David Biespiel’s Poetry Wire: You Will Be Judged


About to board a flight from Portland to New York, about to meet with the jury that’s been convening for 12 months by e-mail, Skype, and face to face meeting, to select a recipient from the five finalists for the National Book Critics Circle Award. Tonight, at the New School, is the finalists reading. Tomorrow night, same place, is the awards and reception.

I can’t say anything about the deliberations for the awards but I can say that, after three years of serving on this jury and three more ahead of me, I have some sense of how genuinely decent and aspirational the process is. At least the NBCC process. And I have a few suggestions for other book awards and book prizes jurors. And I suppose the same holds even for editors generally.

First, be generous. These are fellow travelers. To write a manuscript, to find a publisher, to see the book into publication, and to do all the tinny things one does to promote the creature amongst friends and strangers, well, it takes some courage and a fair spirit. Some books are better than others, true. But if we start with the premise that we are championing literature and not assessing valiancy, the work of judgment becomes a little more pleasurable. As does conferring awards on writers.

Second, Be interested in a wide range of aesthetics and ambitions and open to reconsidering your own predispositions and gripes against this or that aesthetic, predispositions and gripes that are your burden more than anyone else’s. Assessing the books of others involves constantly reassessing your own values, tastes, quirks, favorites and hostilities. It’s not like you can eliminate your mind in some inner Zen reboot, but putting yourself in a mode of receptivity hand in hand with alertness and advocacy allows you to be available to be surprised.

Third, read, read, and read. The more you have under your belt, the better position you’ll be in to feel some confidence that you’ve been a representative of the art of literature in the most affirming way.

To all the NBCC finalists, good luck. To the poets — in alphabetical order, David Ferry, Alan Peterson, Lucia Perillo, D. A. Powell, A. E. Stallings — congratulations. And thanks for writing such amazingly good verse.

Got to board. See you in New York. Let’s hit the sky.

David Biespiel is a poet, literary critic, memoirist, and contributing writer at American Poetry Review, New Republic, New York Times, Poetry, Politico, The Rumpus, and Slate, among other publications. He is the author of numerous books, most recently The Education of a Young Poet, which was selected a Best Books for Writers by Poets & Writers, A Long High Whistle, which received the 2016 Oregon Book Award for General Nonfiction, and The Book of Men and Women, which was chosen for Best Books of the Year by the Poetry Foundation and received the 2011 Oregon Book Award for Poetry. More from this author →