Copper Canyon poetry title wins National Book Award

Posted 12/11/19

Port Townsend’s Copper Canyon Press has done the improbable — again — winning a National Book Award, the literary prize that recognizes the best American fiction, non-fiction, poetry and youth literature of the year.

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Copper Canyon poetry title wins National Book Award

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Port Townsend’s Copper Canyon Press has done the improbable — again — winning a National Book Award, the literary prize that recognizes the best American fiction, non-fiction, poetry and youth literature of the year.

This year’s winner, “Sight Lines,” by poet Arthur Sze, is the fourth Copper Canyon title to win the coveted prize, which ranks with the Pulitzer Prize among marks of literary merit. This places Sze, and Copper Canyon, in the company of household names such as poets Wallace Stevens, Adrienne Rich and Allen Ginsberg and novelists William Faulkner and Flannery O’Connor.

Copper Canyon Editor-in-Chief Michael Wiegers said it still feels new every time the bronze statue and $10,000 check are awarded to one of their celebrated authors.

“This wasn’t our first National Book Award ceremony, but it always feels joyously new when it happens,” Wiegers said.

“Arthur Sze now joins Copper Canyon Press poets W.S. Merwin, Ruth Stone and Hayden Carruth as winners of the award,” Wiegers said.

“Through the work that Copper Canyon has been quietly publishing from our little nest in Port Townsend, our poets have gained international recognition, and have greatly influenced our national literary landscape. Through the support of the community and our donors, I can say with all humility that the Press has really done extraordinary work.”

Odds of another Port Townsend honor were good this year. “There are five finalists each year, and we had two of those finalists this year, including Jericho Brown’s ‘The Tradition,’ alongside Arthur Sze.”

Indeed, Wiegers noted this was the sixth time in the past 25 years that Copper Canyon Press had a finalist for the award, and the third time it’s had two finalists competing head to head.

Copper Canyon Press’ annual open house and holiday book sale at 5:15 p.m. on Wednesday, Dec. 11, will celebrate Sze’s award.

BEAUTY AND THREAT IN TENSION
Sze said he was moved by poet Mark Wunderlich’s introductory speech at the Nov. 20 awards ceremony, about how writing poetry is an essential human activity.

“Then I was stunned, amazed and grateful to hear my name as the winner of this year’s National Book Award,” Sze said. “After writing for so many years, it felt wonderful to see my latest book receive this recognition.”

Sze admitted that superstition prevented him from going too far in preparing an acceptance speech.

“I thought, if I wrote out the acceptance speech word by word, I would never have the opportunity to give it,” Sze said.
“Instead, I wrote down key items I wanted to include, and looked at them before going to the awards dinner,” he said.

The judges’ citation was laudatory of Sze’s “Sight Lines,” and concluded, “A keen awareness arises of structural, environmental, and social threats in the midst of this expansive beauty.”

Sze responded by paraphrasing Wallace Stevens’ aphorism that mortality is the mother of beauty.

“Beauty is transitory and, in addition to time, it is threatened by all the manifold effects of climate change,” Sze said. “Because so much is in danger — flora and fauna, human languages — when I write poems that pay attention to nature and the human world, I find that my poems inevitably contain beauty and threat in tension with each other.”

Sze has published six poetry books with Copper Canyon Press over the past 20 years, and one book of poems translated from Chinese.

“I love working with everyone at Copper Canyon Press, because I know everyone there believes in poetry and is doing it, no matter what their pay is, as a labor of love,” Sze said. “Michael Wiegers is an amazing and visionary editor, and I know the staff are fully committed, and that every detail of production is done with care.”

Sze has taught at the Centrum Writers’ Conference four times over the years, and has found Fort Worden, Port Townsend and the Pacific Northwest as a whole to be welcome contrasts to his home in New Mexico, where he is an emeritus professor at the Institute of American Indian Arts.

“It is such a treat to see the views and expanse of water,” said Sze, who also recalls “intense conversations with fellow faculty and students” at Fort Worden.

“One morning, down at the beach, I remember seeing a group of Native people arrive in canoes, on their way down the coast,” Sze said. “That incident was incorporated into the opening poem of my book.”

POETRY INTENDED TO INSPIRE ACTION
Sze won’t be the only Copper Canyon Press author to be recognized during the Dec. 11 open house and book sale. The event will also feature a brief reading by special guest Elizabeth J. Coleman, editor of the anthology “Here: Poems for the Planet,” which includes an introduction by the Dalai Lama, a guide to activism by the Union of Concerned Scientists, and 128 poems about the natural world.

As a prize-winning poet and public-interest attorney, Coleman believes poetry can help “move us beyond passive mourning, into hope and courage” as tools for combating climate change.

“While despair about climate change cannot help us achieve our goals, hope can give us courage and energy, and poetry can give us hope, in speaking to our hearts as well as our minds,” Coleman said. “Poetry can also ignite our profound sense of what’s right, illuminating our visceral connection to the world around us.”

