Letters to the Editor: More on the Washington State Book Awards

Editor's note: Poet Linda Andrews, author of Escape of the Bird Women, winner of the Washington State Book Award, and judge for 2014-2016, sent this letter to the editor in response to Susan Rich's article "Why does Carl Phillips need the Washington State Book Award?"

So, the 2015 Washington State Book Awards were granted and celebrated on October 8, though I fear some will be no happier with the winners than they were with the list of finalists. The author, Susan Rich, has a right to wonder about the process of choosing the award winners, so I’d like to respond to her concerns.

Indeed, Carl Phillips, a non-resident, did win in the poetry category, and Carl’s publisher submitted the book according to the guidelines which state that the author either be born in the state or have maintained three years continuous residence. We judges are sent the books that have been vetted according to those guidelines. We judge what we get. Susan mentioned Rick Barot’s fine book, Chord, and its national awards. But unfortunately it was not submitted for a Washington State Book Award. The article also mentioned collections by Michael Schmeltzer and Maya Zeller, whose books weren’t submitted, either. Books can be submitted by publisher or author, so here’s the good news: According to Guiding Policy #10, “a title that was inadvertently not considered one year is eligible for consideration the following year.” The next deadline is April 1, 2017. All books published in 2016 and any overlooked books from 2015 are eligible for submission. I hope that Barot and any others who qualify will take advantage of that policy.

But here’s a bigger issue: How can a poet’s work not be influenced by, be born of, that person’s history? Read Christina Stoddard’s fine book, Hive. The content of that book is firmly rooted in her Mormon upbringing in Tacoma and the trauma of living her young life in the shadow of the Green River killings. A finalist for this year’s poetry book award, Christina is a resident of Tennessee and she attended the ceremony last Saturday. Her work is stunning, home grown, and absolutely deserving of our recognition. Because authors move from the state for the chance to study or teach or to meet the demands of family, should their books be disqualified? Should David Wagoner refuse the honors bestowed on him by the University of Illinois? Would Michigan not claim Theodore Roethke as its own, even though he lived several years and then died in Washington State? Willa Cather wrote her Nebraska books while homesick in New York. The poetic/literary imagination is not confined by geography. We take our histories with us wherever we go and those histories feed our work.

We judges are a group of five and, as Susan noted, only one is a poet. That’s me. The article’s implication is that the others might not be able to adequately judge poetry. Poetry is not just for poets. All of us on the committee love the word and we discuss the work submitted to us with respect, evidence, appreciation, and deep belief in the beauty of a good book. We are entrusted with judging four categories. I personally have never written a novel, a book of non-fiction, or a memoir. But am I qualified to read and judge? Yes. The other judges are librarians and book sellers and worthy evaluators of good writing.

Concerning the article’s title, “Why Does Carl Phillips Need the Washington State Book Award?” I agree that he doesn’t “need” another award. But need is not one of the criteria. We, the judges, receive about 200 books to judge in the four categories assigned to us. Last year, more than 40 of those books were poetry. How can the judges assess the need of each author? What level of fame or financial security would disqualify someone? Should posthumous publications (one of which was a finalist for a 2014 book award) be disqualified because need no longer exists? The selection criteria since the inception of the awards are: literary merit, lasting importance, and overall quality of the publication. Those are the criteria we follow, and follow seriously, through all the months of reading and through our deliberations and decisions. The judging criteria have been in place for 50 years. They have honored many authors who have Washington in their hearts and in their writing. Home stays in the memory powerfully, no matter where the writer wanders.

The Seattle Review of Books responds:

All of the reading, deliberation, and conversation that goes into choosing an award recipient is never an easy task, so we want to open by thanking Linda Andrews for her time, attention, and her work towards the betterment of Washington's literary community. We appreciate her letter, and taking time to engage on this important issue.

We agree, too, that more local presses needed to submit works to this prize. We suspect many of those presses are now paying closer attention, and our hope is that next year's selections make judging even more difficult than it must have been this year, by dint of the quantity and quality of submissions. May next year bring 60 manuscripts; may the one after bring 80.

Where we differ is in counting influence. It is possible that Carl Phillips — a preternaturally talented poet, and one worthy of accolades — carries such strong influence from his familial connection to Washington State that his single year of residency imbued his life and work with evergreen ghosts. And while it is true neither Phillips, nor his publisher, broke any rule, either literal or ethical, in his submission, his win did hit a soft spot for many in our state, especially in Seattle.

We have long been a community whose art scene was localized and isolated. You see this in the literary scene, the music scene, the graphic and performing arts — Seattle always felt a little unsure of its own place in the world. And while the work produced here was on par with any international comparison (as evidenced by its worldwide consumption when we found our way onto the various maps), we have historically felt colloquial, ignored, and belittled. In fact, many artists, shunned while they were here, had to leave for Los Angeles or New York to receive the recognition they deserved for their work. Their leaving diminished us, and those who stayed and fought to gain ground for a Washington State artistic homeland deserve praise and acknowledgment.

We live now in a time of great renaissance of Washington letters and arts. Our literary scene, in particular, is exploding in Seattle, Spokane, Bellingham, Tacoma. High caliber work is being published daily by daring presses and journals, and writers with international standing come out of Washington State to make our reputation second to none on the world stage.

So while Phillips' work may have overwhelmed the judging criteria you list — literary merit, lasting importance, and overall quality — it certainly neglected one criteria that is not currently part of the judges' mandate: regional importance.

A work bearing the honor of Washington State Book Award should reflect the state which granted it such privilege. Why else would we bestow our attention to it? What are we saying by our assignment?

So while we, once again, thank Linda Andrews, and want to be clear that we do not feel she, or any of the judges, were negligent in their duties to the rules as they sit, we believe that the rules themselves needed be changed in two specific ways:

  1. That a residency requirement be implemented. The form, or strictness, of this can be debated, but it should be put in place to ensure Washington State artists are receiving this award.
  2. That the judging criteria consider regional importance, in addition to the other three criteria.

We want nothing less than the Washington State Book Awards to celebrate Washington writers, and we think this request is both reasonable, obvious, and what most laypeople would assume the award is for to begin with.