Sunday, September 27, 2020

The trouble with prizes and competition for Black poets

In October 2000, I attended an African American literature conference, where various subjects were covered. Given my research on prizes and awards in Black poetry though, I often reflect on one informal conversation more than others. 

I was talking with a group that included Jerry W. Ward, Jr. At one point when someone mentioned creating a new prize, Ward cautioned that perhaps there were already too many prizes and awards. What’s most interesting is that since 2000, that is, since Ward's observation, there has been a major increase in additional competitive prizes, awards, and fellowships. 

Since 1999, we now have the Cave Canem Poetry Prize, the Cave Canem Northwestern University Press Poetry Prize, the Hurston-Wright Legacy Award for Poetry, the Jackson Poetry Prize, and the NAACP Image Award for Outstanding Literary Work – Poetry.  Those five have awarded sixty recipients.  

There's also something new with much older established awards. In the past, Black poets were largely excluded from major awards, but far more opportunities for winning have been made possible in recent decades. In many cases, institutions have awarded more Black poets during the first twenty years of the 21st century than in the last fifty years of the 20th century. 

Have Black poets produced exemplary work? They have -- no doubt about it. But just as important, liberal white people who run institutions that fund awards have become less exclusionary than they historically were. Moreover, some African American organizations, like Caven Canem, the NAACP, and the Hurston-Wright Foundation created their own poetry awards. 

There were three Black Pulitzer Prize for Poetry winners in the 20th century, and since 2007, there have been five. Within the last seven years, the Kingsley Tufts Poetry Award, which provides recipients with $100k, has gone to five Black poets. The last three recipients of the Wallace Stevens Award have been Black women poets.  

During the last twenty years, there have been many Black recipients of Guggenheim Fellowships, National Book Awards for Poetry, Whiting Writers' Awards, and Ruth Lilly and Dorothy Sargent Rosenberg Poetry Fellowships. All of that is positive news, especially for the winners. 

But of course the trouble with all the competition is that a large number of Black poets will lose and be left out. Many have and will continue to spend money, time, and considerable effort struggling to gain recognition only to fail to earn adequate returns. Look, I understand that that's the nature of competition, but it's still disheartening.  

Folks have always highlighted the disparity between Black poets and white poets, but what's additionally noticeable now is the disparity between Black poets and Black poets, between the select writers who win big and all the rest. 

We understandably celebrate Black winners and even near-winners. There are interviews and profiles featuring winning poets. I have tracked the awards earned by Black poets for several years now. There are still many other stories to tell though. 

The experiences of poets who lose and who are in disadvantaged positions when they compete are under-reported. Where do you go to read about the works of Black poets who have not earned major awards? Poetry is a tremendously crowded field, so without awards or some mechanism to amplify the various books, many poets would be ignored.

With so much noise in our culture, volumes of poetry are still largely overlooked. Awards and special appointments serve as filters and create pathways to success for some. We just have to do more than we've done to consider the consequences for all those writers who struggle and, for a variety of reasons beyond the quality of their work, do not win.


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