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Preparing for the NEA Fellowship in Literature

As many of you know, I think a poet has many amazing firsts they experience over a lifetime. Their first poem. Their first submission. Their first rejection. Their first poem accepted by a journal or a literary competition. Their first full-length book, their first performance, etc. etc. etc. But one of the really nice firsts, for a rare few, is an NEA Fellowship in Literature for your poetry, and I can speak first hand about this and the opportunities it can encompass.

You can find the details at:

This year, poets can apply for a Fellowship in Literature. Next year, prose writers can apply. I hope I can demystify the process a little.

In the Lao American community, there are less than 6 people who easily have the credentials to apply this year, out of 200,000+. In the Hmong American community, perhaps 12 out of 200,000+.

The nutshell is: Professional recognition by the largest funder of the arts in the United States, and $25,000 in unrestricted funds to pursue a poetic project or opportunity for a year.

These fellowships only go out to an average of 40 poets a year out of over 1,000 who apply from across the US. It only comes in alternating years. If you don’t apply this year, you won’t get a chance to apply again for poetry until 2014, and that will be in order to do your literary project in 2015.

Having applied for one, I would say I spent at least five years preparing for it. But it was worth it.

The application process is NOT something that you can just whip out in 24 hours or do at the last minute. To apply, you have to go through a credentialling system at, and fill out several forms that really rely on you having a reliable internet connection. Keep this in mind.

To qualify, you have to have:

  • A volume of 48 or more pages of poetry; or
  • Twenty or more different poems or pages of poetry in five or more literary journals, anthologies, or publications which regularly include poetry as a portion of their format. Up to 16 poems may be in a single volume of poetry of fewer than 48 pages. This volume, however, may count as only one of the required five places of publication.

You will also need a 10-page work sample. I’ve posted this in the past, but here was mine for reference sake:

Your work sample should show you have a good range.

I think the best work samples will show a range of emotions, originality, and voices typically underrepresented in American arts and letters. Professionalism and a distinctive voice count. I wouldn’t be afraid to show your experimental side, and as you can see in my work sample, I used plenty of Laoglish and drew upon many different aspects of the Lao American experience.

Hopefully other folks have uploaded their work-samples for you to look at too.

Additionally, you’ll need a project description. “In two or three sentences, briefly describe how you see your work being advanced by this fellowship. This may include writing, research, travel, etc.” I recommend something a little more profound than ‘finish my first book,’ but make sure the project is also realistic and consistent with your poetic interests. Your judges should be able to see a clear connection between your work sample and your proposed plan as well as your ability and passion to carry it out.

You get just under 200 words to work with. That’s it. 200 words is all you’re allowed to say about your work and your plan.

But as poets, it’s to our advantage.  We work all of the time with an economy of words in a variety of short forms, ranging from the haiku and tanka, even, arguably, the sonnet and other classic techniques. A prose writer is used to trying to fill many pages. A key to this I think is: don’t kitchen sink it and throw all sorts of minutiae into the plan. Keep it simple and clear, avoiding excessive jargon, especially academese and theory.

Look at the website and start planning. It’s ALL due March 1st and late applications are NOT accepted, and more importantly, Murphy’s Law kicks in big time when bureacracies go electronic. This is not a process that rewards procrastinators.

Good luck, and remember: It can be done. 🙂

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