Thursday, June 13, 2019

American Academy of Arts & Letters Ceremonial 2019 & Award

Six years ago, back in 2013, I blogged about attending the American Academy of Arts & Letters' annual Ceremonial award celebration. I was the guest of a friend and colleague, Dorothy Wang, who was a guest of an award-winner, the poet Joanna Klink, and though I had seen some of its award winners and awards I'd seen listed over the years, I had no idea about the organization or where it headquarters were located, let alone about its awards. In fact, I often mistook it for the American Academy of Arts & Sciences, which is located in Cambridge, not New York; they are two similar but distinct organizations. The latter encompasses the sciences and is more of a scholarly honors organization, while the latter primarily focuses, as its name suggests, on arts and letters.

Aububon Terrace (photo by C)
In my previous post, I gave a potted history of the AAAL:
It's an august institution too: a closed honor society of 250 members selected and elected by standing members without outside nomination, it grew out of the National Institute of Arts and Letters, founded in 1898, consisting eventually of 200 members, from which the American Academy of Arts and Letters, a smaller and more elite sub-organization of 50 of the most eminent figures in their fields, emerged in 1904. US President William Howard Taft signed a Congressional act that incorporated the Institute of Arts and Letters in 1907, and the Academy in 1916. In 1976 the two organizations merged, and in 1993, all 250 members merged into one entity now known as the American Academy of Arts and Letters.
I also mentioned some of its members and the day's award-winners, a few like my former graduate school professor and thesis advisor E. L. Doctorow no longer with us, so won't recapitulate that earlier blog post, but I will say that uncanny pleasure of once again attending a Ceremonial up at Audubon Terrace in Washington Heights, this year, as a recipient, having received the Harold T. Vursell Award in Fiction. This award is given to a writer specifically based on the quality of their prose. (!) J's Theater readers will note my often baroque stylings (and typos, forgive me) here, and perhaps ponder why I was designated a recipient of this prize, but it was primarily for Counternarratives, in which my rhetorical and syntactic play was, I think it fair to say, at its most daring, and so I took the honor as an affirmation of what I attempted in that book, though I also think it's probably not wrong to suggest that all of my published books have in them some sort of experimentation when it comes to prose or verse, and that when it works, it is at least distinctive if nothing else.

As an award recipient, I was invited to a pre-Ceremonial reception and luncheon, which C attended with me, as did my New Directions editor and publisher, Barbara Epler, and I had the opportunity there to tell Jamaica Kincaid once again how much of a fan I was and am. Her prose, as well as her inventiveness as a storyteller and novelist, have been among many powerful influences on my own work. I also had the opportunity to chat with a few fellow award winners or new members, including poets Aracelis Girmay, fellow former Dark Room member Natasha TretheweyMarilyn Chin, Claudia Rankine, and Grace Schulman, and fiction writers Alice Hoffman, Lorrie Moore and my collegue Jayne Anne Phillips, who was elected to the AAAL a few years ago. After the luncheon, as before it, C and I viewed some of the art and literary materials, by members and recipients on display.

One of the more fascinating rooms featured the photos of all the prior and present members, lined up in rows in stall-like spaces. The original members were, unsurprisingly, all white men, a great many of them legendary names in American culture, which got me wondering who had not been a member yet produced work that today we hold in high esteem (F. Scott Fitzgerald, to name one, Ernest Hemingway to name another); on the other hand, many of the names would not register at all to contemporary sensibilities. At a certain point, a few white women's faces pop up, and then, slowly, the further we progressed into the 20th century, there were more white women, a few black writers, like W. E. B. DuBois (was he the first?) and Langston Hughes, and then black classical composers and jazz musicians, Asian American, Latinx, and Native American writers' portraits appear (see the photos below). The Academy's members still strongly reflect the upper reaches of the preponderantly New York-and-northeastern based world of architecture, visual arts, literature, and European-American art music, but the awardees have begun to diversify somewhat more, or so I was told. Certainly this year's winners were more racially and generationally diverse than I recall from 2013.

In one of the rooms featuring paintings
bequeathed by American Impressionist
F. Childe Hassam (photo by C)
One of the rooms in the American Academy
 headquarters  (photo by C)
Members and honorees assembling on stage
 (photo by C)
Once the Ceremonial began, I took my numbered seat on the stage, between Jamaica Kincaid and poet D. A. Powell, also a prize recipient; to his left sat our presenter and a member of the committee that selected us, poet Henri Cole. A row behind me sat Eileen Myles, among others. A number of illustrious members, like sculptors Martin Puryear and Richard Hunt, whom I mentioned in my prior post, and honorees like Meredith Monk and Thelma Golden, were seated in the front row.  This year's recipient of the Gold Medal for Literature, the Academy's highest honor, Toni Morrison, and the Gold Medal for Art, Lee Bontecou, were unable to attend, and so were fulsomely lauded by their presenters. One highlight of this year was the Blashfield Lecture by Pulitzer Prize-winning composer David Del Tredici, once a controversial figure in the American classical music world and now a venerable and venerated elder. Del Tredici's lecture, "The Task of Gayness," explored his coming into his own in his field, and out as a gay man, with humor and concision. Were he to write a memoir, I'd most certainly buy it.

A photo of me walking to receive
my award from Henri Cole (photo by C)
Receiving my award from Henri Cole
(Photo by C)
At the conclusion of the awards ceremony, which ran roughly an hour, another reception unfolded, on a bright and sunny but thankfully not hot afternoon, which afforded us an opportunity to speak with more writers, editors, artists, and others in attendance. It was, all in all, a lovely afternoon, and many thanks to the Academy jury for the award!

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