USA Literature Panel for 2007

Marcos M. Villatoro

Novelist and Poet, Los Angeles, CA

Eavan Boland (Chair)

Bella Mabury and Eloise Mabury Knapp Professor in Humanities, and Melvin and Bill Lane Professor for Director of Creative Writing, Stanford University, Palo Alto, CA

Amy Hempel

Writer and USA Ford Fellow 2006, New York, NY

Nicolás Kanellos

Director, Arte Público Press, University of Houston, Houston, TX

Brighde Mullins

Director, MFA Writing Program, California Institute of the Arts, Valencia, CA

Statement by Eavan Boland

When I was young in Ireland and just beginning there as a poet, there was a defining and compelling view of the writer. It was in the air; it ran through conversations; it influenced everyone’s outlook—everyone who was involved, that is—on fiction, poetry and theater. It went something like this: Writers were isolated. They struggled for survival. They were often cut off from one another and the world. There was something fragile and even stranded about them. They deserved protection; they needed it. All too often, they didn’t
get it.

There is real truth in this view. Of course there is. It may be one of the most persistent and sinuous inheritances we have from the romanticism of the nineteenth century. But for all that, it has a basis in fact. Multiple narratives of neglect and oversight remind us that the writer, in certain circumstances, can be an endangered species. And in this case—as in all other cases of endangerment—our vigilance has merit simply because it encourages care and scrutiny. It makes us aware that we have to provide sustenance to those things we cherish.

But it is also an incomplete perspective. It needs balance. Inasmuch as it invites us to see the writer alone and isolated, it tells us only half the story. We need to turn that coin over to see the other side of it, which is the countertruth that if writing is a lonely art, it is also—in any age and at any moment—a glorious festival of innovation, talent, intent, and aspiration. And if we can just find a space, a clear vantage point, from which to observe that celebration, and in which to weave those individual efforts into the broad picture they are all a part of, we will be dazzled and inspired and encouraged.

I think that I and my fellow judges—Amy Hempel, Nicolás Kanellos, Brighde Mullins, and Marcos M. Villatoro—found that space this August in Los Angeles. As judges we had already seen and sifted the work in front of us. Our comments and decisions proved that we were moved over and over by the energy, the commitment, and the artfulness we saw. Our conversation, which I found inspiring, took cognizance again and again of these two complementary views I have mentioned: I know we were aware at all times of the needs of the individual artist. We were also charmed and struck by the sheer exuberance of what we saw: the enormous richness of the writing of a continent—from the playwright of a small theater group to the stubborn, musical laureate of a distant region, to the weaver of some spellbinding story.

Judges have a place in the world of writing. It is well known that they make decisions, both joyful and painful. It is sometimes forgotten that they are also witnesses. They get to see, as we did on this wonderful occasion, the eloquence and communality that are the outcome of the appropriate loneliness of the writer. On this occasion we had the rare privilege of supporting both.