USA Literature Panel for 2008

Patricia Powell

Visiting Writer, Department of African and African American Studies, Stanford University, Stanford, CA

Brighde Mullins (Chair)

Director, MPW Writing Program, University of Southern California, Los Angeles, CA

Marilyn Chin

Professor, English Department, San Diego State University, and 2007 USA Hoi Fellow, San Diego, CA

Maureen N. McLane

Associate Professor of English, New York University, and Board Member, National Book Critics Circle, New York, NY

Robert Polito

Director of Graduate Program in Creative Writing and Professor of Writing, New School, New York, NY

Statement by Brighde Mullins

A sign that I noticed when I was a shill in one of the casinos in my hometown (Las Vegas) stated bluntly, somewhat obviously but also mysteriously: Players Must Be Present to Win. This sign was posted in the slots area because veteran players would sometimes set up shop at two or three machines at once.

Writing is time-bound too—you must be fully present to win. This too is an obvious but mysterious fact. You must have the degree of focus to stay put. Sitzfleisch is the German term for the ability to sit at one’s desk. Sometimes you need to be enough of a gambler to let go of the sure thing—the gig that pays—for the other thing—the work of your own writing. Sitzfleisch! It sounds like a command, a directive. Sitzfleisch—you must be present enough to make the time to do the writing itself, and to have the faith that the work will be heard, read, performed. It takes tenacity. This award, then, serves a dual purpose: it gives the gift of time, and it gives the other gift, of recognition, the knowledge that there is a community behind you. Writers are nominated for this award, and that fact is, in and of itself, proof of impact. They’ve had an impact on at least one person (the nominator), and that person is enough, just as one slot machine is enough.

The enormous pristine white notebooks that were FedExed to my flat in Hollywood held the work samples of the 53 writers who were nominated. A few months later a panel of close readers met in a room on Wilshire Boulevard to decide which of these writers we would have the privilege to award a block of time. Over and over in the statements of purpose, the gift of time was what writers stated that they needed to get to the next draft, the next idea. To have that carved-out block of freestanding, unstructured time: that’s what this award means.

It also, of course, reflects the excellence of the work, and that was what we found. Marilyn Chin, Maureen McLane, Robert Polito, and Patricia Powell were my compadres on the panel. Their broad aesthetic range and unerring gut instincts were invaluable. All of them are writers, and all of them had the gravity, and also the sense of exuberance, that the task demands—to “judge” and then to “award.” There was a full day of literate conversation and deliberation, agreement and disagreement. The acid test was that you wanted to keep reading the work past the sample enclosed. We chose, in the end, writers whose work had energy. As Blake says, energy is eternal delight—yes, and it also manifests in different forms, genres, regions. The difficulty in choosing was the trauma of having to choose: the reward was the experience of reading so many incredible writers. Reading, and then discussing, so many brilliant living writers was a liturgical experience: liturgical
meaning spiritual and therefore timeless in the best sense—but also cyclical, time-bound, and of this place called America.

The literary culture that America has created is not only on the coasts; it is in every town, every city. Writing comes from these places but is not place-bound. The writer is time-bound, but not the written. The writer is time-bound, and to manage the Sitzfleisch, in both the practical and spiritual aspects, is what a grant of this amount provides. The writer returns the gift of time, transformed, back to the world.