- The Consequences of Competition: Book Awards and Twenty-first Century Black Poetry
Just in case potential readers needed confirmation that Claudia Rankine’s Citizen (2014) was an exceptional award-winning book, her publisher, Graywolf Press adorned printings of the publication with a list of its accolades. The back cover reads:
New York Times Best SellerWinner of the National Book Critics Circle Award in Poetry Winner of the Los Angeles Times Book Prize in PoetryWinner of the Forward Prize for Best CollectionWinner of the NAACP Image Award for Outstanding Literary Work in Poetry Winner of the PEN Open Book AwardWinner of the VIDA Award in PoetryWinner of the PEN Oakland/Josephine Miles Award in PoetryWinner of the Hurston/Wright Legacy Award in PoetryWinner of the Rebekah Johnson Bobbitt National Prize for PoetryFinalist for the National Book Award in PoetryFinalist for the National Book Critics Circle Award in CriticismFinalist for the T. S. Eliot PrizeAn NEA Big Read SelectionNamed a Best Book of the Year by the Boston Globe, Los Angeles Times, National PublicRadio, New York, the New Yorker, Publishers Weekly, Slate, andTime Out New York.1
Perhaps no book by a poet has received such a variety of honors. Prior to 2014, Rankine was rarely if ever presented as a prominent author. After the publication of Citizen though, she quickly became the subject of newspaper and magazine profiles, interviews, and commentary. Rankine’s book vaulted her to new, lofty heights in contemporary literary culture.2 While the high quantity of accolades placed on Citizen was unusual, an unprecedented number of works by Black poets earned consequential book prizes and awards during the twenty-first century. [End Page 269]
This article addresses the imperative of merging African American literary studies and book history, a combination of subjects that has received increased scholarly attention in recent years.3 That attention has not yet extended to contemporary books by African American poets. My main argument is that literary prizes and awards and notably the processes of competing for such honors significantly determined the production and reception of volumes of poetry by more than one hundred African American poets in the twenty-first century. Literary accolades were essential passports for professional advancement and the accumulation of prestige or symbolic capital. Without winning or nearly winning major awards, the chances of many Black poets earning widespread media notice and gaining employment at powerful institutions would have been severely diminished. The examination here confirms that book awards were influential, career-defining forces for several Black poets, while serving as barriers for many more.
James F. English’s The Economy of Prestige (2005) is especially pertinent to the current discussion. His book examines the prevalence of prizes and awards in cultural production across the twentieth century. Given the broad range of coverage in his book, English’s study perhaps understandably did not adequately address what this economy of prestige meant for Black poets. Yet, English’s work provides a basis for considering how prizes once exclusively awarded to white poets eventually were bestowed on African American poets. In fact, winning accolades historically reserved for white people adds to the cultural value of such honors for non-white recipients.
In author biographical sketches and histories, scholars have treated prizes and awards as ancillary to literary production. It is my contention that we should take a different approach. These days, prizes are integral to book production. Most volumes of poetry receive only minimum coverage in newspapers and magazines. But then, winning a book contest raises the chances that poets and their works will receive notice and additional assets. Terrance Hayes, Patricia Smith, Adrian Matejka, and other poets received book contracts when they were selected as recipients of the National Poetry Series.4 Each year since 1999, the Cave Canem Foundation has sponsored an annual poetry prize for poets who have not yet published a full-length volume by a professional press. The winning manuscript is published by Graywolf Press, University of Georgia Press, or University of Pittsburgh Press. The Cave Canem Poetry Prize was responsible for launching the publishing careers of Kyle...