January 31, 2017

Tufts Poetry Awards Honor Vibrant Explorations of Identity, Race

book covers for Tufts

Claremont Graduate University (CGU) is pleased to announce the selection of Vievee Francis as the recipient of the 2017 Kingsley Tufts Poetry Award for her poetry collection Forest Primeval (Triquarterly Books/Northwestern University Press).

A poet known for her explorations of racial identity, modernist poetics, and feminist legacies, Francis will receive a $100,000 award during a ceremony held on April 20, 2017. Co-sponsored by ALOUD and the Library Foundation of Los Angeles, the ceremony will take place at the Mark Taper Auditorium of the Los Angeles Public Library.

Francis’s Forest Primeval is “an intense work, dark … Dantean … dreamlike in its visions,” said POETRY magazine editor Don Share, who chaired this year’s Tufts finalist judges committee.

Share and CGU Interim President Jacob Adams phoned Francis to announce the news during a special January 28 reception in Claremont.

“Francis is reclaiming modernist and feminist legacies of poetry, and it takes great courage to do that,” Share said after finishing the call with an astonished, elated Francis, “and we can’t wait to see where this leads her.”

In addition to Francis’s selection, the Kate Tufts Discovery Award was also announced; Phillip B. Williams was chosen for his volume Thief in the Interior (Alice James Books). This award is given to an emerging poet for their first volume of poetry and is accompanied by $10,000. Share and Adams also phoned Williams, who will attend the April 20 ceremony to receive his award.

Williams, Share said, is “a poet of genuine promise … truly an original, and Thief in the Interior is a remarkable book.”

An “Anti-pastoral” Approach

An associate editor for Callaloo and an associate professor of English at Dartmouth College, Vievee Francis was chosen from a group of Kingsley Tufts finalists that includes: Tyehimba Jess(Olio), Ada Limon (Bright Dead Things), Jamaal May (The Big Book of Exit Strategies), and Patrick Rosal (Brooklyn Antediluvian).

As the title of Francis’s collection suggests, Forest Primeval examines the world in stark, primary terms—of survival, defense, nature’s transcendence, and nature’s violence seen through the eyes of predators and prey. Francis has explained in past interviews that this collection—in spite of the title—embraces an “anti-pastoral” approach. That approach is clearly apparent in “Bluster,” in which the elements of a familiar fairy tale are put to an unexpected, visceral use:

… Though he couldn’t unsnap
my lamb’s wool, he cut through it with a claw.
In the grove—so clean a slice you couldn’t tell
my cape from the blood beneath it, just a circle,
a hole—I dropped my act. I smiled a heartless smile.
I arched my back and only cried a little really…

Last fall, Forest Primeval received the Hurston/Wright Legacy Award for Poetry from the Hurston/Wright Foundation, which is named for authors Zora Neale Hurston and Richard Wright.

As part of the Kingsley Tufts Award, Francis will also return to the CGU campus this fall to serve a weeklong poetry residency that will include events open to the public.

A Perilous Journey

Phillip B. Williams was chosen as this year’s Kate Tufts Discovery Award recipient from a group of finalists that included: Derrick Austin (Trouble the Water), Rickey Laurentiis (Boy With Thorn), Jordan Rice (Constellarium), and Ocean Vuong (Night Sky With Exit Wounds).

Hailed by The Blueshift Journal as a powerful and ambitious work, Thief in the Interior presents a perilous journey through a violent landscape in which race separates many from the American dream, and where that separation, Williams writes in “Inheritance: The Force of Aperture,” is sometimes captured by a cellphone camera:

Our dead, once forced to reject the ground
for rope and air—sky hued erotic there
in the leaves—now forced to the ground, backed
into morning headlines, their minced codas
between weather and traffic, a jarring revision:
white writhing over black, the American aesthetic.

Born in Chicago, Williams is a Cave Canem graduate and the poetry editor of the online journal Vinyl Poetry. In addition to his Kate Tufts Award-winning Thief in the Interior, Williams is also the author of the poetry chapbooks Bruised Gospels and Burn, and he is currently a Chancellor’s Graduate Fellow at George Washington University in St. Louis, where he is finishing an MFA in creative writing.

About the Tufts Awards

One of the world’s most prestigious poetry awards, the Kingsley Tufts Award started at CGU in 1993 and marks its 25th anniversary this year. Kate Tufts established the award in memory of her husband, Kingsley, who held various executive positions in Los Angeles-area shipyards but also published poetry on the side.

The Kingsley Tufts Award remains the largest annual monetary prize given to a single book of poetry by a mid-career poet, while the Kate Tufts Discovery Award was established a year later in recognition of a first volume of poetry by a promising poetic talent.

Lori Anne Ferrell, who is CGU’s John D. and Lillian Maguire Distinguished Professor in the Humanities and director of the Kingsley and Kate Tufts Poetry Awards, said that Kate Tufts established the awards to give poets “the ability to work on their craft for awhile without paying bills.”

“Kate entrusted this university with the precious, essential task of investing in the future of literature,” she said, “of investing in poets who will undoubtedly have more to say, who will continue to speak and write.”

Past recipients of the Kingsley Tufts Award include Angie Estes, Afaa Michael Weaver, D.A. Powell, B.H. Fairchild, Thomas Lux, Henri Cole, and Linda Gregerson; past recipients of the Kate Tufts Discovery Award include Brandon Som, Yona Harvey, Charles Harper Webb, and Lucia Perillo.

The process for selecting this year’s Tufts winners started with hundreds of submissions from individuals and publishers, followed by the work of this year’s screening judges: Karen An-hwei Lee, Mehnaz Sahibzada, and Linda Dove.

Once these submissions were winnowed down to a pool of finalists, the selection was made by Share and his fellow finalist judges: poet and L.A. Times Festival of Books moderator Elena Karina Byrne; Kate Tufts Discovery Award recipient (2000) and English professor Terrance Hayes; editor, critic, and author Meghan O’Rourke; and poet Brian Kim Stefans.