Black Women Shine in This Year's Poetry Prizes

Four of the most prestigious poetry prizes went to African-American women this year. Some say the accolades are well overdue. Fueling this trend are a growing number of literary organizations that nurture the work specifically of black writers.

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From NPR News, this is ALL THINGS CONSIDERED. I'm Andrea Seabrook.

Something extraordinary happened in the world of poetry this year. Four of the most prestigious poetry prizes went to African-American women. For many poetry lovers, this represents long overdue recognition.

Judy Valente has more.

JUDY VALENTE: When Lucille Clifton began publishing her poetry more than 40 years ago, she was a young mother with six children. She didn't have a college degree and was forced to jot down her poems on notepads in between changing diapers.

Ms. LUCILLE CLIFTON (Poet; Winner, $100,000 Lily Prize): I wrote a poem called "Why Some People Be Mad At Me Sometimes." And it goes: They ask me to remember but they want me to remember their memories. And I keep on remembering mine.

VALENTE: This year, at age 70, Clifton won the gold standard of poetry prizes -the $100,000 Lily Prize.

Ms. CLIFTON: The people who have in the past had been the judges and validators have began to think they cannot stay in the same box. The world lets you know that. And this is the world has changed. Whether it's changing, under protest, I must say, the poetry world have as well.

VALENTE: Clifton came of age as a writer in the pre-Civil Rights era. But this year's crop of award winners also includes a younger generation of poets, ranging in age from 35 to 45 - some of whom Clifton mentored. It may seem like a fluke that the awards are flowing now to black women writers. But close observers of the poetry scene say it's more than coincidence.

Tree Swenson is the executive director of the Academy of American Poets.

Ms. TREE SWENSON (Executive Director, Academy of American Poets): It isn't as if this event signals a change. It reflects a change that has already happened. Far more African-American poets have been publishing and receiving recognition. They are out there working. The work is excellent. In fact, the whole of contemporary American poetry is thriving right now.

VALENTE: Fueling this trend are a growing number of literary organizations that nurture the works, specifically, of black writers. One of them is Cave Canem. Three of this year's winners were supported early on by Cave Canem including this year's Pulitzer Prize winner, Natasha Trethewey. Here, reading an excerpt from her poem "Miscegenation."

Ms. NATASHA TRETHEWEY (Poet; Pulitzer Prize Winner): (Reading) In 1965, my parents broke two laws of Mississippi; they went to Ohio to marry, returned to Mississippi. They crossed the river into Cincinnati, a city whose name begins with a sound like sin, the sound of wrong - mis in Mississippi. A year later, they moved to Canada, followed a route the same as slaves, the train slicing the white glaze of winter, leaving Mississippi. When I turned 33 my father said, it's your Jesus year - you're the same age he was when he died. It was spring, the hills green in Mississippi.

I went to give a reading at a small college in the Deep South and one young white woman in the class volunteered that when she was asked to read my first book, "Domestic Work," she first looked at the blurbs on the back of the book. And she said to me, I didn't think there would be anything in there for me. And so, if there are any barriers that have come down, maybe the barrier is that we can actually begin to see black experience as emblematic of human experience.

VALENTE: It's that boarder experience that another of the award winners, Tracy K. Smith, tries to explore. Her topics are as varied as Native American survival and the political climate in Uganda. Smith won the James K. Laughlin Award from the Academy of American Poets for her collection, "Duende."

Ms. TRACY K. SMITH (Poet; Winner, James K. Laughlin Award from the Academy of American Poets): My work is not overly loyal to one side of experiences. So a reader who comes to it with an idea that I'm going to be writing about my family's history in Alabama, or that I'm going to be writing about more recent political events that relate directly to the African-American community will be surprised and will have to think, okay, black writers are thinking about the world on my different levels and responding to it from many different aspects of the self. I'll read a brief poem called "In Brazil."

(Reading) Poets swagger up and down the shore, oh back. Wagging their hips in time to the ruckus tide. They tipped back their heads and life sears a path down the throat. At night, that dance, don't they. Across tiles that might as well be glass or ice. When the poem finally arrives, it grins and watches back with wide credulous eyes.

VALENTE: Elizabeth Alexander won the new $50,000 Jackson Poetry Prize. Alexander says there is strong evidence that African-American poets have too long been ignored. She notes that just 10 years ago, the Academy of American Poets had no African-American chancellors on its board. And in 2005, all of the finalists for the National Book Award in Poetry were white men.

Alexander says the momentum began changing last year when that award went to Nathaniel Mackey, a black writer.

Ms. ELIZABETH ALEXANDER (Poet; Winner, $50,000 Jackson Poetry Prize): This is a moment for people to say look what we have been missing, and also to say and to recognize that if you read a Nathaniel Mackey poem, a Tracy K. Smith poem, a Lucille Clifton poem, none of those poems sounds really anything like any of the others. Our voices, our backgrounds, our aesthetics, our concerns, are quite distinct.

VALENTE: Alexander says she can't help but think about the legacy of other African-American poets whose race may have been the only factor that prevented them from winning major prizes.

Ms. ALEXANDER: All of the poets who have come before for whom the timing might not have been so good as far as recognition goes, kept on making their work. They kept on writing those poems, and those poems are there for us to rediscover even as we stand in the sunshine at this particular moment.

For NPR News, I'm Judy Valente.

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