January 13, 2016

Claremont Graduate University Kicks Off 2016 Tufts Awards; or, Short Gold Men and Little Red Dresses

Some may call it a stretch to liken what happens in late fall at Claremont Graduate University (CGU) to what happens this time of year in Hollywood, but consider the similarities: Oscar season in Tinseltown kicks off with creative hopefuls submitting their films to the Academy with the hope that their work will garner a golden statuette. Thirty miles east, hundreds of poetry collections arrive at the corner of 10th and Dartmouth, sent by poets from around the country with their eyes on either Kingsley Tufts Poetry Award, which boasts a purse of $100,000 for a mid-career poet, or the Kate Tufts Discovery Award, which is presented to the first book of a poet with genuine promise. Though the Oscars concern the silver screen and the Tufts awards printed verse, both represent recognition of the most elite talent in their respective fields.

On December 5, 2015, the preliminary judges joined faculty and students from the School of Arts and Humanities, local poets and writers, and CGU board members and distinguished guests at the president’s house to celebrate the judges having read almost 450 poetry volumes and whittled the lyrical heap down to just 52. Of these 52, only a few will make it to the final round, which will be revealed in mid-January, leading up to the announcement of the awards winners in March.

The preliminary judges include local poet and artworxLA Board of Directors Member Lynne Thompson, who remarked that the sheer scale of the volumes to be read was “daunting at first, but at the end of the day, it’s amazing reading 400 books of poetry.”

Thompson was joined by the other preliminary judges: poet and Professor of English at UC Davis Joshua Clover, and poet Allison Joseph, an associate professor of English at Southern Illinois University, Carbondale. Though the judges—who had to agree on the volumes that would ascend to the next round— didn’t always see eye to eye at first, “it was fascinating to navigate where we didn’t have common ground,” said Thompson, who added that the group was ultimately in happy accord about their decisions.

And as is wont to happen at literary soirees, at the urging of Lawrence Wilson (the public editor at the Pasadena Star-News and artistic director of LitFest Pasadena), a few intrepid souls undertook performances in one of humankind’s most archaic literary forms: poetry recitation. Wilson shared Thom Gunn’s pithy couplet “Jamesian”—“Their relationship consisted / In discussing if it existed”—which was followed by a somber reading of Wordsworth by Joshua Clover.

But there was one performance that solidified the perhaps tenuously argued kinship between the Oscars and the Tufts Awards: Allison Joseph’s “Ode to the Red Dress,” read with drama and fire by the poet herself. Singing vermillion words and clad in crimson lace, it was a performance that even a red carpet couldn’t compete with.