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:
A mere dozen miles from the site where Toni Morrison was born Chloe Wofford in Lorain, Ohio, a day-long gathering will mark what would have been the novelist’s 89th birthday.
“This warrior artist had such a giant global impact and such an individual impact,” he said. “I think there are individuals dispersed all over this planet who have very direct relationships with the images that Ms. Morrison conjured on the page and with the narratives she called up.”
Organizers hope citizens will stop by the Irene and Alan Wurtzel Theater to give an excerpt reading, or record an audio tribute to underscore how Morrison’s work influenced their lives.
In September, Cleveland Book Week featured reflections from writers who followed Morrison into the Anisfield-Wolf canon — Walter Mosley, ’98; Marilyn Chin, ’15; Kevin Young, ’18; Brent Staples, ’95; and Jesmyn Ward, ’18.
“Morrison centered blackness, in ways unparalleled, though she was not alone in doing so,” Young stated. “She helped us see ourselves and free ourselves and remind us that as she put it, the function of freedom is to free someone else.”
Walter Mosley, who also praised Morrison in 2019’s “The Pieces I Am” documentary, spoke on his friend of more than 20 years: “Of all her acts in the world of literature, Morrison almost single-handedly raised Black America to an international platform without us losing our identity.”
Marilyn Chin recited her new poem, “Praise (For Toni Morrison),” ending with “Praise holy, holy Chloe/Who shall finally reclaim her name.” A framed copy of the poem will be installed in the newly remodeled Morrison room at the Lorain Public Library. It will mark her birthday by hosting a rededication ceremony at 2 p.m. featuring members of the Morrison/Wofford family.
Praise Sula, Praise Nell, Praise Sethe
Praise Bride and her blue-black beauty
Praise Valerian, Praise Sweetness, Praise Rain
Praise Pecola, forgive Cholly
May Milkman Dead find his wings
Praise Medallion, Praise Shalimar, Praise Mercy
Praise the blessed earth Lorraine
Praise the gateless gate of eternity
Praise the Great Mother’s legacy
Praise holy, holy Chloe
Who shall finally reclaim her name
As we bid adieu to 2018, allow us to shine a last, lingering reading light on ten highlights: the year’s titles from Anisfield-Wolf Book Award winners. It should surprise no one that several are already acclaimed as the best-of-the-year. All are worth reading.
“American Histories: Stories” by John Edgar Wideman
In the latest literary stroke from an American master, these 21 short stories “are linked by astringent wit, audacious invention and a dry sensibility,” according to one critic. Another calls them “irresistible” and “profoundly moving.” The first, “JB & FD” imagines conversations between John Brown and Frederick Douglass. Another tale takes up with Jean-Michel Basquiat. Still another, “Williamsburg Bridge,” rests with a man contemplating his intent to jump into the East River. When Wideman won an Anisfield-Wolf lifetime achievement award in 2011, he told the crowd a writing life still lay ahead. Now 76, the former Rhodes Scholar from Pittsburgh and MacArthur “genius” recipient speaks the truth still.
“Feel Free” by Zadie Smith
The exuberant, cerebral novelist collects her essays and landed on six best-of-the-year lists. She arranges the book into five sections: “In the World,” “In the Audience,” “In the Gallery,” “On the Bookshelf” and “Feel Free.” All the writing dates to the Obama administration. Maureen Corrigan describes the best of it, like Smith’s essay “Notes on Attunement” about disliking and then loving Joni Mitchell’s voice, as freeing. Also here is Smith’s much discussed essay on “Get Out,” in which she marks as fantasy “the notion that we can get out of each other’s way, mark a clean cut between black and white.” The cultural critic is often joyful, essentially saying art makes and marks freedom. Smith won her Anisfield-Wolf Book Award for “On Beauty” in 2006.
“Frederick Douglass: Prophet of Freedom” by David W. Blight
This magisterial biography argues that its subject was among most transformative figures of the 19th-century. It begins with President Obama speaking of Douglass’ “mighty leonine gaze” at the 2016 dedication of the National Museum of African American History and Culture. It ends with the Robert Hayden’s superb poem “Frederick Douglass” that asserts when freedom comes, it will be “with the lives grown out of his life, the lives/Fleshing his dream of the beautiful, needful thing.” Blight, a fluid, graceful writer and Yale historian, has dedicated a lifetime of scholarship to this text. He won his Anisfield-Wolf Book Award in 2012 for “American Oracle: The Civil War in the Civil Rights Era.”
