March 22, 2016

The Best Kept Secrets

Academia has a long history of arcane traditions. The University of Oxford hosts an annual backwards walk around the quad in order to maintain the spice-time continuum, and students from no fewer than 30 U.S. institutions of higher education incorporate streaking into their annual events calendar to commemorate or support things as far ranging as Breast Cancer research at California Polytechnic State University, San Luis Obispo, to the term’s first rain at the University of California, Santa Cruz.

At Claremont Graduate University (CGU), home to the Kingsley and Kate Tufts Poetry Awards, there is another annual tradition, no less esoteric, and just as highly anticipated by those in the know.

Several judges spend five months every year selecting just two volumes of poetry out of nearly 500 entries, one for the Kate Tufts Discovery Award and the other for the Kingsley Tufts Poetry Award. But rather than send a humble card of congratulations to the winners, Tufts Awards insiders gather at the CGU President’s house in Claremont to make a highly dramatic—and oftentimes, wildly entertaining—show of announcing the winners.

On February 27th, 2016, after cocktails and hors d’oeuvre, guests gathered in giddy anticipation in the parlor around a large table. Upon the table sat a speakerphone; the evening’s guest of honor. As Lori Anne Ferrell, Director of the Poetry Awards and Professor of English and History, and Tammi Schneider, Dean of the School of Arts and Humanities and Professor of Religion made the first call, a hush—punctuated only by stifled giggles—cloaked the room.

Making the phone call
Final judging phone call. L-R: head judge Chase Twichell, Dean Tammi J. Schneider, Tufts Director Lori Anne Ferrell, supporter Priscilla Fernandez, judge Don Share, judge Brian Kim Stefans.

After a few moments of ringing, Danez Smith answered the phone, and Chase Twitchell, former recipient of the Kingsley Tufts award and current head judge of the awards said, “you are on speakerphone in a room with 20-30 people, who are joining me in telling you that you’ve won the Kate Tufts Discovery Award.”

After more than a few moments of squealing, Smith, almost entirely speechless, simply said, “I can’t talk, I’m smiling too large.”

After a little more banter, it was time to call the Kingsley Tufts Award winner. As it happened, Ross Gay was in a cafe when he received the phone call (likely penning some new verse), and after a “whoaaaaa” that lasted almost a minute long, it dawned on him that, given his new pecuniary circumstances, he “should probably buy everyone [at the cafe] their coffee.”


Chase Twichell speaks
Tufts head judge (and 2011 Kingsley Tufts winner) Chase Twichell addresses the crowd.

This annual tradition of surprising the award recipients with a public phone call is charming, to say the least. But ever present at the event is the underlying knowledge that the both the Kingsley and Kate Tufts awardees are truly and seriously breaking new ground with their crafts. As Twichell said during the evening’s opening remarks:

“You might imagine that the final judges possess some rare erudition . . . in fact, that’s not so.” Though all the judges are experts in their own right—scholars, professors, writers, editors, and publishers— “work that is truly exceptional jumps right out . . .  [and] quality trumps individual aesthetic” preferences.

“And what do I mean by quality?” asked Twichell, “intelligence, authority, a gift of language, of course, imagination, inventiveness, curiosity, honesty . . . and the crucial underlying assumption that the writing of poems is part of the endless search for truth.”

These qualities are what made Gay and Smith this year’s winners, and we eagerly await their public readings at the Awards Ceremonies on April 7th in Claremont.

—Rachel Tie Morrison