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Ahsahta Poet Wins Prestigious Poetry Prize

Ahsahta Press, a nonprofit literary publisher founded at Boise State, has built a reputation as a small but mighty force in the poetry world. The press and one of its poets, Jonah Mixon-Webster, recently had reason to celebrate – Mixon-Webster was awarded a PEN America poetry prize.

Janet Holmes, director of Ahsahta Press and professor in the Department of Theatre, Film and Creative Writing, explained Ahsahta’s mission and how it’s grown to be a poetry powerhouse.

PEN America awarded its Joyce Osterweil Prize in Poetry to Jonah Mixon-Webster for Stereo(TYPE)! – can you explain the significance of the prize?

This is a prize one can’t apply for – the winners are nominated by PEN America members. It’s prestigious, carrying a $5,000 award to the author, and elevates a first book – which by definition is by a poet new to many readers of poetry – so that readers learn about it and can look for it.

How many poetry books does Ahsahta publish per year?

Seven or eight. We have three new books about to release, including the winner of last year’s Sawtooth Prize, Hour Book by Stefania Heim, and four additional between now and the summer. We published Kristi Maxwell’s Bright and Hurtless in the fall.

What is the enduring vision of the press?

I like to think that the press follows its mission statement of publishing surprising, relevant and accessible experimental poetry. This isn’t as easy as it sounds – but I think Jonah’s book is an excellent case in point. It’s surprising in that the voice of the book sometimes comes out in typographically unusual ways; it is relevant in dealing with the Flint water crisis along with the persistent problems of racism and homophobia; and it is accessible both on the page and when Jonah presents it at a reading. There’s no guessing about the meaning of his poems.

Can you walk us through the collaborative process of editing/publishing a poet’s work?

It’s different with every book. Sometimes it centers on how the book is organized in terms of the order of poems; other times it may center on the presentation, as to the size of the book or its shape. When Vincent Toro won the Sawtooth with his innovatively formal Stereo.Island.Mosaic, the nature of the poems, many of which were in canon form, demanded a wider than usual page. We were able to accommodate that and presented those poems as they were conceived. But Ahsahta is very much on the radar of the best poets in the country, and our choices among the manuscripts submitted to us rarely need significant editing.

What other accolades has Ahsahta earned in the past few years?

Vincent Toro’s book going on to win the Norma Farber first book award from the Poetry Society of America is probably the most prestigious. Anne Boyer’s Garments Against Women not only won the Community of Literary Magazines and Presses’ Firecracker Award, but also was a number one best-selling book for three months when it first came out; it’s gone on to have an impressive life overseas in translation. Brian Teare’s Pleasure won the Lambda Literary Award for Gay Poetry.

What else should the campus know about Ahsahta?

One of the distinctive things about the MFA in Poetry here at Boise State is that so many of the students get a chance to read submissions to the press and learn about the process of running Ahsahta. And I’m grateful for them, because apart from me, Ahsahta has no staff. I rely on students to help get the work done.