“Harvey Milk: His Lives and Death” by Lillian Faderman
In her crisp, beautifully researched biography, Faderman makes the case that Harvey Milk led many lives before he was martyred: Navy diver, math teacher, Wall Street securities analyst, Broadway gofer. Only in his final few years did he find his footing as a San Francisco politician. She begins by describing him as “charismatic, eloquent, a wit and a smart aleck,” and depicts a complex man with real enemies, real courage, real flaws and boundless energy. Much that animated Milk traces to his Jewish roots, making this portrait a snug fit in the Yale University Press’ acclaimed Jewish Lives series. Faderman won her Anisfield-Wolf Book Award for “The Gay Revolution,” another definitive history, in 2016.
“In the House in the Dark of the Woods” by Laird Hunt
Every good book list should contain a fable, and the gifted Hunt delivers a stellar haunting with his latest, palm-sized novel. It opens in colonial New England with the classic trope: a woman goes missing in a forest. Hunt, a Brown University professor, lets his eighth novel excavate ancient fears of females kidnapped, women straying and maternal abandonment. But here the central figures narrates her own agency: “Through the dark woods I walked, thinking less and less of my son and of my man.” Hunt creates rapt historical fiction, as he did in “Kind One,” his Anisfield-Wolf honored novel from 2013. It serves as the start of a profound Midwestern trilogy, including “Neverhome” and “The Evening Road.”
“Invisible” by Stephen L. Carter
Subtitled “The Forgotten Story of the Black Woman Lawyer Who Took Down America’s Most Powerful Mobster,” this biography of the author’s grandmother astonishes. Eunice Hunton Carter, herself the granddaughter of slaves, was 8 in 1907 when she declared she wanted to be a lawyer “to make sure the bad people went to jail.” A team of 20 crackerjack attorneys assembled to convict Lucky Luciano; the other 19 were white men. Thanks to Carter’s strategy, the prosecution won. The author, a Yale law professor, realized while writing this book that an earlier novel had been an unsuccessful homage to this formidable, intimidating Harlem original. In 2003, he won an Anisfield-Wolf prize for “The Emperor of Ocean Park.”
“John Woman” by Walter Mosley
The author thought about this political and philosophical thriller for 20 years. It contains a murder and a disappearance, but it is not, Mosley says, a mystery. Instead it centers on a boy, Cornelius Jones, who is 12 as the story begins. His father is a silent film projectionist in the East Village; his mother is a sensualist backing out of Cornelius’ life. Five years later, Cornelius reinvents himself as “John Woman” and starts an intellectual movement drawing on his father’s notions of the slipperiness of history. The author, who won his Anisfield-Wolf prize in 1998 for “Always Outnumbered, Always Outgunned,” describes his new book as “a study of a man who stalks a prey (history) that is at the same time tracking him.”
“A Portrait of the Self as Nation: New and Selected Poems” by Marilyn Chin
In her first book since winning a 2013 Anisfield-Wolf award for “Hard Love Province,” Chin draws together 30 years of dazzling, transgressive, witty work as an activist poet. “From the start of my career I waxed personal and political and have sought to be an activist-subversive-radical-immigrant-feminist-international-Buddhist-neoclasical nerd poet,” she writes from her home in San Diego, where she teaches comparative literature at the state university. Chin is masterful at making pain both visible and less tragic by throwing it into a cheeky, double-vision, East-West light. She writes to her grandfather, on his 100th birthday, “This is why the baboon’s ass is red.”
“A Shout in the Ruins” by Kevin Powers
The author of the deeply moving debut novel “The Yellow Birds,” which won an Anisfield-Wolf Book award in 2013, shifts his story-telling onto his home turf of Richmond, Va. He unspools two intertwined tales – one set at the end of the Civil War; the second steps off 90 years later as construction for the Richmond-Petersburg turnpike dismantles the city’s African-American neighborhood. Powers has said that he is drawn to stories of communities responding to violence. Called “gorgeous, devastating” in The New York Times, the novel suggests readers grasp that “the truth at the heart of every story, that violence is an original form of intimacy, and always has been, and will remain so forever.”
“Washington Black” by Esi Edugyan
This picaresque yet deeply haunting third book from a brilliant Canadian author landed on ten best-of-the-year lists. She won an Anisfield-Wolf award in 2012 for her equally stunning “Half-Blood Blues,” a European war novel set to a jazz beat. Both books were short-listed for the Booker Prize. In “Washington Black,” Edugyan begins on a sugar plantation in Barbados, where her title character is an 11-year-old who escapes bondage in a hot-air balloon piloted by the master’s brother. The story is an original in the derring-do explorer’s genre, probing self-invention, betrayal and the gradations of freedom — particularly as it limits both men. And the writing here moves like clear water across landscape and dialogue.
