As host of the PEN 2011 Literary Awards, novelist Nicole Krauss opened the evening with a few words about the importance, in our modern age, of literature’s having a quality of searching. The big questions just can’t be answered in a blog or in 140 characters, she seemed to say. Instead, they take time, much thought, and lots of resources.
This point was carried through the evening as writer after writer came to the stage to thank PEN and its donors as well as their own families and friends for supporting their work on said big questions. Their projects had been initiated out of some internal drive, rather than because the writers had imagined awards or acclaim for their work; writing never being the easy choice.
During her acceptance speech, Danielle Evans, co-winner of the PEN/Robert Bingham Prize, said that when she decided to become a writer, she’d called home in tears and admitted it to her parents, who said, “Well, you better stop crying and start writing.”
Though CUNY’s Proshansky Auditorium, where the ceremony was held last Wednesday in New York City, never completely filled, the empty seats were more than made up for by the caliber of the writers who were in attendance. Phillip Lopate, Susan Cheever, and Andre Aciman all handed out awards; Aleksandar Hemon, David Henry Hwang and the great Roger Angell accepted them. (For a full list of presenters and awardees, go here).
At Guernica, we were honored to have two of our writers recognized for work published in our pages. The PEN Emerging Writers Award, brand new this year, honored three writers—in fiction, poetry and nonfiction—who have been published in a distinguished literary journal, but who have yet to publish a book-length work.
Elliot Holt, whose “The Norwegians” ran in Guernica’s February 2010 issue guest-edited by Claire Messud, was the runner up in the fiction category and Adam Day, whose “The Gods Describe Building Bodies, Like Badgers” ran in Guernica in 2008, won for poetry. The award was judged by Reif Larson, Robin Romm and David Lehman, who also presented.
Perhaps others could have written the first of these sentences. But it took nerve and imagination to leap into the second.
Here are the judges’ impressions of both, from the ceremony’s program:
Elliott Holt’s intensely moving, gorgeously written “The Norwegians” is a testament to the simple, devastating power of the short story. It brilliantly showcases Holt’s talents as a literary marksman. Most of the story takes place in the course of a dinner party, but the effects of this part, or more accurately the small cruelties and passion on display there, last much longer—they last through a life. It takes a certain kind of bravery to execute fiction without bells and whistles, to focus solely on delicate human drama. The physical details Holt tosses down (so easily it seems!) do double duty, creating a rich sensory world while deepening and complicating character. She can’t be called a miniaturist, though her gaze on the details of family life is focused and keen. She strives for—and succeeds at—an admirable largeness, an emotional awareness that borders on uncanny. Her prose is a thrill to read.
Adam Day’s exceptional talent manifests itself in lyric outbursts, clever figures of speech, and a conceit capable of sustaining an extended sequence. He adopts the badger as his protagonist, just as Ted Hughes favored the crow, and begins with an account, arresting in its strangeness, of how “the Gods” built “bodies, like Badger’s.” After pouring “the eyes in with a ladle,” they “sprinkle / hair onto bald, moist limbs and faces, / like boiled potatoes.” If one test of a young poet’s skill is the freshness of his similes, Day aces the exam. The priest who touched a boy in his “special place” exposed his own “little man—like the neck of a goose / tethered to a telephone pole.”
“Elegy from His Children” elevates the sentence fragment to a rhetorical maneuver at the service of an obituary: “Retired professor / of androgyny. Premature evacuation. Made cats / laugh. Fought walls. Red-bearded hyena’s ghost.” When, in a third poem, Badger speaks for himself, it is with pungent wit. “I was a member / of the Yachats Communist Party for a time, / initially to meet women / as liberal with their bodies / as with their politics. Eventually, / I embraced Marxism, which is to say / I had lingering doubts / about my masculinity.” Perhaps others could have written the first of these sentences. But it took nerve and imagination to leap into the second.
Day is unafraid to conjoin historical and fictional personages for effects that startle and provoke, as in “Combine,” in which Stalin, Goya, Queen Anne, and Tennessee Williams are among the cast of characters. Impressive, too, is the poem in which Day juxtaposes excerpts “From an Interview with Kenzaburo Oe, with Stage Directions from Synge’s Riders to the Sea.”
This poet’s technical prowess, adventurousness, and wide-ranging curiosity give pleasure now and the promise of a great deal more to come.
Additionally, Ishion Hutchinson, who won best poetry for Far District: Poems, was featured in Guernica in July. Khaled Mattawa won an award for best poetry in translation for his work on Syrian poet Adonis’s Selected Poems—two of these poems appeared in Guernica in 2010. David MacLean, whose fiction we published in 2007, won the Emerging Writers award for nonfiction. Biographer Stacy Schiff, winner for best biography for Cleopatra: A Life, was interviewed in Guernica in 2011.