beast, which wakes up every October, gorges itself on 20 contests’ worth of manuscripts from all over the country, and then retires at bedtime, November 15 or 30. Over the winter, the papers are digested in the bloated tummy until this creature wakes up again in the spring for a short snack. One of the beast’s heads empties a poet’s pockets: Each contest costs between $15 and $25 to enter. Sometimes the entry fee includes a year-long subscription to the journal associated with the press, or it includes a copy of the winning manuscript, ensuring at least a few hundred copies of the winning manuscript will be sold. The second head regurgitates rejection slips and invitations to submit again. The third head spins publishing seasons into years. Many successful first books are the result of four to five years of this process, and countless revisions to the manuscript and the poems in it. The resulting manuscript rarely resembles the original. Bruce Snider’s successful foray through the gates of publishing was no different. His collection, The Year We Studied Women, emerged with a subtle edge and is both risky and vulnerable in its subject matter. It was selected for the 2003 Felix Pollack Prize in Poetry \(University its purity, artlessness, and exceptional narrative voice. Originally from rural Indiana, Snider has been a familiar figure in the Austin writing community for 10 years. Those who are literarily inclined may know him from his seven-year stint as administrative associate of the University of Texas’s James A. Michener Center for Writers, or from his days as a Michener Fellow. This September he left Austin for Palo Alto, where he is a Wallace Stegner Fellow at Stanford University. Snider’s poetry is Bruce Snider accessible and moving. His language, precise and unobtrusive, reminds me of a good make-up artist of the early ’90s \(and I feel I can say this, as the collection opens with “A Drag of skill, discipline, and a tremendous sense of self to apply make-up in such a way that the features are noticed, not the make-up. His themes are universal: childhood and adolescence, growing up in a world that doesn’t allow you to be yourself, the relationship between parents and between parents and children. But the setting is particular: rural Indiana a couple of decades ago. There are proms, algebra, hunting and fishing, a farmer discovering a dead child, a cancer victim looking for a wig. The collection is often photo: Alan Pogue an exposition of several kinds of love, and the disguises love wears. Written with a certain innocence and honesty that one seldom finds after adolescence, each ache hits you as if for the first time. But the innocence is tempered by experience and objectivity, so that you are spared the rage and frustration of your teenaged years. Snider has the emotional control of Larry Levis and the conscience of Philip Levine, but with more fashion sense than either one, even though the book is about coming of age in the late 1980s, a time in which fashion was woefully misguided. Still, we see in Nana’s rouge and eye-brow pencil protection from the “desire & love & heartbreak/ seeping from the phonograph’s mouth.” And 22 THE TEXAS OBSERVER 11/21/03
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