On Thursday, April 7, The Kingsley and Kate Tufts Poetry Awards ceremony took place at the Rose Hills Theater at Pomona College. The awards, which come with the monetary prize of $100,000 and $10,000 respectively, are meant to rayo to poets in the midst of their career who can use the prize money to continue writing. CGU has been granting these awards for 24 years to poets whose writing could change the world.
The books chosen for the 2016 awards were selected because they possess an authority that is not easily found most poets’ works. There was mastery in their sentences, gravity in their messages. Five judges, qualified by a lifetime of reading poetry, selected two winners.
Danez Smith won the Kate Tufts Poetry Award for his book [Insert] Boy. His poetry discusses the themes of transgender and racial discrimination. It was clear from the moment he took the podium that he was a spoken-word poet, gesticulating through his lines and vacillating his tone of voice from a yell to a whisper. His poetry possessed a certain friction, rubbing brutally against gender and racial societal norms. In the introduction, he described his book as not easy or pretty, but possessive of a raw tenderness.
His first poem, “Genesissy,” is a poem about black transgender women. The speaker was confused between commitment to religion and loyalty to identity in a painful clash of self. He writes, “His aunt’s disgusted head shake / begat the world that killed / the not a boy-child / & stole her favorite dress / right off her cold shimmering body / & that can’t come from God right?”
During a poem called “Raw,” which was about the HIV epidemic, he murmured, “I know / the bones I could become, I know the story / & the other one too, how people disappeared / mid-sentence in the ‘80s, how NYC became / a haunted bowl of dust.”
My favorite poem of the reading was called “On Grace,” which described the beauty of black athletes. He starts, “You know how when Usain Bolt runs / & you want to cry it’s so beautiful? That.” Then, “I stopped playing football because being tackled feels too much like making love.” And, “I pause in the middle of the street / watching the steady pace of the men on corners selling green / & all things dangerous and white.” The sparse crowd was palpably responsive throughout the poem, gasping during silences and silent during oration.
With a smile, the second poet took the stage. Ross Gay won the Kingsley Tufts Poetry award for his book Catalog of Unabashed Gratitude. Gay’s poetry blended pretty words with thought-provoking language. Often, one piece would include a range of emotions, and he would shift from yelling to coaxing. In his introduction, he was praised as having created a poetry collection that possessed everything from anger to zest. His detail was playful. One of his poems, “Envy the Estrangement,” showcased his sincere style. In this poem about his mother’s sadness after his father died, the poet writes that he would almost rather die than live with her sadness, but that he wouldn’t want to add to her sadness even more. He concluded with the line, “Dear mother, I now sing along.”
The book’s namesake poem, “Catalog of Unabashed Gratitude,” was his last piece. In the poem, he focuses on subtle details, but slips in hard-hitting racial messages and then reverts back to pretty words before a reader can wrap his or her mind around his message. He speaks of his desire to wipe the sponge of gratitude over all: on “the lady on the bus / dressed head to toe in gold, the sun / shivering her tiny boots,” on the people that “fuck each other dumb,” and on the audience. He breaks the fourth wall between himself and the reader to share both a smile and his joy of all things. Yet, he also discusses the picture of the black boy murdered on the street and the proximity of the end of the world, because the poem is here to appreciate all the time that passes.
Longboarding away from the reading, I felt incomplete without the two books from the reading, as if the reading made me realize a part of myself which I was now missing. The authors’ joy and emotion was alive in the room during this incredible awards ceremony, honoring two poets who truly deserved to win.