In this dreamlike tale, a struggling poet sabotages the contest he’s judging.
Fernando A. Flores, guest judge for our 2019 short story contest, says his favorite stories are those that “take some kind of risk, strive for something greater, unknown, undefined, and afterward leave you lost in the woods of what you read.”
Adam Soto’s “The Prize” takes several risks. First, Soto made the audacious decision to submit a story about a writing contest to a writing contest. Second, the narrative takes readers on a twisting and turning path that’s equal parts magical realism, industry satire, and social critique. Read all the way to the end, where Soto discusses the writing process behind “The Prize.”
I was only a volunteer contributing remotely from Monterrey. La Fundación ———’s office in Madrid, which had historically managed by itself the annual international poetry competition, had been outsourcing editors ever since Mariano Rajoy was elected. Rajoy was out by the time I signed up, those Spaniards having finally come to their senses after all that austerity, but the competition’s slush pile had yet to go home, that reeking heap of hope and tasteless resistance that for thirty Euro any poet working in the Spanish language could throw their own words into. I myself had submitted to the contest every year since I was eighteen; volunteering my sensibilities to winnow the entries so that a final judge would have fewer poems from which to pick the winner meant refraining for the first time in nearly a decade from submitting my own work for consideration. LF—— editors were barred from participating. It turned out to be a record-breaking year for submissions: an even ten thousand entries. I agreed to read two hundred and fifty over the course of two months, submit my top twenty-five and be done with it. I imagined others, all over the world, doing the same. In an invisible turn of events, however, somehow, I alone inherited all ten thousand and was given a year to read every one.
The poems arrived all at once, in a clear-plastic-wrapped white stack more than two meters tall, left in the courtyard of my apartment building. This beaming paperwhite totem with my name and address written atop its otherwise bald pate, swirling with lizards attracted by the heat of its white, December reflection, was very J.G. Ballard. Being inexplicably fucked over by La Fundación ——— was quite Kafka.
In Madrid, in years past, there had been, like, forty paid readers—professors, literary practitioners. Together, they bailed writers out of political prisons, sent Susana Chávez-lookalikes to the forgotten classrooms and community centers of the world, delivered a check of twenty thousand Euro to one obscure poet every February. In Monterrey, there was my girlfriend and me. Together, we read 13.5 poems a day in our underwear, smoked too much pot. We were obscure poets in our own right. Yep, those folks in Madrid would continue getting all the notoriety for their humanitarian efforts while we remained obscure, despite our rights, despite our contributions.
You might ask, “How did this happen?” My uncle had a theory. He works for the city of Santa Fe, in New Mexico, and says that nothing has ever changed between the Spanish and the indígenas anywhere. Old Spanish families get away with murder in New Mexico and the indígenas are allowed to continue practicing traditional irrigation methods that are not faring so well in our era of climate change and commoditized water. “I don’t know how those people sleep with themselves, how they live at night,” my uncle said. I agreed with him entirely. Ten thousand poems. I pictured my girlfriend and I digging shallow acequias with our fingers, the poems evaporating or else being sucked up by global consumer culture. The twenty thousand Euro prize at the end of it all only added to the disillusionment. I was to pick ten poems for the judge, who was still unknown. I pictured an old Spanish professor awaiting the product of my labor, my maleficence, his body meat dripping over a leather chair like in a painting by Francis Bacon.
“How could you let this happen to us?” my girlfriend asked when the poems first arrived. Like mottled white doves settling in for the night but for the long haul, the laserjet printouts molted on the countertops, our bed, the floor, windowsills, and toilet tank, sucked to the airducts. “One day,” I said aloud, “I’m going to step on one of these pages and the world beneath it will have eroded and I’ll fall right through the center of the Earth, wind up standing on my head somewhere in China.”
I thought of the poor poet Susana Chávez. Susana, murdered in her hometown of Ciudad Juárez, who said, Ni una muerte más and became una muerte más. How, indeed.
“They must’ve found out my grandma was indigenous,” I said, recalling my uncle’s theory.
“I thought your grandma was German?”
Much of the work in the slush pile was bad. In one poem the speaker would be a male member of the Israeli Defense Force professing his love to a male member of Hamas. In another, a male member of Hamas would profess his love to a male member of the Israeli Defense Force. From what we could tell, none of the poets were Israeli or Palestinian. I’m not opposed to interreligious nonheteronormative love poems, I want justice and freedom for all people, but when a poem is engineered to be a rhetorical bomb… After a while, though, I could no longer blame the poets. For twenty thousand Euro, one suspects the world expects only the outlandish: something personal, universal, timely, timeless, and, ultimately, sexy. Loyal to relevancy. I searched foreign obituaries to see if some of the poets were dead. I awaited poems sent by family or close friends of dead poets. The days crawled, 13.5 poems a day, all of the poems supposedly written by the living. At times it felt as if my girlfriend and I were the last people on Earth who could read. Eventually, my girlfriend stopped reading. Eventually, she left.
