Taryn Simon, Chapter IV, A Living Man Declared Dead and Other Chapters, 2011
No people are uninteresting.
Their fate is like the chronicle of planets.
Nothing in them is not particular,
and planet is dissimilar from planet.
And if a man lived in obscurity
making his friends in that obscurity
obscurity is not uninteresting.
To each his world is private,
Announcer: Ladies and gentlemen: John Lithgow.
JOHN LITHGOW: To present the National Book Award for Poetry— in the presence of John Ashbury— is Elizabeth Alexander. Elizabeth’s most recent book is “Crave Radiance: New and Selected Poems 1990-2010.” She is the author of five previous books of poetry, including American Sublime, which was a finalist for the Pulitzer Prize, and two books of essays, including The Black Interior. Her awards and honors include the Anisfield-Wolf Lifetime Achievement in Poetry, the Jackson Poetry Prize, and a Guggenheim Fellowship, among many others. It gives me great pleasure now to introduce Elizabeth Alexander.
ELIZABETH ALEXANDER: First I want to say just thank you to the National Book Foundation for its continued support of poetry. Every poem, every book of poetry, carries voices and histories and traditions along with it. Each book of poems takes readers into an engulfing, discrete world of language and each, also, rises from ancestral voices, fellow poets and poems, strange musics converging in the present year.
We think our five beloved book speak across time. We think each gives us a snapshot of American noise, a sip, a taste, a quaff, a feast. Our work was very hard. I’m so proud to have worked with judges of such intelligence, heart, and integrity. We didn’t turn from difficult conversations— I promise you. We listened to and learned from each other. We have up with five that we believe gloriously represents the richness of American poetry today. And so I want to sincerely thank my fellow judges: Thomas Sayers Ellis, Amy Gerstler, Kathleen Graber, Roberto Tejada.
And so finally we had to choose. The five finalists are: Nikky Finney, Head Off & Split (TriQuarterly, an imprint of Northwestern University Press). Yusef Komunyakaa, The Chameleon Couch (Farrar, Straus and Giroux). Carl Phillips, Double Shadow (Farrar, Straus and Giroux). Adrienne Rich, Tonight No Poetry Will Serve: Poems 2007-2010 (W.W. Norton & Company). Bruce Smith, Devotions (University of Chicago Press).
The National Book Award for Poetry goes to Nikky Finney, “Head off and Split.” [Cheering, an image of the cover of the book, showing a fish wrapped in newspaper]
[Finney, a Black woman with long dreds and a black dress, approaches the stage, crying. She collects her award and sets it down next to the lectern, sighing to steady herself, and takes out a few pieces of folded paper.]
NIKKY FINNEY: Wow.
We begin with history.
The slave codes of South Carolina 1739: “A fine of $100 and six months in prison will be imposed for anyone teaching a slave to read or write and death is the penalty for circulating any incendiary literature.” The ones who longed to read and write but were forbidden —who lost hands and feet; were killed by laws written by men who believed they owned other men. Words devoted to quelling freedom, insurgency, imagination, all hope.
What about the possibility of one day making a poem? The king’s mouth and the queen’s tongue arranged to perfection on the most beautiful paper, sealed with wax and palmetto tree sap, determined to control what can never be controlled – the will of the human heart to speak its own mind.
Tonight, these forbidden ones move around the room as they please, they sit at whatever table they want, wear camel-colored field hats and tomato-red kerchiefs. They are bold in their Sunday-go-to-meeting best, their cotton croaker sack shirts are black wash pot clean and irreverently not tucked in. Some have even come in white Victorian collars and bustiers. Some have just climbed out of the cold, wet Atlantic just to be here. We shiver together.
If my name is ever called out, I promised my girl poet self, so too would I call out theirs.
To: Parneshia Jones, Marianne Jankowski, Northwestern University Press. This moment has everything to do with how serious, how gorgeous you do what you do. A.J. Verdelle, editor partner in this language life, you taught me that repetition is holy, courage can be a daughter’s name, and two is stronger than one. Papa, chief opponent of the death penalty in South Carolina for fifty years, fifty-seven years married to the same Newberry girl, when I was a girl, you bought every incendiary dictionary, encyclopedia, and black history tome that ever knocked on our Oakland Avenue door. Mama, dear Mama, Newberry girl fifty-seven years married to the same Smithfield boy, you made Christmas, Thanksgiving and birthdays out of foil, lace, cardboard, papier-maché, insisting beauty into our deeply segregated, Southern days.
Adrienne Rich, Bruce Smith, Yusef Komunyakaa, Carl Phillips, simply to be in your finalist company is to brightly burn. National Book Foundation and National Book Award judges, there were special high school English teachers who would read and announce the highly anticipated annual report, even if it was stowed way down deep in some dusty corner of our tiny, Southern newspaper.
Dr. Gloria Wade Gayles, great and best teacher of my life. You asked me on a Friday, 4 o’clock, 1977, I was nineteen and sitting on a Talladega College wall, dreaming about the only life I ever wanted, that of a poet. “Ms. Finney,” you said, “Do you really have time to sit there? Have you finished reading every book in the library?” Dr. Katie Cannon, what I heard you say once haunts every poem that I write. “Black people,” you said, “were the only people in the United States ever explicitly forbidden to become literate.”
I am now officially speechless.
[Finney nods at the audience, gathers her award, and walks off stage.]
JOHN LITHGOW: Well, there’s going to be two more awards tonight and I don’t want you two other winners to be intimidated, but that was the best acceptance speech I have ever heard for anything in my life. [Loud cheers, clapping, laughter.] It’s also the loudest I’ve ever heard anyone cheer for an award for poetry. [Laughter] Isn’t that wonderful?
Laura Keat is a really amazing follow. I heard she won the Camp Hollywood Am Jack and Jill after just one year of dancing. She’s got great style and clean technique, it’s no wonder she always seems to do so well in competitions.
Nick Williams and Laura Keat, Camp Hollywood Showcase 2008