Four Anisfield-Wolf poets distilled their lines into an hour-long symphony of 15 voices. All are chancellors of the American Academy of Poetry, the host of the performance.
The first to speak, Ellen Bass, began with the 30-word poem of Langston Hughes called “Island:”
Wave of sorrow, Do not drown me now:
I see the island Still ahead somehow.
I see the island And its sands are fair:
Wave of sorrow, Take me there.
“I often think how Langston Hughes could never have known that his poem, written from his own sorrow, would sustain an oldish white lesbian living in a beach town in California so many years later,” Bass said. “I never stop being amazed that poetry can reach across distance and time.”
Bass read two of her own poems, including “How to Apologize,” and let her voice flow into Natasha Trethewey’s. The 2021 Anisfield-Wolf winner for her memoir, “Memorial Drive,” read a single poem called “Quotidian.” It, like her memoir, centers on her mother, Gwendolyn Turnbough.
“In my work I’ve always been concerned with the intersections between personal and public history, our national collective memory — with its omissions, erasures — our cultural amnesia and the enduring need for justice for all,” Trethewey tells the online audience.
Her poem is preceded by a 1964 epigraph from U.S. Supreme Court Justice Hugo Black: “No right is more precious in a free country than that of having a voice in the election of those who make the laws under which as good citizens we must live. Other rights, even the most basic, are illusory if the right to vote is undermined.”
The poem gives glimpses of Turnbough’s daily life as a young woman around the time of Black’s quotation. She is newly in love with Eric Trethewey, who will become the poet’s father. The final words in “Quotidian” are from Turnbough’s own letter: “’Got to run,” she wrote, ‘have to get downtown to register to vote.’”
Marilyn Chin, Anisfield-Wolf winner in 2015 for “Hard Love Province,” lends her jaunty voice from her sunlit San Diego home to recite “Lockdown Impromtku,” a haiku series.
It begins: “Boyfriend snoring on the yoga mat/who are you smooching in the underworld?” The speaker sees “stone by stone democracy crumbling/into a race war.” Still, “year after year, the pear tree blossoms.” Chin smiles, presses her palms together and bids her listeners “be safe.”
Kevin Young, 2018 Anisfield-Wolf winner for “Bunk,” sits more formally in a book-lined office and holds up his most recent title, “Stones.” The director of the Smithsonian’s African and African American Museum tells listeners that most of the new book is about Louisiana, from which both branches of his family hail.
He begins with the first poem, “Halter,” which itself begins with “Nothing can make me want to stay in this world.” He flips forward to “Dog Star,” in which a boy looks into the night sky, and concludes with “Russet,” which Young says is thinking about graveyards and letting go.
The penultimate poet in the presentation is Tracy K. Smith, the 2019 Anisfield-Wolf recipient for “Wade in the Water.” Her first poem, “Mothership,” is an offering to and commemoration of the poet Kamilah Aisha Moon. It circles into space and the unknown spirit that preoccupies Smith. She concludes with her sweeping, anthem-like piece, “We Feel Now a Largeness Coming On” from her new collection, “Such Color.”
Smith is followed by Joy Harjo, who has taken up Smith’s mantle and is the current U.S. Poet Laureate. Harjo thanks poetry itself “for taking us through these times.” She begins, “The world will keep trudging . . .”
The complete presentation is available here:
Pull up a chair at Case Western Reserve University’s new reading seminar for a hearty discussion of four Anisfield-Wolf award-winning books, covering everything from the modern, urban Native experience to the consequences of political upheaval in Chile.
Organizers invite you to explore four Anisfield-Wolf award winning books:
“There There” by Tommy Orange (2019, fiction) — January 23
Orange, an enrolled member of the Cheyenne and Arapaho nations, launched his literary career with :”There There,” a layered, multi generational journey of 12 Native American characters who converge on a fictional powwow at the Oakland Coliseum. “Markedly, there’s so much joy [from Native communities] in feeling like they’re in a book, in a way that feels like ‘now,’ like it hasn’t been represented enough.” Orange said during a recent stop in Cleveland.
“The House of the Spirits” by Isabel Allende (2017, fiction) — April 16
What began as a letter to Allende’s 100-year-old grandfather became “The House of the Spirits,” her debut novel that led to a career tally of more than 67 million copies sold. The story follows four generations of the Trueba family through political upheaval in Chile, Allende’s home.
Colette Ngana, a doctoral student in sociology, said the choice to begin with “There There” was an intentional one.
“I don’t think we highlight indigenous writers often enough,” Ngana said. “[There There] allows us to learn more about the historical perspective. If you didn’t know about the occupation of Alcatraz, for example, the book pushes you to look into indigenous history. What does that mean for our perspectives in resistance movements of the indigenous experience?”
Facilitators will provide historical and political context on the books, while participants are invited to discuss the larger themes these books present.
The reading seminar is open to the community, with organizers hoping for a mixture of students, staff and Cleveland-area residents to attend. “Often we don’t have many opportunities for people in the community to feel integrated into academic life,” Ngana said. “[This first seminar] will be a test to see who comes. We want everybody to feel welcome.”
The first session will be held Thursday, January 23 from 4 to 5:15 p.m. in the Kelvin Smith Library’s Dampeer Room, 11055 Euclid Avenue. Light refreshments will be served. For more information, contact Lisa Kollins at email@example.com.
James Brown. John Brown’s raid. Michael Brown. Brown vs. Board of Education of Topeka.
These subjects braid through Kevin Young’s new book, Brown, as he creates poems about black culture and boyhood, dividing his collection into “Home Recordings” and “Field Recordings.” It publishes this week.