Deadline after deadline was missed, for nearly a year. One incongruous love poem after another, liberating or damning humanity. And what happened in Mexico, the world, my own life, during this time, I had no idea. There were refugees in tents on our side of the northern border, children in cages on the other side, I know this now. But because none of it appeared in the poems, the poems having been written the year or years before, this truth did not come into full relief until later, the way Olivia’s departure has not come into full relief until now. I am looking at the poems she’d enjoyed and set aside for me to consider, which I never did.
Because I came across Zha Yuanming’s “Untitled” first.
Joining La Fundación ——— had been Olivia’s idea, an attempt to remedy the cynical malaise I’d been suffering. Year after year, I’d read the prize-winning poem and thought, My God, the judge picked this out of spite! Winners received news about their achievements from behind bars, in burn wards, in exile. Back then I thought, This is empathy in extremis! It was envy. The story of a white male librarian from Fort Wayne, Indiana, earning a spot in Best American Poetry under a Chinese pseudonym was well known. Reality, filled with decapitated heads, was already cast in horror genre ennui.
Pickled with the same conditions under which the judges strained to celebrate empathy, I found Zha Yuanming online, a Chinese factory worker dying from liver cancer. I wrote “Untitled” and submitted the poem in his name. Worst-case scenario, a poor man received a sudden windfall of money and my words lived on in near-infamy.
Olivia cured me. The slush pile taught me that clever thing about suspicions and expectations around literary prizes, that we’re often our worst when trying to be our best. Like flossing, literature can do wonders when you open up to it. I would’ve discarded Zha Yuanming’s poem had I stayed that person. But a Kafka thing happened. The poems took over. Olivia left. And I began to wonder if I had ever been cured at all. I’d wanted access to the Ivory Tower and now I was the only one home. My uncle’s postcolonial theory throbbed in my head.
“Untitled” sat on my table, a genuine sin, a real lie, a true co-opting of another race and culture.
“Olivia!” I called into the paperwhite void. (There were still so many poems left.) (Between poetry and my graphic design job, I didn’t have time to clean up, to find another way of being.)
But no one answered back. No one came to sit beside me and talk. I pictured a professor in Spain, who wore greasy rings for some reason. I pictured the enormity of the secret, irrelevant fuck-you of sabotaging an international poetry competition. I reread the poem.
The speaker works in a microchip factory. One of his coworkers is a lady who’s always complaining about her love life. The speaker finds her annoying but endearing. In the third stanza, the lady says her boyfriend won’t marry her because of the mole on her face. The speaker wishes he could tell her about their boss, who moans her name in the bathroom while rubbing one out each day. Suddenly, the lady disappears; the woman who replaces her says mole-face jumped out a window. Heartbroken, the speaker finishes by saying he’s about to crap his pants—he’s been avoiding the bathroom all day, fearful he might hear his boss weeping in there.
Can one really ever reduce 1.351 billion lives to a literary device? I wondered. I’d worked in a factory once. I have possessed love for people for whom that love could mean nothing. I have loved people I could not possibly save. And since when had poetry become so nonfictional?
I submitted “Untitled” and nine other poems to the office in Madrid. The following day I received an email stating that the judge, who was a woman, actually, had requested I choose the winner. Tragedy had befallen her family, and this was her relinquishing control, her saying, “OK, Universe.” The person writing the email on the judge’s behalf, her assistant, said, “You can do this. You’ve gotten us this far.” This may sound odd, disingenuous, but I was quite surprised when I awarded Zha first place. Much more surprised than I was a week later when the assistant emailed me again to say Zha was dead.
“Perhaps a relative would accept the prize? We’ll pay to send you out there.”
A friend and former coworker named Lan was the only person I could reach, though she said she’d be happy to accept the prize on Zha’s behalf. “I’d like to set up a foundation,” she said. In Shanghai, LF—— set me up in a tiny hotel room with too much furniture. Lan agreed to meet at another hotel, one where her brother worked.
Lan turned out to be a very hip-looking young woman. She wore tall white gym shoes and boxy stonewashed jeans and a big silver Mylar coat. In her brother’s hotel lobby, still wearing her puffy coat, she handed me a perforated shoebox. A potential box of rabbits, until I heard pages shifting inside. Zha’s other poems.
