Lamb, Tuxedos, and Freedom
What Went Down at the National Book Awards Dinner
"I know you want to pick up that lamb bone and eat the rest of the meat," Ariana Mangual whispers conspiratorially. "Go ahead—if you do it, I will. No one else here is going to." We are at the 2006 National Book Awards Ceremony and Dinner in the Marriott Marquis Hotel in Times Square with 698 other people. Two of them, Mangual has already observed, are middle-aged women wearing the exact same outfit (currently featured in Ann Taylor window displays). Mangual is the wife of Ben Lerner, finalist for the National Book Award in poetry for Angle of Yaw. I work for his publisher, Copper Canyon Press. As I lick lamb juice off my fingers, Lerner's photo and the cover image of his book flash on giant screens on either side of the stage. It seems both plainly ridiculous and entirely normal that we should be here together.
The National Book Awards ceremony—the "Oscars of the book world"—is an all-out party for the publishing industry featuring a mini red carpet, mediocre hors d'oeuvres, old white men in tuxedos, and a vague, unrelenting sense of sanctimony. Being associated with an independent poetry press based in Washington State, it is easier for me to feel overwhelmed than involved. "Who the hell are these people?" and "What am I doing here?" are recurring questions in my evening's interior monologue.
But of all the years to be attending the NBA, 2006 is a decidedly good one—especially for someone associated with an independent poetry press based in Washington State. The Medal for Distinguished Contribution to American Letters goes to a poet, Adrienne Rich, only the second poet ever to receive the award. It feels good to be in a room with hundreds of people actually listening to a serious poet, who takes things very seriously, speak (very, very seriously) about poetry for 10 minutes: "When poetry lays its hand on our shoulder, we can be, to almost a physical degree, touched and moved," she says. Sounds hokey, but in the moment it seems to be the simplest articulation of why I am here, in a horribly expensive dress I'm considering returning tomorrow.
David Remnick, the New Yorker editor, presenting the Literarian Award for Outstanding Service to the American Literary Community, gives a lovely tribute to Robert Silvers and, posthumously, Barbara Epstein, founders and editors of the New York Review of Books. In his acceptance speech, Silvers refers to how the magazine (which Epstein called "a ma-and-pa store") began as an experiment without expectation. Its editorial vision, Silvers continues, can be summarized by a comment Epstein once scrawled in the margin of an essay: "Don't Trust Power."
Then the awards are handed out and there's a palpable sense of surprise, excitement. Seattle writer Timothy Egan—Washington State REPRESENT—wins the nonfiction award for The Worst Hard Time. He seems genuinely stunned, manages to mention the trees and rain of Seattle, and earnestly thanks his father, wife, and children. Novelist Richard Powers (every bit as nerdy and strangely attractive as I had hoped) wins for The Echo Maker, about a man who develops a rare brain disorder called Capgras Syndrome after a car accident and cannot remember those closest to him. Powers has written many strange, manically intellectual novels and he thanks his publisher, Farrar, Straus and Giroux, for allowing him to work "in total artistic freedom." Splay Anthem, Nathaniel Mackey's bold and rhapsodic award-winning book of poetry from New Directions, is clearly a book that required that sort of freedom to craft. The winner for young people's literature, M. T. Anderson, thanks his small independent publisher, Candlewick Press, for taking a chance on a 900-page manuscript set in 18th-century Boston. A major benefit of the awards, in addition to the $10,000 prizes, is that all these guys will be able to keep writing whatever they want.
After the ceremony, at a party in a room on the 44th floor of the hotel, I find myself looking down on unnaturally bright Times Square: a billboard advertising the upcoming Video Game Awards (hosted by Samuel L. Jackson), a Converse billboard featuring the 2006 star of the other NBA—the NBA Finals MVP Dwayne Wade. Behind me, I can hear Lerner, Mangual, H. L. Hix (poet and National Book Awards finalist) and C. D. Wright (poet, National Book Awards poetry judge, and MacArthur "genius") talking about the midterm-election results.
Ben Lerner will read from NBA finalist Angle of Yaw at Open Books (2414 N 45th St, 633-0811) on Thurs Nov 30, 7:30 pm, free.