Sunday, May 1, 2016
Poetry awards and lucky breaks
It would be nice and surprising if novelists and poets acknowledged lucky breaks or good fortune during acceptance speeches for literary awards. We'd be entering a different realm if we were inclined to point out that it's not solely quality of writing that allows select writers to win while others lose. Various factors, beyond the actual writing, converge to determine why certain kinds of writers find themselves in the winner's circle more often than other kinds of writers.
I've written about awards in black poetry, so I'll take that as a jumping off point here. I should say, though, black poetry recipients are hardly the most notable beneficiaries of luck or good fortune. There are far more award-winning white poets out there in the world. But given the subject-matter of my blog, I thought I'd start by discussing lucky breaks among black writers, especially poets.
Interestingly, the exclusion of black writers from so-called mainstream awards over the decades and last century ends up benefiting some contemporary African American poets. Agencies and institutions that historically overlooked or flat-out refused to acknowledge the contributions of black poets in the past have sometimes tried to correct those wrongs by actively seeking to include diverse poets during our contemporary era.
The existence of good writing from black poets is not new, but the willingness of various major organizations to take diversity into account is. Further, universities, particularly departments of English, are far more likely to hire black poets today than they were 20, 30, and 40 years ago. One of the most crucial aspects of lucky breaks involves where and when poets are born. It's not something you control; yet, that placement affords tremendous advantages and disadvantages.
In general, talented African American poets who were publishing volumes in the 1980s and early 1990s had less viable opportunities for winning major awards and attaining university jobs than talented poets who began publishing during the late 1990s and early 21st century. Again, the poetry today is good, but the landscape for poetry, beyond just the writing, has changed. For one, there have been shifts in judging committees. In addition, there have been steps to address racial and gendered exclusion. These factors, issues, and new or altered landscapes constitute aspects of the good fortune for some contemporary poets.
Oh, and the some matters. A large majority of African American poets will still toil away and receive hardly any recognition for their works. In short, they won't receive enough lucky breaks.
Often, when we talk about awards in poetry, we categorize and tally things like men vs. women or white vs. black. But what if we did the lists by economic background or social class? The findings would take us to other considerations. For instance, a rather large number of award-winning, African American poets come from notably privileged backgrounds, which seems integral to their successes.
Acknowledgements of lucky breaks and good fortune in African American poetry should not diminish our appreciation for the hard work and many talents of award-winning poets. But an acknowledgement of the good fortune and luck will hopefully lead us to think more seriously about the defining roles of external factors, beyond the poems and beyond the control of individual poets.
• Prizes and awards in African American poetry