Mary Fecteau is a senior producer at Ideastream Public Media and director of the 2020 and 2021 Anisfield-Wolf Book Awards documentaries. Below, she reflects on the experience of working with the awards staff to pivot from an in-person ceremony to documentary in order to celebrate past two Anisfield-Wolf award classes.
When the pandemic hit in the spring of 2020, many of the events I expected to cover as a senior producer for Ideastream Public Media dried up.
Meanwhile across Euclid Avenue, Karen R. Long, who manages the Anisfield-Wolf Book Awards, was weighing what to do about the 2020 ceremony. For years, the in-person event brought a crowd of book lovers to Cleveland’s Playhouse Square. But in a year like 2020, she had to get creative. Together, we created an Emmy Award-winning documentary, which was distributed nationally on PBS.
Well, 2021 has turned out to be just as unpredictable as last year, and we were determined to make something just as memorable. After all, the Anisfield-Wolf Book Awards has been a Cleveland tradition for 86 years.
It’s been cited as Cleveland’s best kept literary secret. Founded by visionary philanthropist and poet Edith Anisfield-Wolf in 1935, it has the distinction of being the only American book award designed specifically to recognize works addressing issues of diversity, race and our appreciation of human cultures.
Although many Clevelanders haven’t heard of it, it’s a big deal in the literary world. So frequently is it awarded to African American luminaries, it’s often referred to as “the Black Pulitzer.” Past winners include Zora Neale Hurston, Langston Hughes and Toni Morrison.
This year’s honorees are a fitting addition to that illustrious winners circle: Victoria Chang for “Obit,” her haunting book of poems; historian Vincent Brown for “Tacky’s Revolt,” a rewriting from the ground up of an episode in the Atlantic slave trade; Natasha Trethewey for “Memorial Drive,” a memoir at once clear-eyed and heartrending; James McBride, for his vibrant work of fiction “Deacon King Kong”; and Samuel R. Delany, the lifetime achievement honoree, for his robust, fearless, and genre-spanning body of work, which includes science fiction novels, memoirs and essays.
My colleague, Shelli Reeves, and I spent our summer filming with these brilliant writers in their hometowns. We perused the Philadelphia Museum of Art with Samuel Delany (he’s partial to the Cézannes), crashed James McBride’s band practice at his Brooklyn church, and dug through police records with Natasha Trethewey (some of which served as source material for her memoir).
Our goal was to create an experience for the viewer that is as moving and inspiring as the in-person Anisfield-Wolf Book Awards ceremony, but it’s also a rare glimpse of writers at the top of their craft, recounting their process. And, of course, it’s once again hosted by the magnetic Henry Louis Gates Jr.
You can watch it September 14 at 9 p.m. on WVIZ/PBS or online. Get a short taste below:
“I always feel slightly at home in Ohio,” she said. “It is the state that allowed my parents to get a marriage license in 1965, allowed me to be born legit in this country, even as our laws still rendered me persona non grata.”
The newborn Trethewey arrived a year later in Gulfport, Mississippi, where her parents’ marriage was illegal under a national patchwork of anti-miscegenation laws. The couple met at Kentucky State College — Gwendolyn Ann Turnbough, a black woman fresh from Gulfport, and Eric Trethewey, a white Canadian who hitchhiked his way to campus.
Their brief marriage – they divorced when Natasha was 6 – features heavily in her work, including the poem she chose to open the evening, “Miscegenation.” As she moved through her reading, an expert mix of personal history and political commentary, Tretheway threaded each poem with the pointed focus of race and place.
Such themes frequently lace through her verse, including in her 2012 poetry collection, “Thrall,” in which she uses historical figures to parse identity and belonging. Prior to that, she released “Native Guard,” which heralded the unsung black soldiers who protected the Union during the Civil War. It won the Pulitzer Prize in 2007.
Parts of the evening were somber, as Trethewey shared the anger and longing lodged in poems she’d written after the murder of her mother, a social worker, when Natasha Trethewey was a 19-year-old student at the University of Georgia. The awful death, at the hands of a second husband her mother had divorced, pushed Trethewey toward poetry more than anything else. In “Myth” she grapples with painful reoccurring dreams of her mother, often triggering a new wave of grief:
I was asleep while you were dying.
It’s as if you slipped through some rift, a hollow
“He had been writing about me my whole life. And he was excited and had a little dread about me becoming a poet because he knew I would set the story straight,” she quipped before a sizeable audience gathered by the Wick Poetry Center.
Now 51 and a professor at Northwestern University, Trethewey took a moment to stitch the social justice movements of the past and present. “Incident,” about an attack at her grandmother’s home when she was a child, brimmed with relevance: “It seemed the angels had gathered, white men in their gowns./When they were done, they left quietly. No one came.”
Trethewey looked out at the assembled. “We hear a lot about voter fraud when we really should be talking about voter suppression, voter intimidation, redistricting,” she warned. “But this is not new. We’ve seen this.”
A 2009 National Endowment for the Arts study found that only 8 percent of adults read any poetry in the previous year. Children do better. The Poetry Foundation discovered that the main reasons adults take a pass is loss of interest, lack of time, lack of access, and the perception that poetry is difficult and irrelevant.
U.S. poet laureate Natasha Trethewey, recently appointed to her second term, is working to welcome more adults to the party.
“We can’t know what poem is going to be the poem that brings someone to poetry, comforts them in times of grief, tragedy, and loss, or celebrates with them in times of joy and triumph,” she told the Los Angeles Review of Books last year. “But it is our job — as poets, as teachers, as the poet laureate — to try to bring people to a wide variety of poems so they might find that one among the many.”
During her first year as poet laureate, Trethewey relocated from Emory University in Atlanta to Washington D.C., where she held weekly office hours at the Library of Congress, an nontraditional move for the role. This year, she will film a regular feature on the PBS NewsHour Poetry Series, during which she will travel the country to examine how poetry plays out in the lives of everyday Americans.
Trethewey is also writing a memoir, currently untitled, recounting her experiences as a biracial child in the 1970s. It will be released in 2014. Readers who are impatient can pick up a copy of “Thrall,” or her Pulitzer-winning 2007 collection, “Native Guard.”