Thursday, April 10, 2008

Photograph by Jonathan Williams

When I was asked if I would judge this year’s William Carlos Williams Award for the Poetry Society of America (PSA), I had some serious bouts of ambivalence. I am not, as readers of this space will know, a fan of prizes in general. When they are done at all well, it is the giver who is ultimately honored for having had the good sense to pick wisely. And when they’re done badly, well, the good folks at Foetry will be happy to tell you all about that. The Williams award, ostensibly for the best book by a small, non-profit or university press volume, has had as mixed a record as any. Neither the PSA nor Wikipedia lists a comprehensive list of winners for every year, so I can’t tell you if it’s been awarded every year since, say, Williams died in 1963. Or was it simply thought up in the 1980s to acknowledge the fact that to give book awards to trade press publications (this year’s Pulitzer is shared by Harcourt and Ecco presses) profoundly distorts the actually existing field of poetry?

Diane Wakoski won the Williams Prize in 1989 for her selected poems, Emerald Ice, the one instance I can see in which it was given in something akin to the spirit of Williams himself. Most of the winners since then have been decidedly mixed. It’s worth noting that Fanny Howe was the judge one year and gave the award to Ralph J. Mills & that Marjorie Welish awarded it to Brenda Hillman two years ago. Last year’s judge, Tony Hoagland, gave the prize to Matthew Zapruder for his Copper Canyon Collection, The Pijamaist. That’s not a bad choice, though it’s almost certainly not the one I would have made had I been the judge. But what would I do under such a circumstance? That thought nagged at me. I, after all, had my “aha” experience as a teenager – that thunderclap event that let me know then & there that I was going to be a poet – as the result of reading The Desert Music, published by New Directions. I have some very strong ideas about the role & meaning of Williams’ in American poetry & writing general. And this was a prize for an already published volume – it wasn’t your usual exploitive, pay the readers’ fee & hope your manuscript gets picked, book contest. Those contests always appall me, and I feel as badly for the winners – whom nobody ever takes seriously – as I do the losers who fund such ventures.

So I said yes. I was told that I could expect to receive between 70 and 100 volumes and that they would show up sometime in January. When they did, there were three large cartons and a total of 150 books in all. How was I going to pick a winner out of that? I got open a box cutter and sliced into the first carton. There, right smack at the top, was a volume that jolted me into fairly uncontrollable laughter – my own The Age of Huts (compleat). When I was finally able to catch my breath I picked it up, rather the way Hamlet holds the skull of Yorick, and addressed it (probably out loud): Well, little fella, you finally have found an award that shares your own sense of aesthetics, and you don’t stand a chance.