The Thomas Morton Prize

That smile’s gotten wider in recent times.

I knew there was something bizarre about that email from The Puritan the instant I received it. I mean really bizarre. First of all, it wasn’t a mass communiqué, like so many I receive weekly from various writerly organizations around the country. It wasn’t a Facebook notification inviting me to a book launch. It wasn’t a plea from one of the 17 literary journals my wife and I subscribe to, asking for a renewal. No. This missive had a personal salutation, and an attachment. Good lord: it was informing me that I had won first place in The Puritan’s inaugural Thomas Morton Memorial Prize in Literary Excellence (2012) in the poetry category, and included an electronic version of my winning piece with a few minor edits.

And thus began what I describe as my annus mirabilis: winning the Thomas Morton Prize kicked off a year-long period of incredible good fortune for my career. Indeed, I had more work accepted for publication in the six months following the award than in the previous six years. I’ll always associate the beginning of this fruitful period with The Puritan and its recognition of my work. My winning poem, “Seasonal Sonnets: Five Guidelines for My Death,” had gotten some positive feedback elsewhere and I thought it would make a good fit for The Puritan. The piece, included in my as-yet-unpublished poetry manuscript, is part of a broader obsession I have with the gaps and fissures that exist between the seasons of the year. It’s also part of my attempt to resurrect a sense of the bawdy in Canadian verse.

Since winning the prize, I’ve plugged on with short stories, poems, reviews, and essays. My second novel, Sad Peninsula, is slated for release with Dundurn Press in the fall of 2014. I’m also awaiting the publication of a couple of short stories in journals I’ve been trying to get into for years. But there have been some struggles along the way, too. I’m currently peddling the poetry manuscript mentioned above, as well as a short story collection, but it has proven difficult to find them a home. One thing I’ve learned over the last year is that past successes are not necessarily a harbinger of future successes.

Still, we savour what we can. The Thomas Morton Prize came with a huge box of books from various small presses from around the country, and I’ve enjoyed many of them immensely. For those of you who don’t know, I also write the popular book blog Free Range Reading, and have reviewed a number of the titles that were part of the prize pack—including Distillery Songs, by Mike Spry, Iron-on Constellations, by Emily Pohl-Weary, Contents of a Mermaid’s Purse, by Phoebe Tsang, and Whiteout, by George Murray. I also put together a fairly lengthy review essay on the three best books I read, and have submitted it for consideration to The Puritan.

As for the $350 cash prize? I spent it on booze, of course. My brother, who is a musician, was able to get me a duty-free bottle of Johnnie Walker Blue Label while on tour in Germany. Saved me fifty bucks, he did. I now have a shot from it whenever I get some creative work accepted for publication. I’m happy to report that the bottle is nearly half empty.

Mark Sampson has published one novel, called Off Book (Norwood Publishing, 2007) and has a second, called Sad Peninsula, forthcoming from Dundurn Press in 2014. He has also published (or has forthcoming) a number of short stories and poems in literary journals across Canada, including PRISM International, The Nashwaak Review, This magazine, Pottersfield Portfolio, and FreeFall. Born and raised on Prince Edward Island, he currently lives and writes in Toronto.

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