Coleman quoted the Malaysian poet Cecil Rajendra’s contention that poetry can “crack the carapace of indifference,” and help us walk our planet as if we are “new to the world,” in the words of fellow poet Wendy Videlock.

“In speaking to hearts and not just minds, poetry can leave readers stirred, inspired and ready to act,” Coleman said.
Coleman explained that the vision of “Here” was to inspire people with “a diverse chorus of voices, both urgent and hopeful, that could galvanize readers to address the climate crisis with fresh eyes and renewed courage.”

Moreover, once they were inspired to act, Coleman intended “Here” to serve readers “a menu of manageable and realistic actions, to address governmental and corporate systems that perpetuate the status quo.”

Coleman added, “We wanted readers to be able to have a transformative impact on climate change and environmental degradation through their own actions, and even more, through their influence on others.”

Coleman hoped the book’s foreword by the Dalai Lama would relate to the humanitarian goals of the book, and its connection to science.

“Because I am donating my royalties to the Union of Concerned Scientists, I felt comfortable asking him for the foreword,” Coleman said. “I was able to make a connection to friends at Emory University, who put me in touch with His Holiness’s team, and at each step of the way, there was great enthusiasm about the vision and the poems themselves.”

Coleman felt strongly the book’s poems should be by living poets, and she wanted to include younger poets, “because this is a book about hope for the future, and for those who will inherit our planet, not an anthology focused on the past.”

As part of her research at Poets House in New York for “Here,” Coleman discovered a children’s section of the library, where she found several poems from different parts of the country by young children, often in small, unpublished school or local volumes.

“I also discovered a few young children’s poems at an exhibit at the Bronx Botanical Garden, as part of a Dale Chihuly exhibit,” Coleman said.

According to Coleman, the idea of giving a copy of “Here” to every member of Congress came from its vision to “influence the conversation in an idealistic way.”

“We felt that members of Congress from both parties should be able to relate to the accessible poetry in this volume, and that it would give them another lens that might help crack open the usual bifurcation of opinion,” Coleman said. “We thought this was a way, perhaps, to touch the hearts of members of Congress, and inspire them, as we’ve tried to do with other readers.”

PUTTING PORT TOWNSEND ON A MAP OF IMAGINATIONS

Michael Wiegers, Editor in Chief at Copper Canyon Press, noted that they’ve been publishing Sze for the past quarter-century.

“It’s been very rewarding to see him receive the National Book Award, after years of producing consistently beautiful, provocative work unlike any in American poetry,” Wiegers said. “His poetry itself is a testament to the rewards we encounter when we slow down, pay attention and take care to value the world and its inhabitants that grace every day.”
Wiegers pointed out that Sze helped start the MFA Writing program at the Institute of American Indian Arts, is a Chancellor of the Academy of American Poets, and speaks widely around the world, in large part due to his publishing history at Copper Canyon Press.

“He has been an inspiration to the staff here, as he has steadfastly continued his dedication to the art of poetry and poetry in translation, quietly producing extraordinary work that will continue to inspire colleagues and future generations alike,” Wiegers said.

Likewise, when Coleman approached him about “Here,” Wiegers expressed the desire to give it a longer shelf life than other theme-based anthologies.

“Poetry and art are, by their nature, somewhat activist,” Wiegers said. “As a nonprofit press, we support our poets with what might be called an activist sensibility. We want our books to change lives, both in the private moments, when one reader is sitting on their couch communing with one writer, and in the larger social moments, of trying to influence how we see humanity at large.”

With “Here,” the goal was to “catalyze” those private moments by including an activist guide, to empower readers to take their ideas beyond the page.

“Who knows where that might lead?” Wiegers said. “Inspiring one imagination or heart can be a very powerful action. As Arthur’s work demonstrates, so much chance and wonder fill our world, and maybe by chance, someone beyond our office walls will be inspired by a poem to make change happen. Every book we publish goes out into the world with such an aspiration.”

Although the audience for Copper Canyon Press spans the globe, Wiegers takes pride in the fact that every book they publish carries the words “Port Townsend, Washington” on the title page, followed on the next page by the words “Centrum” and “Fort Worden State Park.”

“Thousands of books, going out into the world, putting Port Townsend on a map of countless, blossoming imaginations,” Wiegers said. “Our poems make regular appearances on Bob & Cathy Francis’s poetry kiosk, across from the Post Office on Lincoln Street. Our poets regularly visit the Quimper Unitarian Universalist Fellowship, where poetry book groups have also discussed our books. We sponsor readings and talks by our poets, in private homes as well as public spaces, and our books are taught at Port Townsend High School.”

Even the tuxedo Wiegers wore to the National Book Award Ceremony was communally sourced, since it once belonged to Port Townsend resident and honorary board member Leslie Cox, who donated it to the red carpet cause.

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