Like many writers, assistant professor of English Chris Santiago is no stranger to rejection. He confessed to keeping a “great spreadsheet online” of his rejections while trying to find interest for his book of poems.
But in April 2016, all the rejections became irrelevant. Santiago’s acceptance came with no shortage of accolades: He is the winner of the 2016 Lindquist & Vennum Prize for Poetry, a regional poetry prize presented by Milkweed Editions and the Lindquist & Vennum Foundation. Santiago is the fifth recipient of the prize since its establishment in 2011, and his collection, Tula, will be published in December by Milkweed.
“It’s been mind blowing,” Santiago said. “I’ve known about [Milkweed] since I was a kid, and I have a ton of Milkweed books.”
The past year has been a whirlwind for Santiago, who moved back to Minnesota and accepted his position at St. Thomas in 2015. But Tula was no new endeavor. While he was in graduate school, Santiago said he had the idea to gather his poems into a collection. That process took four or five years, he said.
He said the book took shape as he recognized similar themes throughout his poems, especially relating to his experience of being the son of immigrants.
“I didn’t really grow up in a community where I could learn a language that my parents spoke,” said Santiago, adding that while both his parents emigrated from the Philippines, they spoke different dialects, leaving him with the ability to recognize but not fluently speak Tagalog.
“It was something I know and don’t know at the same time,” Santiago said. “The idea of belonging to something that I don’t know was one of the themes. This idea of language, kind of being on the outside while you’re on the inside at the same time, was part of it too.”
The name Tula is a reference to that concept; in Tagalog, “tula” means “poem.” Within the collection, Santiago scattered a long poem with the same title, where the narrator is addressing a deceased grandfather he doesn’t know.
Chris Santiago reads Tula.
“I thought by calling it ‘Tula,’ which means ‘poem,’ but is a word I didn’t really know, would embed a certain irony and distance in the poem itself,” Santiago said. “It’s a word – just a completely common nickel or penny word you know in the Filipino language if you’re a native speaker – but to me, it’s kind of this foreign object. … It’s this source of doubt but also beauty.”
As Santiago was working on Tula, he and his wife had their second child. Santiago said watching his children experience language (they’re learning English and Japanese) changed the way he perceived the book. He said, in general, his sons are one of the main inspirations for his writing, and one of his favorite poems in the collection, “Some Words,” is based on the scent one of his sons had when he was an infant.
Santiago describes his own writing as “spare,” saying that he doesn’t want to overwrite.
“I’m concerned with how the poem sounds in the ear of the reader, and I’m very obsessed with images,” Santiago said. “And wordplay too. … I really like to listen to how words can be misheard or reheard.”
He added that he doesn’t consider his poems to be straightforward.
“I want people to go back to them and reread them over and over again, and find something different each time,” Santiago said.
Taking the prize
While Santiago grew up in the Twin Cities, he was living in California when he accepted his position at St. Thomas, which brought another benefit: As a Minnesota resident, he could enter the competition for the Lindquist & Vennum Prize for Poetry, a regional contest that works to bring outstanding poets to the national forefront.
On Monday, April 25, 2016, Santiago remembered that he came into work feeling “pretty low,” because it was the weekend Prince had died.
“And then I got the phone call,” Santiago said. “[Publisher Daniel Slager] called and told me I won the prize, and I was like, ‘You’re kidding!’ I cried. It was amazing.”
“In a hypnotic blend of languages and land, Tula captures the voice of a world we are happy to inhabit. The lines are taut and spare; the scope is both intimate and communal,” wrote poet A. Van Jordan, who selected Santiago as the winner. “What surprises me most is the ability to move seamlessly between the exterior world to the depths of the interiority of these speakers. It’s not so much that the language here is new as that the message is so urgently original.”
Since then, the publishing of Santiago’s book has continued in a happy flurry. Santiago said that it can be a little difficult to believe.
Chris Santiago reads Some Words.
“The weirdest thing is hearing people talk about it because when I meet people at Milkweed … they say these really intelligent, brilliant things about it,” Santiago said. “I still think of this mostly as something that’s been in my head, and so to hear people talk about it just feels almost like I’m having an episode … but it’s amazing.”
He said he’s excited to bring this experience back to his classroom (and to show the spreadsheet of rejections to his creative writing students).
“When I teach the classes, I can’t help but have that perspective, the way I look at language,” Santiago said. “If I can teach students to stop and look at the words we’re using over and over again – what patterns do you form? – you can learn a lot about yourself just by stopping and paying attention to the way you form a sentence. … In reading other people’s work, too, how can we stop and look at how this author has created this work, and how does our own perspectives and their perspective shape that experience of reading the book?”
Overall, Santiago said he’s grateful for the support of the English Department at St. Thomas and the literary community across the Twin Cities.
“I’m excited to see my book in [Milkweed’s] store, and other stores, alongside other books,” Santiago said. “It’s just a dream to go to a bookstore and see your book there.”