Tonight when the winner of the National Book Award in Poetry is announced, two and possibly three African American poets will have lost. In some respects. Carl Phillips’s Double Shadow, Nikky Finney's Head Off & Split, Yusef Komunyakaa's The Chameleon Couch, Bruce Smith's Devotions, and Adrienne Rich's Yet in Tonight No Poetry Will Serve are the finalists for the award. Phillips, Finney, and Komunyakaa represent the rare occurrence of a majority of African American poets comprising the majority of finalists for a major award.
Unless an award is exclusively for African American poets, it's uncommon to witness black writers as finalists for mainstream literary awards. In some quarters, there's always talk that only one is accepted at a time. That one is thought to be a kind of token among some. Having three, though, might shift some of the conversations. Maybe.
While I'm sure that everyone would like to win, the consolation prize in this case is not so bad. Just getting nominated for a major award can elevate one's prestige in the world of publishing. When books by non-winning nominees are reprinted, a "finalist for the National Book Award" seal will likely appear on the cover. Although that seal is not as golden as the Oprah book-of-the-month endorsement, there is some prestige and value in being a finalist, especially among readers and poets in the field.
Achieving the status of finalist also wins leverage with a current or potential publisher. Given the relatively small financial returns of volumes of poetry, publishers are likely more interested in poets with "prestige" such as those who have been finalists for major awards.
So even if Phillips, Komunyakaa, or Finney do not win tonight's big poetry award, all is certainly not lost. In fact, they all gained a little more prestige the day it was announced that they were finalists.
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