Conversation with Matthew Olzmann, Kundiman Poetry Prize Winner

Conversation with Matthew Olzmann, Kundiman Poetry Prize Winner

What was going through your head when you were writing the poems in the manuscript you submitted for the Poetry Prize? What were your inspirations and motivations?

The poems in Mezzanines were written over a six or seven-year period (with the majority of them being written during my last year in grad school and the year that followed). Until recently, I tended to write while thinking only about individual poems, rather than “collections” of poems. I wasn’t sure how they would fit together in a larger collection, or if they would go together in a book. That part came much later in the process. Once I had a substantial number of poems, I started organizing them and noticing thematic threads, figurative resonances, repetitions and obsessions. Turning that into a manuscript involved a long process of trial and error. Putting the poems in different orders. Discarding poems. Adding new poems. Seeing where the holes were and writing toward those spaces. The book that eventually became Mezzanines went through many evolutions. It existed with different titles, and dozens of poems shuffled their way in and out of its pages. I sent it to all the contests, and kept revising it. At some point, I decided to stop working on it and just let it exist for a while. I sent it out for a year without making any changes. After a year, I made some more revisions to it, but this time I was revising without having been staring at it everyday. Maybe that perspective–—that added distance—–helped. The manuscript found a home. Then I started revising it again.

What are you working on now?

I’m working on a collection of (mostly) epistolary poems: letters, and poems about post offices. A lot of my poems use some element of direct address, or at least begin that way in early drafts, and this new collection leans into that mode more fully and consciously. I’m also working on some flash fiction and short lyric essays.

What advice do you have for writers looking to submit their manuscript?

Send to the presses that you truly love. You only get to publish this book once, so be patient, and find the press that’s the right fit for you and your work. If you’re thinking of submitting specifically to the Kundiman Prize, know that your work will be read with great care. The people who will be reading your work are rooting for you. A year or two after being selected for the Kundiman Prize, I had the opportunity to serve as a reader for the prize. Each manuscript was read by more than one reader, and careful attention was given to each. It can be daunting sending to contests, but know that there are people out there who are cheering for you.


Matthew Olzmann is the author of two collections of poems, Mezzanines, which was selected for the Kundiman Prize, and Contradictions in the Design, both from Alice James Books.  He’s received fellowships from Kundiman, the Bread Loaf Writers’ Conference and the Kresge Arts Foundation.  His writing has appeared or is forthcoming in  Best American Poetry, Kenyon Review, New England Review, Brevity, Southern Review and elsewhere. Currently, he teaches at Dartmouth College and in the MFA Program for Writers at Warren Wilson College.

Conversation with Janine Oshiro, Kundiman Poetry Prize Winner

Conversation with Janine Oshiro, Inaugural Kundiman Poetry Prize Winner

As we near the end of our submissions period for the Kundiman Poetry Prize (due March 15!), we asked previous winners what insight they have for future applicants looking to submit their manuscript.

Check out below what Janine Oshiro, whose book Pier won the 2010 Poetry Prize, had to say!

1) What was going through your head when you were writing the poems in the manuscript you submitted for the Poetry Prize? What were your inspirations and motivations?

In my poem "Duck Hunting," I make the command and ask the question, "Say it. How do I be inside of me?" This is the major preoccupation of the book. How do I exist in this body that will eventually die? How do I say goodbye to my mother, whose body is gone, but whose presence I still feel? And what joy can I find in the saying, in the making of poems? I was inspired by too many poets to name, poets I know through books and workshops, but two poets I was reading consistently when I worked on Pier were A.R. Ammons and Mei-mei Berssenbrugge. Their work continues to resonate with me and challenge me.

2) What are you working on now?

For many years now I have been working on some essays that may or may not grow into something bigger and less essay-like. I still feel uncertain about what I'm doing with these particular chunks of words, but I'm devoted to the work and seeing what may come of it.

3) What advice do you have for writers looking to submit their manuscript?

It took me a long time to start thinking of my poems as a manuscript. I think other people saw the potential for a collection before I did and helped me to conceive of it as a book. I was just focused on one poem, the poem that was in front of me. I really needed other people to help me see the work as a whole. Cultivating writing friendships and being open to change and play with the manuscript is key.

