“Make it new!” Ezra Pound famously advised the poet.
The National Book Awards seems at last to have received Pound’s message. Its 2014 longlist recognizes the vibrancy of innovative poetry outside of the mainstream. Among its ten poetry nominees are two books from small independent presses never before nominated: Brian Blanchfield’s A Several World, published by the Brooklyn-based Nightboat Books; and Fred Moten’s The Feel Trio, released by the Colorado-based Letter Machine Editions. (The Minneapolis-based Graywolf Press is also represented by Fanny Howe’s Second Childhood and Claudia Rankine’s Citizen: An American Lyric.)
Certainly this is not the first recognition of experimental poetry by the NBA committee. John Ashbery’s third book, Rivers and Mountains, was up for an award in 1967, and his Self-Portrait in a Convex Mirror won in 1976. Recent winners of the prize include Nathaniel Mackey’s Splay Anthem in 2006 and Keith Waldrop’s Transcendental Studies in 2009 (a banner year in which Rae Armantrout and Ann Lauterbach were also nominees). Yet these winners were published by Penguin, New Directions, and Wesleyan University Press—all stalwarts who support poets in the late august stages of their careers. If anything, this year’s inclusion of small-press titles is testimony that much of the action is the increasingly vibrant poetry scene is happening outside mainstream publishing.
Compared to the others, Moten and Blanchfield are what is often called “emerging” — that cicada-like description of the writer’s early career. The word is apt, for it would not be right to describe Moten, a well known literary scholar, as a “young poet.” The Feel Trio is Moten’s fifth book of poetry, and he is equally well-known for his critical works, In the Break: The Aesthetics of the Black Radical Tradition and The Undercommons: Fugitive Planning and Black Study (the latter co-authored with Stefano Harney). Now a professor at University of California-Riverside, Moten has balanced — and often melded — his criticism and poetry throughout his career. He notes, in an interview with Charles Henry Rowell, “I…want my poetry to engage in inquiry and and to intervene, especially, in a set of philosophical and aesthetic questions that are, I think, of profound political importance. This is, for me, a specifically Afro-diasporic protocol.”
Moten’s previous book, b. jenkins, was an elegy for his mother that assembled a constellation of musicians, writers, and theorists of oblique relation. Miles Davis and Bessie Smith’s appear in the Moten pantheon, but so does Johnny Cash. In a poem bearing the country singer’s name, Moten writes,
gotta get home to
that light by box car, slip through the cotton plant
at night between the track and the river,
short sleeves but mo’nin’ like a man with
a movie camera, but he took that hat off mystery.
Blanchfield is the author of one previous book of poetry, Not Even Then, published in 2004. The ten-year gap between his first and second volumes seems to have been salutary. In addition to making the National Book Award longlist, A Several World was also awarded the James Laughlin Prize from the Academy of American Poets, which recognizes a superior second book of poetry by an American poet.
Ashbery remarks of A Several World, “The oneness of our physical and spiritual life has rarely been conveyed more accurately.” While Moten boils down poetic diction to a rawer plainspokenness, Blanchfield carefully threads lines into themselves, assembling a labyrinthine syntax at once lapidary and tender. From his poem, “To Come True a Thing Must Come Second”:
Once was a story of following following.
Rarely is the reverse I value or so I
led you like a zero out the zoo,
toured it twice at once from your regard,
and came to understand.
The National Book Awards will be announced at a ceremony on November 19.