January 17, 2017

Two Tufts Directors Contemplate a 25-Year Legacy

In 1992 one woman honored her husband’s memory through the creation of the Kingsley Tufts Poetry Award, simultaneously ensuring that for years to come deserving mid-career poets would receive much needed acknowledgment and support. One year later Kate Tufts herself was honored by the establishment of a poetry award bearing her own name, designed to encourage newly budding poetic expressions. Since 2017 marks the 25th anniversary of Claremont Graduate University’s inception of the Kingsley & Kate Tufts Poetry Awards, I talked with former Director Dr. Wendy Martin and the current Tufts Director Dr. Lori Anne Ferrell about the Kate & Kingsley Awards’ past, present, and future.

A cornerstone of the CGU community since 1987, Wendy Martin is a Professor of American Literature and American Studies, she has served as Vice Provost, the Chair of the English Department for 23 years, the Director of the Transdisciplinary Studies Program, and she had an active role in the formation of the graduate-student-run Foothill poetry journal. Martin also worked relentlessly as a pivotal Tufts Director from 2010 to 2015, dedicating five years of focused effort to increasing the Tufts Awards’ visibility and diversity.

Poetry in Motion poster for Chase Twichell’s “To the Reader: Twilight”

Poetry in Motion

When asked about a favorite Tufts anecdote, Dr. Martin recalled “with special pleasure an autumn afternoon in Manhattan in 2011.” On the subway, she noticed a “Poetry in Motion” poster, part of the Poetry Society of America’s campaign to “bring poetry to the people”:

Martin began to read the first lines of the featured poem. Although the remainder of the poem was obscured by the gentleman sitting opposite from her, undeterred, in her typical dogged fashion, Martin politely asked the man to move aside so she could read the rest of the poem: “You’re like the spirits / the children invent / to inhabit the stuffed horse/ and the doll.”

Martin explained, “I recognized this poem, but couldn’t remember the author. There were a few more lines of the poem that were obscured by the young man’s shoulder, so I asked him to stand up so I could finish reading the poem. By this time, the young man was curious and began reading the poem as well: ‘I don’t know who hears me. / I don’t know who speaks / when the horse speaks.’”

Martin’s memory has a cinematic climax: “Then I spotted the title of the poem, ‘To the Reader: Twilight’ and the author was Chase Twichell, our Kingsley Tufts winner for 2011…My exclamations that this was a poem by a Tufts Poetry Awards winner at Claremont Graduate University – my University – were so vociferous that several other passengers came over to the poster and began to read the poem as well.” Dr. Martin underscores exactly why this remembered moment was so meaningful: “When I exited the subway at my 57th Street stop, there was a sizable group of people clustered around the poster reading [and] discussing the poem. This is the kind of attention I hoped all Tufts poets and the CGU Tufts Awards program, in general, would receive.”

In addition to this stunning moment, Martin provided a wealth of Tufts related memories. Reflecting further upon her time as the Tufts Director, she was hard-pressed to pick only one valued Tufts interaction: “I have also loved my conversations with Robert Pinsky, Alice Quinn, Campbell McGrath, B.H. Fairchild, Terrence Hays, Carl Phillips Linda Gregerson, Henri Cole, Chase Twichell, Stephen Burt, Don Share, Joshua Clover, D.A. Powell, Atsuro Riley, Timothy Donelly, Katherine Larson, Marianne Boruch, Heidy Steidlmayer, Afaa Weaver, Yona Harvey, Angie Estes, Brandon Som, Danez Smith and Ross Gay and so many others. I very much hope that we will stay connected going forward.”

Wendy Martin, with 2014 Kingsley & Kate Tufts Poetry Award winners Afaa Michael Weaver and Yona Harvey, and Tammi J. Schneider

Another important pillar of Claremont Graduate University, Lori Anne Ferrell has been an Early Modern History and Literature Professor at CGU since 2005, is the current chair of the English Department, and also acts as the Director of the Early Modern Studies Program. She additionally took on the helm of Director of the Tufts Poetry Awards this past year with her routinely fearless and applaudable aplomb, delving headfirst into the world of contemporary American poetry.

A Captivating Spell

Asked to share a favorite Tufts moment so far, Ferrell provided her “standard anecdote”: “I am a very new Director, and so have only just begun collecting [Tufts memories]…the most striking one, I suppose, occurred when Ross Gay was reading the title poem of his winning Catalog of Unabashed Gratitude” during last April’s Tufts Awards Ceremony. “We were all up there on the dais, with Ross at the podium. And all of a sudden, as he was reading, I felt myself getting mildly dizzy – and realized I had stopped breathing. Altogether. He was that transcendent,” Ferrell reminisced before smartly concluding, “I may have to bring an oxygen tank to readings in the future.” Like many others, myself included, Dr. Ferrell fell under the captivating spell of Gay’s poetic performance.

