Before submitting to a literary contest, it’s often recommended that you look into the publications and literary interests of the judges. But what about the first readers?
First readers are some of the unsung heroes of the literary community—passionate lovers of literature, they sort through and react to countless unsolicited submissions to magazines and presses, often as volunteers. Though judges have the final say on who wins, first readers can guide certain manuscripts into the spotlight, exerting a powerful behind-the-scenes influence on the contemporary literary conversation.
In the coming weeks and months, we’ll be guiding some of our Firecracker Awards first readers into the spotlight. We want you to meet them! Hailing from across the US and overseas, our readers are literature lovers with a wide variety of interests and educational backgrounds. Though the books they prefer may differ, what they all have in common is a penchant for participation, and the miraculous ability to make time for reading.
Introducing Raquel Penzo, Firecracker Awards First Reader
Raquel, a Brooklyn native, got her undergraduate degree in Environmental Science from Alfred University, then went on to pursue her MFA at Fairleigh Dickinson University in Madison, New Jersey. She now works as a senior copywriter at the Brooklyn Public Library and a nonfiction editor at Serving House Books, and she also runs the literary organization La Pluma y La Tinta, an organization for writers of color. On top of all of this, she raises her daughters Kayla (22) and Naomi (17) and amazingly still devotes time to working on fiction and poetry projects of her own.
For Raquel, being a first reader for the Firecracker Awards gives her much-needed and much-loved time to do just that: read. “Before I got so busy adulting,” she told me, “I was an avid reader. Now, it’s hard to make the time; I live near work so I can’t rely on a commute for a moment of peace. Reading for the awards gives me a reason to stop and read.”
The concept of literary citizenship—engaged participation in the contemporary literary community—reminds Raquel of what she has always loved about reading, ever since getting her very first library card in elementary school: “A book can take you any- and everywhere,” she believes. “It’s such a beautiful thing.”
Besides reading, writing, and being a mom, Raquel loves to cook, binge on Netflix (“doesn’t everyone?”), and sing the entire Moana soundtrack in her apartment in the morning to get her pumped up for the day (just ask her neighbors).
—Megan Swenson, CLMP Intern
PS Want to join Raquel in reading for the awards? Get in touch!