Creative Writing Professor Katie Ford Judges National Book Award in Poetry

Ford directs UCR’s M.F.A. in Creative Writing and Writing for the Performing Arts program

Katie Ford, professor of creative writing, poet, and director of UCR’s M.F.A. in Creative Writing and Writing for the Performing Arts program. ucr

Creative writing professor and poet Katie Ford served as one of five judges for the 2016 National Book Award in Poetry, an experience she described as “unforgettable.”

Ford, who joined the UCR faculty in 2014, was invited to judge the competition by the sponsoring National Book Foundation. She also directs UCR’s M.F.A. in Creative Writing and Writing for the Performing Arts program.

“I was surprised I got the call from the foundation’s executive director,” she said. “I have judged chapbook competitions, but nothing like this.”

The invitation to judge in the prestigious National Book Award competition reflects Ford’s growing prominence in American poetry, said Andrew Winer, chair of the Department of Creative Writing. Winer noted that Ford is a recipient of the prestigious Lannan Literary Fellowship and the Larry Levis Prize, and her poems have appeared in The New Yorker, Poetry, The Paris Review, The American Poetry Review, Ploughshares, The Norton Introduction to Literature, and many other journals.

“This is tangible proof of both her exalted place in American letters and poetry, and, by extension, of the large, national and international reputation of our stellar faculty,” Winer said. “It’s a rare honor indeed to be asked to sit on a panel of judges for the highest award in the land. It means that the invitee’s own writing has had enormous and meaningful impact in the field – that it is recognized by peers and critics alike as significant and good.”

Ford and judges Mark Bibbins, Jericho Brown, Joy Harjo, and Tree Swenson spent six months reading the 270 collections of poetry entered in the competition, devoting hundreds of hours to pare the number down to the longlist of 10, then to five finalists, and, finally, the winner – Daniel Borzutzky’s “The Performance of Becoming Human” (Brooklyn Arts Press).

“The amount of reading was daunting,” she said. “Reading poetry is slow-going, and ought to be. Judging the National Book Award means that you carry books with you everywhere you go. You’re waiting in line and you’re reading. Over months of reading and re-reading, you start to feel a relationship and responsibility to those books and those poets.”

Ford said the judges spoke by Skype for six months, but did not meet in person until Nov. 16, the day of the awards. Every judging panel met for lunch in New York City restaurants that day to choose the winners in their respective categories.

“Our meeting was the most intimate discussion at the highest level about the best poetry in the country,” Ford recalled. “It was a very communal effort and discussion. It was unforgettable.”

Unlike other literary competitions where judges make recommendations to an oversight committee, the National Book Foundation gives judges complete autonomy in developing their own criteria and processes for choosing the winners.

Ford said the experience enabled her to see firsthand the breadth of style and lyricism of American poetry. “There is no evidence to the common claim that no one reads poetry or that poetry is a dying art,” she said. “It’s heartening to see people writing so richly and deeply.”

Poets are often “the first to testify to what is happening to people – to offer their hidden internal worlds –  whether that person is an immigrant, a black woman in America, or a daughter tending to her dying mother,” Ford said. “What poets have done for thousands of years is talk with wisdom about the nature of a culture before such things reach the level of societal discussion. Poets can be trusted to know, see, and tell the stories of those people who might otherwise remain missing in such discussions.”

Perhaps the most moving moment of Ford’s judging experience came at the awards event when a graphic novel co-authored by Georgia Congressman John Lewis, a civil rights icon, won the National Book Award for Young People’s Literature. “March: Book Three” is the third part of a graphic memoir about the Civil Rights Movement.

“His acceptance speech was incredibly moving,” Ford said. “He was not allowed to check books out of the library as a child because he was black. His elementary school teacher told him to read, read. That memory was palpable as he told us of his childhood in segregated Alabama, now a congressman holding the National Book Award. It was a fortifying night for literature – literature can be a source of great hope – especially in this political moment.”

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