Janine Oshiro is the author of Pier, winner of the 2010 Kundiman Poetry Prize, published by Alice James Books. She has been awarded the 2011 Elliot Cades Award for Literature in Hawaiʻi and the 2013 Asian American Literary Award for Poetry. She lives in Hawaiʻi, where she is currently studying massage therapy.


A Conversation with Rajiv Mohabir, Kundiman Poetry Prize Winner

A Conversation with Rajiv Mohabir, Kundiman Poetry Prize Winner 

As we near the end of our submissions period for the Kundiman Poetry Prize (due March 15!), we asked previous winners what insight they have for future applicants looking to submit their manuscript.

Check out below what Rajiv Mohabir, whose book The Cowherd's Son was the winner of our 2015 Poetry Prize, had to say!


1) What was going through your head when you were writing the poems in the manuscript you submitted for the Poetry Prize? What were your inspirations and motivations?

I wrote the majority of the poems in The Cowherd’s Son while putting together The Taxidermist’s Cut (Four Way Books), my first book. The poems in The Cowherd’s Son focus on the religious and mythological traditions that I have inherited as a second generation Indo-Caribbean. A patchwork of Muslim, Hindu, and Christian shape the tone of this collection.

I was inspired by my Aji’s songs and stories. My poems are a kind of translation of her poetic. I attempt to cycle her songs again but from my own particular generation and idiom. I am inspired by the poems of Bhojpuri folk music, Kabir, Mirabai, Sudesh Mishra, and Rooplal Monar. American poets like Roger Sedarat, Agha Shahid Ali, Craig Santos Perez, Eduardo C. Corral, Rigoberto González, and so many others also inflect my craft decisions and my lyric impulses.

When it came to putting the manuscript together, it was Oliver de la Paz at the 2013 Kundiman retreat who told me to pull out the poems about mythology from my taxidermy poems. I couldn’t just abandon this clutch that sung of the coolie diaspora—I still felt them move me. Allison Adelle Hedge Coke sat with me on the floor of Sinclair Library at the University of Hawai‘i, Mānoa and together we stitched the poems together.

2) What are you working on now?

Right now I am working on two book manuscripts. The first is a collection of poems I call “chutney poems.” I kind of invent a formal poem based on the structure of a syncretic form of Indo-Caribbean dance/folk music to pay tribute to the oral traditions that I come from. The language is filled with triple entendre play and recklessness, crackling in and out of Guyanese Creole, Bhojpuri, and English.

My second manuscript is a memoir that I’ve tentatively titled “Antiman” that centers my transition from Orlando, Florida to Varanasi, India to New York City—together about a seven year span from when I worked as a teacher in the NYC Department of Education to when I did my MFA at Queens College. In it I write about my experiences with going to India for the first time since my ancestors left over 120 years ago, my encounters with Indo-Caribbean music, and navigating familial space as a queer.

3) What advice do you have for writers looking to submit their manuscript?

My advice to writers who are working at their first collections, is to write through rejections. Rejections are hard—still, revise and resubmit. Transform every last rejection you get into determination to edit, to push yourself harder. Keep going, reading along the way. You will learn all kinds of things about yourself along the way. The publishing world is 89% white. It’s an industry clearly stacked against writers of color, queer and trans writers, disabled writers, writers with “complicated” (read non-cisheteropatriarchal “able-bodied”) identities, etc.

Also, you are not alone. So many people say that to be a writer is to be alone. There are other writers out there who are struggling as you are. Find them. Share your work. Be open to hearing critiques. Share your favorite books. Kundiman is proof that a community can feed you along this path. Again, you are not alone.


