The launch of Jayson Iwen’s poetry collection “Roze & Blud: A Long Poem” started with a surprise voicemail message that left the University of Wisconsin-Superior writing professor agape.
Former United States poet laureate Billy Collins — possibly one of the most famous contemporary poets — wanted to talk to him about something.
“No way,” Iwen recalled thinking. “This is ridiculous. I had to call him back.”
Collins was on an airplane, so he had to be brief: he wanted him to know that Iwen’s new poetry book was one Collins kept coming back to as he considered his pick for the 2020 Miller Williams Poetry Prize.
“I sat there with my jaw dropped,” Iwen said.
More than a year later, the collection — a series that tells the story of two very different people sharing a geographic space, yet probably not crossing paths — has been entered by his publisher, University of Arkansas Press, for the 2021 Pulitzer Prize in Poetry.
The winner will be announced June 11 — a postponement from its traditional April date so that the 18 members of the Pulitzer Prize Board can meet in person to discuss the works, according to a news release. Past winners have included Sharon Olds, W.S. Merwin, Ted Kooser and Philip Levine.
Last year’s winner was Jerico Brown’s third collection, “The Tradition,” reviewed in the New York Times as being “a catalog of injuries past and present, personal and national, in a country where blackness, particularly male blackness, is akin to illness.”
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Iwen made a few stops en route to the University of Wisconsin-Superior — including time spent teaching in Beirut and a short detour to consider life as a tech writer for a software company.
He joined the faculty at UWS in 2011.
In Iwen’s reading of contemporary poetry, he was missing stories that resonate with this region — the heartbreaking, harrowing and happy tales of his friends, students and strangers.
“Roze & Blud” was born of that void, he said, the stories of the working class.
“I just realized one day that I’m not reading about the kind of stuff people are going through around me — the people I talk to in my life,” he said.
Iwen created Roze Mertha, a teenage girl with little supervision and a lot of self-awareness, and William Blud, a Vietnam veteran who is rooted to things that have already happened and people who won’t show up to meet him. It was Blud who first captured his attention — with his 99 cent daily coffee and his walks to the Superior Public Library.
“I had his whole daily routine worked out,” Iwen said. “I realized it was too much, it was too heavy. It was too relentless, too male.”
So he created a young woman with similar emotional experiences, but a few generations behind him. Roze lives in a trailer park in Duluth, and her father is often on the road. She’s annoyed by an attraction to Ash Reed, she knows there is a clock on her friendship with Kat, she cuts through snow in too-big snowboarding boots.
Snow falls, lights rise, Roze thinks:
“And I know it is only night / and this is only snow, and these are only boots on my feet / and we’re only alive long enough / to know / only is all that matters.”
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Iwen has written 18 books, and a handful of them have been published. He said he had a feeling about “Roze & Blud” — which has fared well in competitions.
“The subject matter felt to me like it could be an important book,” he said.
When Iwen was asked by the publishing house which competitions he wanted to submit his collection to, he offered more than a dozen options — including the Pulitzer Prize, which is given to a “distinguished volume of original verse by an American author” and comes with a $15,000 prize.
According to the process outlined on the Pulitzer Prize’s website, approximately 1,400 titles are submitted for consideration in the category of letters, drama and music — which are whittled to 15 books. The award is given to the majority vote, but there are exceptions, including a “no award” or switching books between different categories.
Iwen said he knew his publishing house had submitted it, but that word got out when his colleagues found out that it was under consideration. He said the publisher's confidence in his collection is validating, especially for people who don't often see this region depicted in books.
"These are stories about people growing up in this area," he said. "These stories are our stories."
Title: "Roze & Blud: A Long Poem"
Author: Jayson Iwen
Publisher: University of Arkansas Press
This story originally contained a misinformation about Iwen's book's status. "Roze & Blud" is entered for consideration for a Pulitzer Prize by his publisher. It was updated at 9:40 a.m./p.m. (May 17, 2021) with the proper word choice. The News Tribune regrets the error.