After about 30 years of nominations, Jo McDougall, Arkansas' poet laureate, has won a Pushcart Prize.
McDougall, 84, had heard rumblings about her prize -- she'd been nominated by poet and past winner Alice Friman of Georgia for her poem "Rivers" -- but hadn't received official word until she called Bill Henderson, founder of Pushcart Press, and asked him if it was true.
"He said, 'Yes, it's really true,' and that's how I found out," she says. "I told him that I was so excited that after 30 years or more of being nominated, I finally won."
The Pushcart Prize was established by Henderson and Reynolds Price in 1975 to honor the best short stories, essays and poetry published by small presses in the U.S.
"Rivers" is a short, evocative meditation on the nature of rivers with a devilishly surprising twist at the end. It originally appeared with three others by McDougall in the April 2019 issue of Arkansas Review: A Journal of Delta Studies, which is published by the Department of English, Philosophy and World Languages at Arkansas State University.
The poem, along with the other winners, is in Pushcart Prize XLV: Best of the Small Presses, the annual anthology set to be published in November.
Sadly, there is no money involved, but the Pushcart "is a prestigious prize ... they get thousands and thousands of nominations, and the poetry section is rather small, so I was delighted to have my poem selected," McDougall says. "And I'm glad the Arkansas Review is going to be recognized in the anthology."
McDougall, who was named to a four-year term as poet laureate by Gov. Asa Hutchinson on May 7, 2018, said prizes and accolades weren't on her mind while writing "Rivers."
"I just write the poem as it first occurs to me, and then I revise and revise until it is the way I want it to be," she says. "I wasn't thinking about the Pushcart. I was just hoping the Arkansas Review would like it."
She has published six collections of poetry, including her 1987 debut, The Woman in the Next Booth and Dirt, which deals with the aftermath of a stroke suffered by her son and the death of her daughter.
Poetry, she says, "reveals the deepest emotions of people. It's something that people go to for solace. ... I still get comments from strangers about how much the poems [in Dirt] help them in their time of loss."
McDougall has won plenty of honors for her work, including the Porter Prize for Literary Arts in 2019, but after waiting for three decades, finally winning a Pushcart Prize is extra sweet.
"I was always glad to be nominated," she says, "though there were times I would think I would never get a prize. That just made getting it this year all that more fun."