Wednesday, December 11, 2013

National Book Awards & Poem: Mary Szybist

I watch too much TV, still. I say every single day that I am going to cut back, and I have had periods (like winters in Chicago) when I could go for long stretches watching almost nothing except a show or two (The Wire, Sleeper Cell, Project Runway, etc.), but now that I'm back in New Jersey full-time, part of the rhythm of home involves that infernal digital box (I was going to write cathode ray contraption, but those days are now mostly gone). My TV watching--which does not preclude reading, for classes, for pleasure, etc.--even extended recently to a program I never thought I would sit through, the 2013 National Book Awards ceremony. It ran on CSPAN-2, I believe, and I know that I wasn't the only one watching, because as is now the case with many TV programs, it included a vibrant social media component, which meant that my Twitter feed lit up with comments from Twitterati I follow (or who were retweeting other wits and observers) who were watching the program too.

The fiction finalists

One part of me did think that it was perhaps ridiculous to be tweeting about an awards ceremony focused on book awards, but another part of me said, how wonderful that literary arts, though framed by a strong commercial push from the National Book Foundation and major global and domestic publishers, are not only being celebrated, but televised, and not just televised, but watched and reviewed in real time. Most of the people in my Twitter feed, as did I, tended to celebrate the authors, make positive comments about the winners' work and self-presentation, and cheer about specific books that were nominated and those that won. I thankfully did not see many--any?--negative comments about the authors or their book nor did I see arguments break out about the selections. In truth it is so rare to see living poets, fiction and nonfiction writers, and authors of young adult literature individually or together, and their work, their art, our arts, being celebrated no less, on our dominant cultural mass medium that I think this may have held a lot of negativity in check.

The nonfiction finalists

One person who provoked a smidgen of negative commentary was one of the two co-hosts, Mika Brzezinski. She struck me as somewhat incongruous amidst the proceedings, though it turns out that the National Book Awards finalists were revealed on Morning Joe, the program she co-hosts with former GOP Congressman Joe Scarborough. I am not being snide or snarky when I say that while I think she may be a savvy person--and she has gotten quite far in the world, admittedly with the boost of a famous parent--she does not give the impression of being a regular reader or literary enthusiast. But I have not studied her life exhaustively and could be quite wrong; she did study English at Williams College and very well may consume books the way many around us devour reality TV shows and TV melodramas, and perhaps her performance on Morning Joe is more performance than anything else. She unfortunately did make a major flub when, after having announced the order the prizes would be handed out--there were only four, so it should have been fairly easy to remember them and figure out something was amiss, especially for an on-camera professional--she announced the nonfiction presenter instead of the person presenting the award for fiction. Allegedly she also left before the awards ceremony was over. I guess too much of the book business can get to some.

The poetry finalists

The winners included author and musician James McBride for his Civil War-era novel about a young man who accompanies abolitionist John Brown, The Good Lord Bird (Riverhead Books/Penguin Group USA); nonfiction writer George Packer, for his meditations on the contemporary state of American society, The Unwinding: An Inner History of the New America (Farrar, Straus & Giroux); Cynthia Kadohata's young adult book The Thing About Luck (Atheneum Books for Young Readers/Simon & Schuster); and poet Mary Szybist, who gave the most affecting speech this year, for her collection Incarnadine (Graywolf Press). A few years ago a furor arose because the five fiction finalists were not well known, and most were with smaller presses, but as this year's winners make clear, the big houses mostly cleaned house. There also was for the first time a Man Booker Prize-like longlist, which I think aimed to generate a bit more "buzz" and was a good idea in terms of honoring more writers than fewer, though in a sense it also seems a bit cruel to those who did not advance to the finalist stage. But what are you going to do? In any case there are several more big American/global literary prizes to go (the National Book Critics Circle Award, the Pulitzer Prizes, and the various PEN awards, etc.), so perhaps some of the nominees who did not win this time will merit consideration for some of the ones for later this award season cycle, and other authors, like the great Jay Wright, and my brilliant and prolific Rutgers colleagues Rigoberto González, Jim Goodman, Rachel HadasJayne Anne PhillipsBrenda Shaughnessy, all of whom I believe published new books (several in the case of Rigoberto!), will also receive some of these honors. Congratulations to all this year's winners--and to all 2013 authors too!

The young people's literature finalists

I thought I would post two of the most formally daring poems from Mary Szybist's Incarnadine. Their content and rhetoric give a good sense of the book and its concerns, though these two poems go much further, in terms of their formal daring and visuality, than the rest of the book, thus making them almost unrepresentative. I have to say that I like them and like looking at them and like trying to read them, and like that an author is both tackling the subject of God and the numinous, and yet also doing so in ways that are unexpected. And I like that some other poets and critics, serving as judges, saw fit to honor such daring. Several of my undergraduate students have been particularly interested in poetry's non-verbal qualities and abilities, its multiple capacities for signification, and these poems, hearkening in some ways back to George Herbert in the case of the "How (Not) to Speak to God" and to May Swenson or the Concrete poets, just to offer a few examples, in the case of "It is Pretty to Think," exemplify what my students and I have been talking about.


Copyright © "How (Not) to Talk to God" and "It Is Pretty to Think," by Mary Szybist, from Incarnadine, Minneapolis: Graywolf Press, 2013. All rights reserved.

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