1999 Lenore Marshall Poetry Prize

The Nation, December 6, 1999 | Go to article overview

1999 Lenore Marshall Poetry Prize


The Lenore Marshall Poetry Prize of $10,000, awarded annually for the most outstanding book of poems published in the United States by an American, is administered mutually by the Academy of American Poets and The Nation. The past decade's winners have been Mark Jarman (1998), Robert Pinsky (1997), Charles Wright (1996), Marilyn Hacker (1995), W.S. Merwin (1994), Thom Gunn (1993), Adrienne Rich (1992), John Haines (1991), Michael Ryan (1990) and Thomas McGrath (1989).

This year the prize has been awarded to Wanda Coleman for her book Bathwater Wine (Black Sparrow). The judges were Marilyn Hacker, Rafael Campo and Toi Derricote. Works by other poets-Marie Ponsot, Arthur Sze, Alicia Ostriker, Rachel Hadas-whose books were selected as finalists by the judges, are noted by Hacker in the essay below.

Too Soon To Quit, Too Late To Cry

-Wanda Coleman, from Bathwater Wine

This year's Lenore Marshall prize is being presented to a poet whose angry and extravagant music, so far beyond baroque, has been making itself heard across the divide between West Coast and East, establishment and margins, slams and seminars, across the too-American rift among races and genders (there are more than two of each) for two decades. Bathwater Wine is Wanda Coleman's tenth book in nineteen years. She is a prolific poet whose gift is generous, unique and challenging, yet one whose work has not yet received the critical attention that its force, originality and scope have merited from the beginning. She is also, astoundingly, only the second writer of color (and the sixth woman) to receive the Lenore Marshall prize in the twenty-five years of its existence, despite its namesake's passion for social justice and despite, more relevantly, the books of necessary and indelible poetry written and published by Americans of African, Caribbean, Latino, Asian and Native ancestry during this quarter-century. This jury is pleased, in citing Wanda Coleman, to thus also acknowledge the work Black Sparrow Press has done over several decades in publishing and promoting important poets out of the geographical or stylistic American mainstream.

Each successive Lenore Marshall jury has doubtless remarked, in print or in private, on the dislocating effect of reading, in the space of two and a half months, what was, in our case, 200 volumes of poetry, then re-reading with closer attention the twenty to thirty titles that clearly merited serious consideration. With minimal interim consultation (e-mail notwithstanding), a remarkably congruent list of titles emerged as our finalists: Besides Coleman's Bathwater Wine, we are citing Marie Ponsot's The Bird Catcher, Arthur Sze's The Redshifting Web, Alicia Ostriker's The Little Space and Rachel Hadas's Halfway Down the Hall. Each has indubitable excellences: Coming to a decision on such an occasion only makes us wish that there were more prizes or, better yet, that contemporary poets had a readership, an audience attentive enough to make prizes entirely superfluous.

But for the three of us, the book that kept haunting our imaginations and demanding our attention was Bathwater Wine. Wanda Coleman, while staying firmly on her subject-a black girl's Bildungsroman, a black woman's transformations by and through passion and rage-displays a verbal virtuosity and stylistic range that explodes/expands the merely linear, the simply narrative, the straightforwardly lyric, into a verbal mandala whose colors and textures spin off the page. Coleman is a poet who excels in public presentations, one whose work moves freely between the academy and the popular renaissance of poetry-as-performance in bars and coffeehouses-but her poems do not require an audible voice or physical presence: They perform themselves.

Coleman is a quintessentially urban poet, and her cityscape is very specifically that of Los Angeles, one that Americans are more accustomed to finding in films and mystery novels than in poems. …

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