Washington State Book Awards to change criteria

In these surreal and brutal times, we need to celebrate one good thing that will affect many writers in our state. As of next year — thanks in part to an essay published right here in the Seattle Review of Books — the guidelines for the Washington State Book Award will change, and simply being born in Washington won’t be enough to qualify an author for the state’s book awards.

Two years ago, I wrote on this site about how the rules of the Washington State Book Award privileged writers born in Washington (and who perhaps left before their first birthday) over writers who live here now. In 2016, half of the poets nominated were not living in Washington State, nor had they lived here recently. At the time of the awards ceremony, the poets were noted as living in Idaho, Missouri, and Tennessee. Carl Phillips, who won the award, had left the state less than a year after his birth. He did not attend the awards ceremony, stating his commitment to a previous travel engagement.

In a turn no one expected, least of all me, this became a hotly contested story. Some writers went out of their way to thank me for voicing concerns that many of us felt privately. A few others felt differently. Linda Andrews, winner of the Washington State Book Award, and judge for 2014–2016, wrote a response to the Seattle Review of Books:

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.

While this may have a lovely iambic lilt, it seems a sentiment of the nineteenth century more than the twenty-first. The Seattle Review of Books responded to her letter:

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?

I decided my days as an investigative reporter were over; it was time to return to poetry. To be honest, the entire experience left me profoundly uncomfortable. This was not the Washington poet community that I knew and loved. I tried my best to put the whole experience behind me.

Then a few weeks ago I was asked by Tod Marshall, former Washington State Poet Laureate, to contact Linda Johns, the new coordinator of the Washington Center for the Book concerning Marshall’s beautiful WS129 anthology (in which I have a poem; the book will be honored at the 2018 Washington State Book Awards ceremony, which was the reason for Tod's outreach).

Since Johns is new to the job, I assumed that my critique of the book awards from two years ago would be a non-issue. I was wrong. At the end of Johns’ return email, she writes:

While I have you here, by chance did you notice that we changed the requirements for “Washington author” for the book awards? Being born here isn’t enough of a connection any longer. I thought you might like to know; when my colleague Nono Burling and I took over administrating the Book Awards we looked for ways to make sure that authors have a strong personal connection to Washington. We may refine the criteria again for the next awards cycle (I’m open to suggestions!).

And of course, it’s not the guidelines that determine which books are chosen. It’s the judges that decide the list of finalists and winners. The judges choose books that best exemplify the spirit of our state. For example, this year’s poetry nominees are all current residents of our state. Half of those nominated identify not only as Washingtonian but also as Chilean, Salvadoran, and Palestinian-Jordanian-Syrian.

The new definition of a Washington author is as follows:

  1. Lived in Washington State as a primary residence for at least five years, or
  2. Is a current resident and has maintained residence here for at least three years.

I suspect this new definition will provide a stronger focus on the state’s vibrant literary communities. New arts festivals, poetry presses, and reading series are exploding here in Seattle and far beyond. Claudia Castro Luna, the new Washington State Poet Laureate, is the first poet of color appointed to the position. The population of Washington today, is, it’s safe to say, far more diverse than it was even a decade ago.

And while it is true that the guidelines allow for someone who lives here from age 0 to 5 to qualify, or for a student who comes here just to attend college to send their book years later, Johns further explains:

It’s my hope that writers will think of entering the Washington State Book Awards because they have a strong connection to the state, rather than scouting out awards where they qualify on paper, but not in spirit.”

There are 1,001 reasons why so many of us feel frustrated and unheard in the current political climate. Does voicing my support for Dr. Christine Blasey Ford after her historic testimony matter, or my having called Senate offices asking Senators Flake and Collins to vote no on Kavanaugh? In other words, I struggle with the quintessential question: does participating in a public forum make a difference? And if so, how do we know?

In this small but not unimportant detail of how we as a state define our writers, the rules have changed. One article in an online literary review did make a difference. Here’s how we know. Johns again:

I’m appreciative of you questioning the criteria for how an author would qualify for a Washington State Book Award. The article in the Seattle Review of Books and discussion afterwards was a terrific impetus to review everything about the awards. The above criteria are set for the 2019 awards (for books published in 2018; submissions close on December 1, 2018). But we are open to suggestions from writers about future years. And I think that the changes that were made after your SROB pieces show that we’re open to feedback.

It is a rare and beautiful thing to know that one article can make a difference. Maybe I am not done with investigative reporting after all.