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Coveted Pushcart Prize for Poem “Thrills” English’s Seyburn

Published: July 15, 2010

Patty Seyburn, a member of the English Department since 2006, recently was awarded the coveted Pushcart Prize and saw her poem “The Case for Free Will” included in the anthology The Pushcart Prize XXXV: Best of the Small Presses (2011). Seyburn’s poem originally debuted in the inaugural issue of CSU East Bay’s The Arroyo Literary Review.

Every year, the Pushcart Prizes are awarded to short stories and poems published in literary magazines and then collected in an anthology. The Pushcart Press is devoted to writers, small presses and non-commercial publishing and has been recognized as among the most influential publishers in American history by Publishers Weekly. Among the writers who received early recognition in Pushcart Prize anthologies were Steven Barthelme, Rick Bass, Charles Baxter, Raymond Carver, Joyce Carol Oates and Mona Simpson.

“I’m thrilled because this is one of those things you believe might never happen in your life,” said Seyburn. “There are so many poems nominated from so many journals. It’s wonderful just to have a journal nominate your poem. That goes on your CV. But then to win is thrilling. I’m very happy.” Seyburn’s previous honors include winning the 2008 Green Rose Poetry Prize by New Issues Press for her third manuscript titled “Hilarity” which was reviewed in 2009 by the New York Times.

Seyburn also published “Mechanical Cluster” (Ohio State University Press, 2002) and “Diasporadic” (Helicon Nine Editions, 1998) which won the 1997 Marianne Moore Poetry Prize and the American Library Association’s Notable Book Award for 2000.

The publication of “The Case for Free Will” began via a friendship with CSU East Bay faculty member Susan Gubernat. “She told me that CSU East Bay was starting up a journal called the Arroyo Literary Review and she asked me for a couple of poems for their inaugural issue,” Seyburn recalled. “It’s a lovely journal and I was happy to help them out. Interestingly, another journal out of Cal State Northridge also asked me for poems and also nominated me for a Pushcart. I’m liking the Cal State system!”

Seyburn feels the poem might have been chosen because it combines a deceptive transparency, humor, and “some attempt at profundity.”

“It’s a strange poem,” she said. “When I read this poem, there is humor and strange wit. I think it’s a lively poem. It jumps off the page.”

“The Case for Free Will” was created through her career-long interest in the topic. “I’m very taken with the idea that God gave humanity free will,” she said. “I have several poems that have free will in them. In the first collection I wrote, ‘Diasporadic,’ the final poem talks about free will and there is another in ‘Hilarity’ that is titled ‘Once More on Free Will.’”

She generally sits down to work her way through a first draft. “I hold my breath much of the way,” she said. “Then I go back and look for places where I can break open the poem.” Then she looks for the lines that don’t seem to pull their poetic weight, eliminating those she finds she is reading just to get through. Her process of revision involves expansion and contraction.

“The price for admission is rigor and, I guess, a bit of talent,” she said. “You also need desire and a willingness to invest in other poets. I feel like, when I’m stuck in a poem, and I go back to a poet I love and he or she gives me counsel in how to proceed. I feel like I’m always getting advice from other poets as if we were having a conversation. It’s very satisfying.”

Seyburn’s poems have appeared in The Paris Review, New England Review, Field, Slate, Crazyhorse, Cutbank, Quarterly West, Bellingham Review, Connecticut Review, Cimarron Review, Third Coast and Western Humanities Review. She is co-editor of POOL: a Journal of Poetry, based in Los Angeles. She earned her B.S. in 1984 and M.S. from Northwestern University, her M.A. from UC Irvine and her Ph.D. in 2003 from the University of Houston.

While prizes and recognition can intimidate some writers, that’s not the case with Seyburn.

“I don’t see recognition like the Pushcart as an obstacle to writing more poetry,” she said. “My problem is not so much how to push past the Pushcart but how to enjoy it and not feel I have to get back to the page right then. It ought to be a reason to give myself a little bit of a break. I always want to be at the page. I want to be able to enjoy things like this that I have dreamt about. ‘Will I ever get a book out? Will I ever get a prize?’ I remember when my first book appeared, I spent a week on the phone getting the word out. The danger is becoming blithe about recognition. The important thing is to move on. I don’t have any issues with writer’s block. I just don’t have enough time.”