Marilyn Chin is a frank and feminist poet who continues to enlarge the Anisfield-Wolf canon.
Like Peter Ho Davies, she is a master of the hyphenated identity, writing, “ I am a Chinese American poet – born in Hong Kong and raised in Portland, Oregon. My poetry both laments and celebrates the ‘hyphenated’ identity.”
Chin, a professor of English and comparative literature at San Diego State University, has a new poem reaching the 350,000 subscribers to the American Academy of Poet’s digitally delivered Poem-A-Day. Her new work is called “Love Story,” a perennial focus of Chin’s work. Her Anisfield-Wolf winning collection is called “Hard Love Province.”
Of her new poem, the 62-year-old Chin says, “The immigrant couple’s entire life history is told in just five triplet stanzas . . . This might be a typical American story: an immigrant couple gets married, the husband gets a good job (an iron rice bowl), they conceive children, grow old, die peacefully in their new nation. However, their story does not quite end in harmonious resolution. A love story is a never-ending drama.”
by Marilyn Chin
The aerogram says come the photos show bliss
Another felicitous union a fresh beginning
He’s so handsome fat she’s so new world slim
The envelopes are red the writing vermeil
He’ll get a good job an iron rice bowl won’t break
She’s caught a princely man a silent one like her father
Sister dyes pink eggs Auntie boils cider knuckles
The Great Patriarch is happy a bouncy grandson
A bundle of joy from a test tube in heaven
Thank you for your blessings for your lucky lycee
A young nurse cares for her now in a small hospice near the sea
He’s alone on Silicon Hill that’s where he’s happy
Emails turn silent Instagrams remiss
Thank you for the white gardenias they’ll sweeten her soul
The joss paper boats will net fish for her in the next world
Hours before accepting her 2015 Anisfield-Wolf award, Marilyn Chin claimed “activist poet” as her mantle: “I’ve been writing poetry to right the wrongs of the world, to express my Chinese-American sensibility, to work for this utopian American future.”
Chin, a professor at San Diego State University teaching this year at Smith College, collected the prize for Hard Love Province, her fourth volume of poetry. Juror Rita Dove praised her work as “icy yet inflamed.”
Chin explained the origins of “Peony” to the staff at the academy: “In Beijing, a student named Lin gave me a vase of huge, gorgeous peonies for my birthday. “I went away for a few days and returned to a disaster! The peonies had wilted so terribly that they made me cry. Alas, the shock of recognition. Buddha warned us about ‘old age, sickness and death.’ All living beings, poets and peonies alike, must meet our eventual demise!”
by Marilyn Chin
Why must I tell you this story, O little one
You’re just a bud-of-a-girl, who knows nothing
Now you are full-faced, bright as sun
Now you open your skirts pink, layered, brazen
Suffering is alchemy, change is God
Now you droop your head, heavy with rust
Sit, contemplate, what did Buddha say?
Old age, sickness, death, no one owns eternity
Detach, detach, look away from the sun
Let your petals fall aimlessly
Don’t despair, little one, we are done
As Marilyn Chinbegan her acceptance speech for this year’s award for poetry, she looked out in the audience upon former poet laureate and jury member Rita Dove, thanking her for her sisterhood. Dove praised “Hard Love Province,” noting, “In these sad and beautiful poems, a withering portrayal of our global ‘society’ emerges – from Buddha to Allah, Mongols to Bethesda boys, Humvee to war horse, Dachau to West Darfu, Irrawaddy River to San Diego.”
As is our tradition, we interview each of our winners prior to the hustle of the evening to get their quiet thoughts on what being recognized means to them. Here is Chin’s turn in front of the camera:
Anisfield-Wolf award winners are—almost by definition—civic minded.
They continue a generous tradition of adding extra public conversations each September in Cleveland. For those readers whose schedules don’t allow them to attend the awards ceremony or who want more than one chance to hear these gifted writers, here are the details:
Historian Richard S. Dunn will give a multi-media presentation on his landmark book, A Tale of Two Plantations: Slave Life and Labor in Jamaica and Virginia at 5 p.m. Wednesday September 9 at the Baker-Nord Center of Case Western Reserve University. Dunn spent more than four decades researching thousands of individuals over three generations, yielding ground-breaking insights into daily plantation life.
The first three events are free. Registration is requested for the Dunn presentation. Those keen to hear Marlon James at the City Club should buy a lunch ticket or tune into the broadcast on WCPN 90.3 FM.
