This has been one of the most amazing years in my whole life. I read at venues that deeply connected me to the American poetic tradition: The Walt Whitman Birthplace; the Poetry Center of Passaic Community College; the UA Poetry Center; the Fine Arts Work Center. It has taken 4 decades of work to get to these places, but I am the poster child for persistence and persist I did. I thank all of the organizers and audiences for their hospitality and generosity and embrace of my work. In February, I was at AWP on a panel about capitalism! And I read from TRUTH TO POWER from Cutthroat Journal, one of my fine volumes emanating from political turmoil of these times. But more importantly, I got to hang out with Joy Harjo-we have known each other for 4 decades and this year she received the Ruth Lilly Poetry Prize, the most prestigious for American poets and then I received the Poets and Writers Jackson Prize–little did we know that on the day before my birthday in February.
Anyone who works long and hard and seriously at their chosen art form deserves recognition. Anyone. But I am not anyone and I am so glad to have received the 2017 Jackson Poetry Prize from Poets & Writers. It was a balm, a boon, and a joy to share with friends on May 23rd at the Century Club–so venerable, the balcony looks towards the Chrysler Building! Strands of my life from Loft Jazz world, The Poetry Project, Bomb Magazine, Mabou Mines, Vermont College, VCCA, Rhodes College, CUNY, St John’s Church in Park Slope, Cave Canem were all there. So many people, I did not get to greet everyone. They came from Boston and Long Island and one of my hometown friends ws there! Nicole Peyrafitte posted part of my acceptance speech, thus the title of this blog.
My hair stylist Nadia Vassell made my hair look fab; a Lancome rep at Saks did my makeup. I wore new clothes that Janet Goldner helped me shop for. I was happy. I am thrilled and tired and glad that the ceremony and brouhaha are over. I have plans for this good fortune, mostly paying bills and giving myself that cushion because I’ve had many many many rainy days and no cushion. I do not come from money or a pedigree. There are no relatives who went to Harvard or Spelman or even FSU! I am the first person in my entire family to go to and complete college. I come from Forrest City, a small town in Arkansas in the Delta that is barely holding on, but was once a site of major cotton plantations and the ancillary businesses resulting from that. Cotton is still there and rice and soy beans and corn, but people Black or White are not “on the land”-huge machines do what hundreds of poorly paid people did 50 years ago. But the land is where my mama resides in a graveyard in the South end of town and land is what I co-own with my brother and sister in town. And land is large and flat and green. I come from a verdant and violent place.
So I deeply appreciate the judges selection of my work. It means that you can come from a small place in a small state and make it big (well Bill Clinton did that first, but hey, he’s not a poet) in your chosen field. I am not “big”, but this says that my work is important. And they give me money too! I am so pleased that this “win” is only about selection from a small universe of nominees and not one of us knew we were up for this prize. This is about merit and spirit and recognition and yes, I deserve this. Any poet who has been writing and publishing and editing and reviewing and caring deeply about language and the people who explore and explode it, deserves recognition. So whomever receives this next year–enjoy the roses, the cards, the love and acclaim from friends and more scrutiny than one can possibly handle. For now, the recipient is moi and moi is pleased and glad to have made an excuse for wonderful friends to celebrate and be joyful on a balcony in mid-town as the sun set and everyone dressed up!
I am still so deeply honored to be named the 11th Jackson Poetry Prize winner. The first ever recipient was Elizabeth Alexander and I love this picture us at the Museum of Modern Art at a reception that was part of the Jacob Lawrence Migrations Series exhibition. She organized a reading that I was part of with nine other Black American poets for the exhibition. Tyehimba Jess who recently won the Pulitzer Prize this year was another reader that night. We were all thrilled and honored-thanks again to Elizabeth for putting that evening together. And thanks to the Jacksons for creating the Jackson Poetry Prize. It is not only a great honor, but the funds will be extremely helpful.
Here’s the Jackson Poetry Prize announcement from Poets & Writers. I am so grateful to the judges and to whomever nominated me. This is about work, the work I’ve been doing since 1974! Being a poet, at least to me, is a calling that is now a profession. I am wealthy in family and friends, but not in finances. My independence has been both a strength and a challenge. I have walked this path in my own way for a very long time. And I know that I have serious readers and I hope to have more. I thank all of you who have believed in me and who have read my work and challenged me to expand and explore. #gratitude