Rajiv Mohabir is the author of The Taxidermist's Cut (Four Way Books, winner of the Intro to Poetry Prize) and The Cowherd's Son. Read more about him at

September 18 & 20: #LITINCOLOR at The Brooklyn Book Festival

Friday, September 18, 2015
7:00 PM
Unnameable Books, 600 Vanderbilt Ave, Brooklyn, NY 11238

Poets Yesenia Montilla and Angel Nafis join non­fiction writer Amarnath Ravva and fiction writer Gina Apostol to celebrate writers of color. The authors will read from New York­-based writers of color that have influenced them, and from their own work. This reading is presented by Asian American literary organizations Kaya Press and Kundiman, who will be sharing a booth at the Brooklyn Book Festival on Sunday Sept. 20th. #LitinColor is a campaign to draw attention to the influence of writers of color on the national imagination.


GINA APOSTOL's last novel, Gun Dealers’ Daughter, won the 2013 PEN/Open Book Award and was shortlisted for the 2014 William Saroyan International Prize. Her first two novels, Bibliolepsy and The Revolution According to Raymundo Mata, both won the Juan Laya Prize for the Novel (Philippine National Book Award). She is working on William McKinley’s World, a novel set in Balangiga and Tacloban in 1901, during the Philippine-American War. She was writer-in-residence at Phillips Exeter Academy and a fellow at Civitella Ranieri in Umbria, Italy, among other fellowships. Her essays and stories have appeared in The New York Times, Los Angeles Review of Books, Foreign Policy, Gettysburg Review, Massachusetts Review, and others. She lives in New York City and western Massachusetts and grew up in Tacloban, the Philippines. She teaches at the Fieldston School in New York City.

YESENIA MONTILLA is a New York City poet with Afro-Caribbean roots. Her poetry has appeared in the chapbook For the Crowns of Your Head, as well as the literary journals 5AM,AdannaThe Wide Shore and others. She received her MFA from Drew University in Poetry and Poetry in Translation and is a CantoMundo Fellow. Her first collection The Pink Box will be published by Willow Books in October of 2015.

ANGEL NAFIS (Brooklyn, NY) is a Cave Canem Fellow. Her work has appeared in The Rattling WallUnion Station MagazineMUZZLE MagazineMosaic Magazine and Poetry Magazine. She is an Urban Word NYC Mentor and the founder, curator, and host of the quarterly Greenlight Bookstore Poetry Salon reading series. She is the author of BlackGirl Mansion (Red Beard Press/ New School Poetics, 2012). Facilitating generative writing workshops and reading poems across the United States and Canada, she lives in Brooklyn.

California-based writer AMARNATH RAVVA (Los Angeles, CA) is the author of American Canyon (Kaya Press, 2014). He has performed at LACMA, Machine Project, the MAK Center at the Schindler House, New Langton Arts, the Hammer Museum, USC, Pomona, CalArts, and the Sorbonne. In addition to his writing practice, he is a member of the site specific ambient music supergroup Ambient Force 3000, and for the past nine years he has helped run and curate events at Betalevel, a venue for social experimentation and hands-on culture located in Los Angeles’ Chinatown. He is currently working on a book about Victorian era botanical expeditions called The Glass House.

Facebook Event Page here:

Kundiman & Kaya Booth at the Brooklyn Book FestivaL

Sunday, September 20th, 10am – 6pm
Table #247

Join Kaya Press and Kundiman for a scavenger hunt and readings by writers of color at Table #247 at The Brooklyn Book Festival. 

Kundiman & The Home School Partnership

Kundiman and The Home School would like to announce their inaugural partnership and name Rajiv Mohabir as the recipient of a Home School Miami 2016 scholarship! He will be receiving a full tuition waiver (1175 USD) plus a travel honorarium (500 USD) for the full residency as the winner of the 2015 Kundiman Book Prize.

The Home School organizes weeklong conferences for poets and artists. Home School participants spend six days immersed in an intensive program that foregrounds interdisciplinary experimentation and collaboration.

Apply to The Home School residency by the free early-bird deadline of August 31 to participate in Home School activities. 

Miami Beach, Florida: 

Home School Miami 2016 will feature core poetry faculty: Timothy Donnelly, Adam Fitzgerald, Cathy Park Hong, Dorothea Lasky, Tan Lin, Maggie Nelson and Mónica de la Torre. Visiting poets: Natalie Diaz, Renee Gladman, Mira Gonzalez, Jorie Graham and Derek Walcott.