In regard to any especially striking Tufts-related exchanges, Ferrell states, “My favorite interaction has been at the Foothill journal event held to honor the returning Kingsley Tufts winner every early fall… our brand-new students invariably come up to me after the readings to tell me that had no idea we did such wonderful, inspiring things at CGU.” Dr. Ferrell highlighted the generative quality of this annual gathering: “It’s lovely to be able to reply, with all sincerity and equal excitement, that of course we do – and that means, of course, that of course they will too.”

Lori Anne Ferrell, 2016 Kingsley Tufts Poetry Award winner Ross Gay, and Tammi J. Schneider in October 2016.

The Tufts Awards have grown and changed over the years. Wendy Martin outlined how a once regional and somewhat university-detached entity slowly transformed into a nationally recognized CGU poetic endeavor. For Dr. Martin this lack of recognition and sense of detachment were regrettable, “It seemed to me that Claremont Graduate University should be the focus of the Tufts events.” Throughout her interview responses Martin kept returning to this recurring theme, the importance of striving to firmly cement Tufts to CGU: “My mantra has been to get everyone to say in the same breath, the ‘Kingsley and Kate Tufts Poetry Awards at Claremont Graduate University’ so that my colleagues on the East coast would no longer ask me, ‘The Tufts Poetry Awards, is this from Tufts University?’ This rarely happens to me now.” Martin’s key goals as director included clearly connecting the awards with CGU and the local community, gaining more national media attention, and making sure to appoint judges with varied and contemporary aesthetics. She achieved these, and then some.

The Future of the Awards

Contemplating Tufts’ present and future, Lori Anne Ferrell readily recognizes the hard work of her Tufts Director forbearers, including not only Wendy Martin but also Jack Miles and Patricia Easton: “We build on a firm foundation, for which I am grateful. The Kingsley and Kate Tufts Awards have always had a footing in both the CGU community and the larger community of poets and poetry.” Like Wendy Martin, for Ferrell this developing connectivity to the local poetry community is an integral aspect of the Tufts Awards: “I am particularly excited about the connection we made with dA gallery in Pomona this year, and about our first open mic reading and book giveaway for CGU and 5Cs students, faculty, staff, and community members this last spring. Who knew how many poets – and how many readers and memorizers of poetry – were in our midst.” Through the Tufts program, Ferrell hopes in the near future to continue building meaningful bridges between CGU and our surrounding poetic communities: “Watch out for more of these ‘backyard’ events!”

Both Martin and Ferrell believe poetry itself is truly important. Dr. Martin explains, “CGU has a very special opportunity and responsibility to nurture and celebrate poets and poetry. Poetry has been with us for centuries and it embodies and expresses our deepest emotions – our longings, our desires, our dreams and hopes.” Put more directly, “Poetry brings us together and embodies our humanity.”

Lori Anne Ferrell takes a similar view: “In a world that sometimes seems hopelessly and irrevocably in thrall to the superficial, commercial, and shrill, poetry reminds us that we still have the capacity to pay close attention – to words, to ideas, to emotions.” For Dr. Ferrell, poetry’s power to call attention to life’s deeper meanings has a direct connection with graduate education’s purpose: “This call to attentiveness also represents everything that is honorable and extraordinary – counter-cultural, really, in the very best way – about graduate study, especially in the Arts and Humanities.” From her perspective, this makes the Tufts Awards an important part of Claremont Graduate University’s academic focus: “I love the synergy that Kate Tuft’s generosity made possible between CGU’s singular educational mission and it’s remarkable support of poets and poetry. The mission, and the stewardship, is just such a wildly-beautiful expression of trust in what’s possible.”

Asked about her hopes for the Tufts Poetry Awards in the future, Wendy Martin wishes “that the Tufts Poetry Awards will continue to grow in visibility and importance in the world of poetry and in the art world, in general.” Part of this hope involves an increase also in CGU’s poetic renown: “I hope that Claremont Graduate University will increasingly become known as a place that honors poets and poetry and celebrates the many accomplishments and enormous possibilities of this art.”

Lori Anne Ferrell offered an equally captivating reply to the same inquiry. She hopes that the Kingsley and Kate Tufts Poetry Awards at Claremont Graduate University continue to do “just what Kate said. That they always ensure that poets and poetry flourish.”

Over the past 25 years, the Tufts Awards have done just that, slowly and steadily swelling in terms of their positive impact upon poetry and poets. During the course of my brief stint as blogger-in-residence this past year, I have been privileged with a behind-the-scenes look at Tufts and know firsthand the amount of careful consideration and passionate appreciation the program aims at contemporary American poetry. Here’s to the next 25 years as CGU’s Tufts program continues to grow and keeps Kate and Kingsley’s dream alive – that even in today’s world, poetry can be truly valued and meaningfully encouraged.

—Brock Rustin