The Cleveland Foundation today announced the winners of its 80th Annual Anisfield-Wolf Book Awards. The 2015 recipients of the only national juried prize for literature that confronts racism and examines diversity are:
“The new Anisfield-Wolf winners heighten our perceptions on race and diversity,” said Henry Louis Gates, Jr., who chairs the jury. “This year, we honor ground-breaking research into the lives of specific families enslaved on two New World plantations, a tour-de-force fictional portrayal of Jamaica spun in multiple voices, poetry from both coasts that is erotic and grave, and the indispensable, morally towering scholarship of David Brion Davis.”
Gates directs the Hutchins Center for African and African-American Research at Harvard University, where he is also the Alphonse Fletcher University Professor. He praised David Brion Davis as a foundational scholar whose Problem of Slavery trilogy is an essential work on the cultural, political and intellectual history of Western slavery and abolition. Joining Gates in selecting the winners each year are poet Rita Dove, novelist Joyce Carol Oates, psychologist Steven Pinker and historian Simon Schama.
Cleveland Foundation President and Chief Executive Officer Ronn Richard said the breadth of topics taken up by this year’s winners is gratifying, and reflects founder and donor Edith Anisfield Wolf’s belief in the power of the written word to elevate and enlighten.
“The Anisfield-Wolf Book Awards rose from the philanthropic vision of one woman who realized that literature could advance our thinking and beliefs about race, culture, ethnicity, and our shared humanity,” Richard said. “We are proud to showcase books that are beautifully written and enhance the urgent, national – and local – conversations around race and cultural difference.”
Past winners include four writers who went on to win Nobel prizes – Nadine Gordimer, the Rev. Martin Luther King, Jr., Toni Morrison and Wole Soyinka.
Meet Our 2015 Winners
Jericho Brown, The New Testament, Poetry
In the language of the blues and the Bible, poet Jericho Brown crafts 40 poems for The New Testament, a meditation on race, masculinity and gay sexuality. Anisfield Wolf juror Rita Dove calls this book “a reminder that outrage is a seductive disease — we would rather rage or weep than find a way to love in spite of the pain. Brown’s poems brim with love for this damaged world without letting the world off the hook.” And poet Rae Armantrout adds her praise, noting: “Like the other new testament, it’s about what love can do.” Brown teaches creative writing at Emory University in Atlanta.
Marilyn Chin, Hard Love Province, Poetry
Hard Love Province is the fourth collection of poetry from Marilyn Chin, whose book mourns the loss of a beloved in a world that seems inured to suffering. “In these sad and beautiful poems, a withering portrayal of our global ‘society’ emerges – from Buddha to Allah, Mongols to Bethesda boys, Humvee to war horse, Dachau to West Darfu, Irrawaddy River to San Diego,” observes Dove. Among the 23 poems are One Child Has Brown Eyes and Black President. Adrienne Rich described Chin’s work as “powerful, uncompromised and unerring.” Born in Hong Kong, Chin is a professor at San Diego State University.
Marlon James, A Brief History of Seven Killings, Fiction
In scalding yet musical language, A Brief History of Seven Killings hinges on the true 1976 attempt to assassinate reggae legend Bob Marley. Novelist Marlon James just calls him The Singer, and sets this character among a pinwheel of voices: CIA agents, child gangsters, a Rolling Stone reporter, drug dealers, corrupt politicians and a woman seriously diverted by one night with the musician. Anisfield-Wolf juror Joyce Carol Oates praised the “superb risk-taking” of James, whose story brims with profanity, violence, dialect, tenderness and cruelty. James teaches at Macalester College in St. Paul, Minnesota.
Richard S. Dunn, A Tale of Two Plantations: Slave Life and Labor in Jamaica and Virginia, Nonfiction
More than 40 years in the making, A Tale of Two Plantations is a scrupulous, revelatory archival investigation of some 2,000 people enslaved across three generations: roughly half on a Jamaican sugar plantation called Mesopotamia, and half on Mount Airy, a Virginia tidewater plantation growing tobacco and grain. Richard S. Dunn, a University of Pennsylvania historian, uses his findings to ask about enslaved motherhood, the effects of interracial sex on the meaning of family and how individuals fared upon emancipation. Oates calls the book magisterial, noting, “It is refreshing to encounter a historian who doesn’t include a forced conclusion.”
David Brion Davis is a preeminent American historian whose 1967 book, The Problem of Slavery in Western Culture, earned an Anisfield-Wolf Book Award and a Pulitzer Prize. It anchors a groundbreaking trilogy that culminated last year in The Problem of Slavery in the Age of Emancipation, which in March won the National Book Critics Circle award. Harvard University President Drew Gilpin writes that Davis’ influence is deep, having changed “traditional approaches to intellectual history by embedding ideas in social and political action and institutions.” Born in Denver in 1927, Davis is an Army veteran who retired from Yale University in 2001. He lives in Connecticut.