National Book Awards Winner Introductions

bruce Weigl, 2003 poetry Panel Chair

Bruce Weigl at the podium

WALTER MOSLEY (Master of Ceremonies):

The next award is the award for poetry. Poetry is really important. When I decided I was going to study fiction, I studied actually with a guy sitting over there, Fred Tuten, a novelist who was my teacher at City College. The one thing that I did every year, every semester that I was there, is I took a poetry class with the now departed, great American poet, William Matthews. He was a major poet, a major teacher.

If you are a fiction writer or a nonfiction writer or any kind of writer, you learn everything in poetry. You learn music, you learn metaphor, you learn condensation, you learn the kind of specificity of language that nobody else is going to teach you or talk to you about, the kind of thing that you need to know in all other writing. It's really important that we give this award and it's really important that we recognize our poets because without our poets, we really don't have a heart.

The Poetry finalists are Carol Muske-Dukes, Sparrow, Random House; Charles Simic, The Voice at 3:00 A.M.: Selected Late and New Poems, Harcourt; Louis Simpson, The Owner of the House: New Collected Poems 1940-2001, BOA Editions; C.K. Williams, The Singing, Farrar, Straus & Giroux; and finally, Kevin Young, Jelly Roll: A Blues, Alfred Knopf/Random House.

The Chairman of the Poetry Jury is Bruce Weigl. Bruce is a poet, editor and a translator of poetry from Spanish, Romanian, Slovenian and Vietnamese. Last December, he was one of three American invited to Hanoi to participate in the First International Translator of Vietnamese Literature Conference. He was the first American to be invited to teach at the Ngoyen Dhu School for Writers in Hanoi. Mr. Weigl.

Bruce Weigl:

We are proud to be a part of a poetry that has in our time become accountable as a moral public voice and as a voice of witness and we need such a voice now, maybe more than ever before.

Thank you for the kind words about poetry. Welcome to the highlight of the evening. Let me first introduce my fellow judges and thank them. David Baker has published six books of poetry and two books of criticism. He serves as the poetry editor for the Kenyon Review. His book, Starlight: Selected Poems is due out in the U.K. next spring.

Kate Daniels is the author of four collections of poetry, most recently My Poverty. She has also edited an anthology, Say Your Life Broke Down: A Literary Companion to Psychoanalysis.

Kwame Dawes published his ninth book of poetry, New and Selected Poems, in 2003. He is the founder and director of the South Carolina Poetry Initiative based at the University of South Carolina.

Jane Hirschfield is the author of five books of poetry, most recently, Given Sugar, Given Salt as well as a book of essays. And she has edited two anthologies. Please thank them all.

As judges for the 2003 Award in Poetry, we've had the opportunity to read closely, and we hope with a scrupulous meanness, a wide selection of our recent American poetry. We are pleased and happy to report that it is a tradition that has accomplished even more than becoming the most diverse and eclectic ever. In terms of the variety of its forms, which range from the graceful elegance of the English line, illustrated most brilliantly in the work of one of our finalists, to a widely inventive free verse that is inclusive of the forms of jazz, blues, hip hop, elegy, and good plain talk in the works of the other four finalists.

But sweeping, too, is the range of subjects this tradition finds appropriate for its poetry. In a way, it is a tradition unafraid to tell us what Grace Paley calls the stories no one wants to hear. Most importantly and most inspiring to us as judges is that it is a poetry that, at its best, speaks out against the tyranny and against the tyrannical administration that would want to restrain our precious right to speak out.

We are proud to be a part of a poetry that has in our time become accountable as a moral public voice and as a voice of witness and we need such a voice now, maybe more than ever before.

Tonight we are happy to honor with you what we feel is the best of what we have, a poetry large in its compassion, restorative in its fiercely sweet diction and unabashed in what it loves well and what makes it American. The winner for the 2003 Award in Poetry is C.K. Williams.