I've always harbored the fantasy of working as a private detective. I love the idea of interviewing people and fitting the pieces of a psychological puzzle together. Conducting radio interviews was my favorite task as curator for the Jack Straw Writers Program. Jack Straw invites one curator to lead a team of a dozen writers for a year. Writers learn how to give readings, create community, and at the end of the year celebrate with an anthology and a reading series around the city. Jack Straw applications are being accepted now!
So when the Seattle Review of Books asked me to write an article about the controversial requirements of the Washington Book Awards (authors born in the state are eligible even if they no longer live in the state. Authors who live in the state must have lived here for three years.) This year, three of the five poets nominated live out of state and have for several years --- if not since birth.
I loved writing this piece but what I learned in the process is that journalism (unless its interviewing poets on their work) is not for me. While I received an enormous amount of support and thanks from many people who had felt hurt and helpless in the light of this year's announcement of nominees (no winner announced until October 8th) I also received some pointed backlash. Who knew people in the literary community could be so mean?
The Seattle Review of Books asked me to write about this birth right rule and my hope is that by pointing out the injustice implicit in how we choose nominees, there might be a reexamining of such requirements in the future. Since the Washington Book Awards began nearly 50 years ago as the Governor's Awards, I suspect there was a clear bias towards Washington natives, a subtle (or not so subtle) way to keep newcomers at a disadvantage.
We aren't wearing the same fashions as 50 years ago nor do we live in the same way (think no home computers, no cell phones, no same sex marriage, no American Disabilities Act) so why not review the rules surrounding eligibility for this important prize?
If you care about this issue please consider writing a brief email to the Seattle Library Foundation.
Emails can be found at the end of the page.
Here is the opening to my article:
Why does Carl Phillips need the Washington State Book Award?
The truth is, he doesn’t. In fact, Carl Phillips is confused about the controversy his nomination is causing among Washington state poets. When I spoke with Phillips this morning he mentioned his total surprise and delight when informed by his publisher that his book Renaissance was nominated for this year’s Washington State Book Award. He went on to say that the book was submitted by his publisher, Farrar, Strauss & Giroux. “It wouldn’t have occurred to me,” to send the book, he said, and followed up with how honored he felt. And why would Carl Phillips believe he was eligible? Phillips left the state a little less than a year after his birth and has returned exactly twice – once for the recent AWP in Seattle and once to board a cruise ship. He doesn’t think he will be able to attend the October 8th award ceremonies.
The real problem is not his nomination — Phillips is a lovely man and an extraordinarily gifted lyric poet, he deserves many awards. But for this year’s Washington State Book Award in Poetry, three out of the five finalists do not live in Washington State. They are residents of Missouri, Tennessee, and Utah.
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