As amply proved by the 2013 Academy of American Poets Prizes ceremony, held October 25 at the New School in New York City, contemporary poetry is not the sealed-off playground it’s sometimes thought to be but continually bears witness, in ways that are sometimes grand, sometimes intimate, and always stylistically distinctive. (At the event, part of the seventh annual Poets Forum held October 24–26, winning poets and translators each read from their work.) The energized, tumbling mass of tight-stitched imagery offered by genial debut poet Chris Hosea, who presents a sort of nutty roadshow of American culture, contrasted nicely with the reading by Carolyn Forché, whose probing look at human suffering (she’s long been associated with the term poetry of witness) has a strong, stringent, muscular elegance.
The multi-award-winning Forché, given an Academy of American Poets Fellowship to celebrate her distinguished career, might depict a sky crusted with stars. But her poems aren’t crusted with verbiage, something that provides delighted play for Hosea, winner of the Walt Whitman Award for first book—in his case, Put Your Hands In, to be published by Louisiana State University Press. Presenter Anne Waldman quoted Whitman judge John Ashbery, who observed that one irritated critic wanted to give Marcel Duchamp’s Nude Descending a Staircase the title Explosion in a Shingle Factory, and “both titles come to mind as one reads Chris Hosea’s [work].”
Winner of the Lenore Marshall Poetry Prize for the most outstanding book of poetry published in the United States each year (Shoulda Been Jimi Savannah), Patricia Smith proved her bona fides as four-time individual champion of the National Poetry Slam with a reading that started out mock funny and ended up corrosive—quite literally, as her poem featured Lysol’s cleaning powers, eventually applied to a girl’s skin to scrub off her blackness. (“I am black. I am not dirty,” says the child repeatedly before giving in.) Jillian Weise, the James Laughlin Award winner for a second book of poetry—the edgy, in-your-face The Book of Goodbyes—slyly delivered ache and anger in poems about breaking up and about overhearing two people mocking her at a café. “I knew her/ from FSU, back before she was disabled.// I mean she was disabled but she didn’t/ write like it” says one of the speakers about Weise, an amputee.
Translation got some well-deserved attention, with the Raiziss/de Palchi Translation Fellowship going to John Taylor for Lorenzo Calogero’s Selected Poems and the Harold Morton Landon Translation Award going to Cynthia Hogue and Sylvain Gallas for Virginie Lalucq and Jean-Luc Nancy’s Fortino Sámano (The Overflowing of the Poem). The latter, essentially a dialog between poet Lalucq and philosopher Nancy about a photograph showing a Zapatista lieutenant coolly facing execution, carries out the theme of witness that dominated the evening—and was exemplified by awarding Philip Levine the night’s top honor, the Wallace Stevens Award. As his wry reading of two forceful, scene-setting poems reminded us, Levine’s poetry has always carried a political charge, whether he’s talking about war, class clash, or social justice. This latest award just reminds us that he knows what poetry can do.