It's unclear if poet Ann Lauterbach meant to be ironic when she referenced the Occupy movement in her brief remarks to a black tie crowd at Cipriani Wall Street, the luxurious downtown setting for this year's National Book Awards on Wednesday night. In introducing honorary winner John Ashbery, who would give a speech mourning the death of "difficult poetry," Lauterbach said, "I thought I should point out, since nobody else has, that we are occupying Wall Street." She added, darkly, "I was trying my best to become Sylvia Plath without killing myself." The Associated Press latched on to the reference and ran with the headline: "Book awards honor the 99 percent." That theme in mind, the winners list — most notably Jesmyn Ward's suprise win for her poverty-laden novel about Hurricane Katrina, Salvage the Bones — smacks of solidarity.
The other winners fall in line with the theme of disenfranchisement well. Thanhha Lai won the young people's literature award for her novel Inside Out & Back Again, the story of a young girl who flees Saigon during the Vietnam War and struggles to fit in as an out-of-place immigrant in Alabama. Winning the award for nonfiction is Harvard professor Stephen Greenblatt's The Swerve: How the World Became Modern, a critical look at the rediscovery of a 2,000-year-old poem by Lucretius that the Los Angeles Times called a "wondrous book about how this classic was nearly lost and why Western civilization would be much poorer if that had happened." The poetry award went to Nikky Finney for her collection Heads Off & Split, whose acceptance speech channeling America's history of discrimination knocked everyone's socks off. From Galleycat provides a glimpse in their liveblogged coverage of the ceremony:
Finney is on stage, "We begin with history, the slave codes of South Carolina," she reads. "We shiver together." Wow, this is a beautiful speech. "To be in your company is to brightly burn." "Black people were the only people in the United States who were ever officially not allowed to become literate. I am now officially speechless."
10:06 Lithgow, "That was the best acceptance speech that I’ve heard for anything. It’s also the loudest I’ve ever heard anyone cheer for an award for poetry."
As HuffPost Books notes, as the champagne-sipping and speech-giving all took place, "a few blocks away in Zuccotti Park the recently restored Occupy Wall Street Library was being destroyed by police." The timing of the two events is a coincidence, and we can't attempt to get into the heads of the National Book Awards judges to know if they meant to make a political statement with this year's winners. Coupled with Laueterbach's off-the-cuff remarks, though, the ceremony sure did provide some layers of meaning to thumb through, though. We wouldn't expect less from such a literary crowd.