“It’s a book that’s been brewing for a while,” Young told David Canfield of Entertainment Weekly. “The title poem is one I’ve been trying to write for some time, about growing up in Topeka, Kansas, and going to the church that Rev. Brown of Brown v. Board [pastored]. His daughter Linda played piano and organ in the church, and so to that connection to history always struck me as something worthy of a poem.”
Young dedicates this title poem to his mother and it closes out the section of home recordings. He begins it: The scrolling brown arms/of the church pews curve/like a bone – their backs/bend us upright . . .
In Brown, 31 poems thread from boyhood and back, with a Triptych for Trayvon Martin subdivided into Not Guilty [A Frieze for Sandra Bland]; Limbo [A Fresco for Tamir Rice] and Nightstick [A Mural for Michael Brown].
The book is illustrated with beautiful endpapers of a child’s drawing of a collection of superheroes and nine black-and-white photographs by Melanie Dunea. In January 2015, she traveled to the Mississippi Delta with Young, as he writes, “to capture the spirit of that place with a poetry that enhances my own.”
Their pilgrimage took them to Greenwood, Miss, where the term “black power” was popularized at a Stokely Carmichael rally in 1966, and nearby Money, Miss., where Emmett Till was murdered. These poems call on the reader “to remember but also revisit and revise what we think of the past.” Young mentions in his notes that the white woman who accused Emmett confessed last year that he never whistled or called her baby. He didn’t do a thing.
“The site of Till’s lynching,” Young reports, “feels both holy and haunted.”
The 19 final lines of the book comprise a poem called “Hive.” It also concerns a boy:
The honey bees’ exile
is almost complete.
You can carry
them from hive
to hive, the child thought
& that is what
he tried, walking
with them thronging
between his pressed palms.
Let him be right.
Let the gods look away
as always. Let this boy
who carries the entire
world in his calm
barely walking, bear
us all there
The Cleveland Foundation today unveiled the winners of its 83rd Annual Anisfield-Wolf Book Awards. Marlon James, a 2015 Anisfield-Wolf honoree, made the announcement. The 2018 recipients of the only national juried prize for literature that confronts racism and examines diversity are:
Shane McCrae, In the Language of My Captor, Poetry
N. Scott Momaday, Lifetime Achievement
Jesmyn Ward, Sing, Unburied, Sing, Fiction
Kevin Young, Bunk: The Rise of Hoaxes, Humbug, Plagiarists, Phonies, Post-Facts, and Fake News, Nonfiction
“The new Anisfield-Wolf winners deepen our insights on race and diversity,” said Henry Louis Gates Jr., who chairs
the jury. “This year, we honor a lyrical novel haunted by a Mississippi prison farm, a book of exceptional poetry on
what freedom means in captivity, and a breakthrough history of the hoax that speaks to this political moment. All is
capped by the lifetime achievement of N. Scott Momaday, the dean of Native American letters.”
We invite you to join us September 27 as we honor these winners at the State Theatre in Cleveland, in a ceremony emceed by Jury Chair Gates. The ceremony will be part of the third annual Cleveland Book Week, slated for September 24-29. Join our mailing list to be the first to know when the free tickets are available.
Shane McCrae interrogates history and perspective with his fifth book, In the Language of My Captor, including
the connections between racism and love. He uses historical persona poems and prose memoir to address the
illusory freedom of both black and white Americans. “These voices worm their way inside your head; deceptively
simple language layers complexity upon complexity until we are shared in the same socialized racial webbing as
the African exhibited at the zoo or the Jim Crow universe that Banjo Yes learned to survive in (‘You can be free//Or
you can live’),” says Anisfield-Wolf Juror Rita Dove. Raised in Texas and California, McCrae taught at Oberlin College for three years before joining the faculty of Columbia University last year. He lives in Manhattan with his
N. Scott Momaday
N. Scott Momaday remade American literature in 1966 with his first novel, House Made of Dawn. It tells the story
of a modern soldier trying to resume his life in Indian Country. The slim book won a Pulitzer Prize, but Momaday
prefers writing poetry, the form his work most often takes. Anisfield-Wolf Jury Chair Gates says Momaday “is at
root a storyteller who both preserves and expands Native American culture in his critically praised, transformative
writing.” He is also a watercolorist, playwright, scholar, professor and essayist. Momaday was born a Kiowa in
Oklahoma and grew up in the Indian southwest. He earned a doctorate at Stanford University, joined its faculty,
and taught American literature widely, including in Moscow. In 2007, President George W. Bush awarded
Momaday a National Medal of Arts. He lives in Santa Fe, New Mexico.
Jesmyn Ward is the only woman in American letters to receive two National Book Awards, one for her first novel, Salvage the Bones, and another last year for Sing, Unburied, Sing. Both are set in fictional Bois Sauvage, a place
rooted in the rural Gulf Coast of Mississippi. Critics have compared Bois Sauvage to William Faulkner’s fictional
Yoknapatawpha County and Ward’s prose to Toni Morrison’s. Sing, Unburied, Sing serves as a road book, a ghost
story and a tale of sibling love. Anisfield-Wolf juror Joyce Carol Oates called it “a beautifully rendered,
heartbreaking, savage and tender novel.” Ward, who won a MacArthur “genius grant” last fall, lives with her family
in Pas Christian, Miss. She is a professor at Tulane University.
Kevin Young is a public intellectual, the editor of eight books and the author of 13, including Bunk: The Rise of Hoaxes, Humbug, Plagiarists, Phonies, Post-Facts, and Fake News. He spent six years researching and writing
this cultural history of the covert American love of the con, and its entanglement with racial history. After 12 years
teaching at Emory University, Young became the director of the Schomburg Center for Research in Black Culture,
and the poetry editor for The New Yorker. Anisfield-Wolf Juror Steven Pinker calls Bunk “rich, informative,
interesting, original and above all timely,” and Juror Joyce Carol Oates says “it should be required reading in all