“I didn’t even know Zha wrote poetry,” she said in English. “Setting up foundations is very difficult here; we should take this money and translate and publish the rest of his work.”
The poems were in Mandarin. The irony was as rich as a tarpit, but as avoidable too. All I needed to do was sidestep any notion that the universe was merciful. Thus, I acted like Saul before he became Paul the Apostle, Paul McCartney before he met Linda—I ceased to believe. How else would I sleep with myself? How would I live at night?
“Do you still work at the factory?” I asked Lan.
“No,” she said.
She explained that two years ago, a dozen of her coworkers had marched to the roof of the factory and leapt into the lot below. For months, ghosts rode the elevators to jump again. Finally, the facility was razed and two architects designed something made entirely of safety nets to replace it. Returning to work, Lan had been mystified to find out exactly what that meant. In architecture, even metaphors are material. The floors were nets, she said. The walls were nets; every door and hallway a narrow separating of two nets. Beneath every window, which was really only a looser-knit net, there was the callipered crawl of another net, such that if one were to cut or wiggle their way out they wouldn’t fall.
“Today, the building appears as a faint, graphite sketch in the sky—the presence of people woven inside incidental,” she said. “During breaks the whole place fills with phone chatter. Come winter, when it snows, everything disappears. In the spring, the woven-in people began to hang themselves with the nets. But you don’t believe me. Zha would’ve corroborated…”
Finger smudge, ink, pulp, and mold rose from the box, the silicified smell of the former shoes. A cardboard heart. The heart, a strange library.
I did not believe her. And I suddenly knew the poems I held in my hands were hers, that if we published them under Zha Yuanming’s name, this woman and I would somehow manage to get the same thing out of the same miserable death.
Her brother appeared. A concierge.
“Jacuzzi to celebrate!” he said. “For Zha! I’m off in ten minutes!”
Later, with my body rested inside the gurgling pool, I noticed a mole beside Lan’s nose. Her brother was pouring flutes of champagne, and Lan and I were discussing what other poems I could contribute to the collection. They would have to be consistent with hers, with the voice of Zha Yuanming we had created.
“We only get this one chance?” I said.
Both she and I had spent years being rejected by publishers. Zha’s notoriety alone would change that.
“Unfortunately,” she said, accepting a flute from her brother.
I took one too.
“But there were so many things I wanted to say,” I said.
“You can’t. For example, he’d have had no way of knowing about Susana Chávez. So, you can’t mention her.”
“The refugee tents, the children in cages, the looks on all these people’s faces?”
“He was already dead,” Lan said. “They don’t report on that stuff here.”
Soaking, drinking my champagne, celebrating, I felt everything fizz up, evaporate in fumes. Ten thousand poems dried their feathers and left. Then I left, came back to Monterrey, wrote poems from Zha Yuanming’s perspective for months, mostly about re-education camps, helped Lan translate, found a popular press willing to publish Zha’s book. La Fundación —— told me the slush pile would return next year to Madrid, where forty salaried readers hungrily awaited the literary challenge. “Good job, though. Poetry owes you one.” I graphic-designed. Lan and I talked on the phone. Sometimes she sounded as miserable as I was, sometimes less.
I sit here rereading the poems Olivia set aside, good poems. I’m also tracking a package currently out for delivery somewhere in the city of Monterrey. A book by Zha Yuanming will arrive in my courtyard by end of day. A stack a few centimeters thick. Advance reviews have been positive. About half the collection’s poems are mine. Do they say what I meant to say?
Over the phone, I say to Lan, “I want to tell people I’m sorry.”
Adam Soto on “The Prize”:
Lan’s story about the building made of nets had been kicking around for ages, and Zha Yuanming, an homage to Xu Lizhi, the poet and Foxconn employee who committed suicide in 2014, exists within the universe of the novel I’ve been working on for the past seven years. Finding the most poetic punishment for artistic dishonesty and identity theft I could think of, and reaching it in fewer than 2,500 words, felt a little like putting together a puzzle, and left me with the same sense of disillusionment and a touch of the imposter syndrome the narrator experiences, which I took as an indication that the story was finally working. I put it to rest when, as big of a drag as the story was, there seemed to be enough levity in its circumstances for the piece to take on the weird irreality of a parable. This fought nicely with the irony-laden screed against literary meritocracy the narrator tries so desperately to hide behind at first but must abandon at risk of moral peril.
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