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:
An innovative virtual exhibition at Case Western Reserve University selects and showcases new local responses to Anisfield-Wolf Book Awards writing. Sponsored by the Cleveland Humanities Collaborative, the exhibition features 10 new poems and essays responding to prompts from the Anisfield-Wolf award-winning canon.
Students and faculty from area universities created their own work based in Tracy K. Smith (“Wade in the Water”), Jesmyn Ward (“Sing, Unburied, Sing”), Tommy Orange (“There There”) and Martin Luther King Jr. (“Stride Toward Freedom”). Three students from Tri-C reflected on two pieces from the public art Inter|Urban project, influenced by Isabel Wilkerson (“The Warmth of Other Suns”) and Junot Diaz (“The Brief Wondrous Life of Oscar Wao”).
“The Anisfield-Wolf Book Awards have been a part of Cleveland’s literary culture for over 80 years,” said Kurt Koenigsberger, director for the collaborative. “It’s really been within the last decade that local colleges and universities, largely with support from the Cleveland Foundation, have begun to take up the challenge that the Anisfield-Wolf Award-winners pose for the work we do in our institutions.”
For the past two summers, the collaborative has sponsored seminars to help Northeast Ohio faculty, artists and activists integrate Anisfield-Wolf books into their classrooms and community projects. The idea for an exhibition that engaged students directly was an easy next step, Koenigsberger said: “Creating a space that broadened our institutions’ understanding, appreciation, and celebration of work on race and racism seemed important to the work of our Collaborative, and to our Northeast Ohio community more generally.”
Due to the coronavirus pandemic, plans for a physical exhibition in March quickly transitioned to a virtual presentation. Switching to an online format had at least one benefit — most of the participants provided audio of their work, adding flavor and personality to the written word.
“The move to invite participants to record their work was a result of our students’ deliberations,” Koenigsberger said. “They were very eager that the public could hear how the poems and essays sounded in the authors’ own voices.”
With the William G. Mather steamship providing a nautical backdrop, poet Tracy K. Smith brought her work to the shores of Northeast Ohio as part of the 2019 Cleveland Book Week festivities.
The 2019 Anisfield-Wolf winner for poetry opened her reading with a few selections from “Wade in the Water,” her 2018 award-winning collection. She began “The Everlasting Self,” a short meditative poem on identity and legacy, before segueing into “Declaration,” an erasure poem taken directly from the Declaration of Independence. “Please speak to me,” she recalled asking of the document. “Please show me something I haven’t already seen.”
Later in the reading, she explained the significance of the title poem, which came to her during a visit to a small Georgia town. A woman, part of the Geechee Gullah Ring Shouters, approached Smith and greeted her with an “I love you.”
“That felt like the most beautiful gift that someone could chose to give,” Smith said. ‘I see you. You are meaningful. I don’t know you but yet I love you.'”
During her just-finished two terms as U.S. Poet Laureate, she strove to bring poetry to rural communities, appearing in Alaska, South Dakota and Maine, popping up in rehabilitation centers, libraries, prisons and community gathering spots.
“I wanted to get off the beaten path but I also felt like this is a moment in America where all we’re inundated with is ideas of division,” Smith told the crowd on the harbor. “I knew that poetry could help get past that narrative. Because poems make you stop and pay really close attention. ‘Someone else is speaking here’ and it feels like it matters…And it gave me so much hope about America at a time when very little else did.”
Currently, Smith is the host of The Slowdown, a bite-size poetry podcast that delivers five-minute episodes every weekday. She is also a professor of creative writing at Princeton University.
Watch her full remarks below and make plans to join us in 2020 for Cleveland Book Week.
For the past decade, Northeast Ohioans gathered for the Anisfield-Wolf Book Awards ceremonies have celebrated a young poet alongside the winning authors. This year Logan Greer, 10, a fifth grader at Campus International School, set the tone with her poem, “City of Growing Up.” She wrote these lines in the spring of 2019 during a class exercise with teaching artist Nicole Robinson. Logan took her inspiration from “Ash” by Tracy K. Smith. Campus International is part of the Cleveland Metropolitan School District.
City of Growing Up
City of pleasant party people City with gangs City with learning City before cruelness before being anxious City that believes in God City like a flower growing in the ground City trotting around Lake Erie City paralyzed from moving City with depression City examining the streets City of a long road that I walk down City with my family City of angry people fighting to live City of the taste of my grandma’s macaroni A city of my life
Watch her recite it below and leave a comment for Logan. We’ll make sure she sees it.