May 1, 2018

Women on Fire: Recap of the Awards Week

Patricia Smith speaks after receiving the 2018 Kingsley Tufts Poetry Award for Incendiary Art.

April is national poetry month. Fittingly, it is also the month that we have the ceremony for the Kingsley & Kate Tufts Poetry Awards.

We spend all year preparing for April. This is not an exaggeration. The day-to-day tasks include the mundanity of any other office—mail merges, organizing things, updating listservs—but the Kingsley & Kate Tufts Poetry Awards are ultimately (spoiler alert) about the awards themselves.

This year’s winners are Patricia Smith for Incendiary Art and Donika Kelly for Bestiary. Rather than the usual one-day stay, we extended our celebration events and kept our 2018 Kingsley & Kate Tufts Poetry Award winners here for two days. I hope this was less of a travel whirlwind for them, but we also were able to spend a little bit more time with them, which, greedily, I adored.

One of my duties during this week includes transportation. In other words, my shoddy Honda C-RV and I serve as a rag-tag chauffeur. These short drives are one of my favorite parts of having our winners on campus. Imagine a poetry version of Comedians in Cars Getting Coffee (Poets in the Passenger Seat? I must get myself a Go-Pro.) The close quarters and the one-on-one intimacy that a car provides put me in my best element (though it is true that sometimes I try to take them back to my house on autopilot because I become so focused on the conversation).

Donika and I talked about teaching, politics, and poetry. Patricia made me feel like we were long-time friends.

For the ceremony this year, we did something a little different. The awards were formally given at a private dinner at the president’s house, with a public reading and reception the following night at The Huntington Library.

Kingsley & Kate Tufts Poetry Awards director Lori Anne Ferrell and head judge Don Share pose with 2018 Kingsley & Kate Tufts Poetry Award winners Patricia Smith and Donika Kelly and their awards at a dinner on Wednesday, April 18.

At the dinner, the poets accepted their awards and gave a short reading. Kelly read from her collection Bestiary, and she gave us some background on ostriches before reading “Ostrich,” which investigates an exchange between a male and female ostrich as they do a shift change protecting their egg at dusk. The way that Kelly uses animals to dig into the raw and complicated notions of family politics is complemented by her reading style: she speaks slowly and her intonations are calming. This juxtaposition leaves us with the sense that we’ve been told some intimate secret, one that enriches our understanding of human connection and love.

During Patricia Smith’s reading, you could have heard a pin drop. The chattering clink of dessert forks ceased completely as she read “The Five Stages of Drowning,” from Incendiary Art. The poem contemplates children murdered by being thrown into the water. Her reading was more performance than poem. It was jarring and moving.

Larry Wilson has written beautifully about the reading the next night at The Huntington in the Pasadena Star, so I won’t reinvent the wheel. You can also watch the ceremony here.

I will say, though, that one of my students told me, afterwards, “I really came for the extra credit, but I am leaving feeling like I actually know more about poetry.”

There was weeping. There was a standing ovation. I’ve never seen one at a poetry reading.

It was an evening for the books.

—Emily Schuck


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