Danez Smith Wins the $20,000 Four Quartets Prize, Calls Their Mother
At the National Arts Club on a Sunny Friday Afternoon
I have always associated Friday the 13th with everything unlucky and ominous. But, to my surprise, it is a near-perfect, sunny, 76 degree day in NYC: each sidewalk is packed and the ice cream trucks are out in full force. A pre-summer bliss hangs the air—and yet here I am, heading inside the National Arts Club, in Gramercy Park, to witness another kind of bliss.
The Poetry Society America has teamed up with the T.S. Eliot Foundation for the inaugural Four Quartets Prize, which will see the winning poet take home $20,000 for a sequence of poems. The first floor of the historic National Arts Club is filled with a hodgepodge of upholstered furniture, worn-in yet regal. No one’s quite had the time to pull out their springtime attire yet, and each guest makes a beeline for the bar to grab a cold drink. I take a look around. Everyone from poets like sam sax, Ben Lerner, and Ricardo Alberto Maldonado, to industry folks like Mary Gannon, associate content manager at The Academy of American Poets, has shown up on the first sunny day in months to support the three finalists for this year’s prize: Danez Smith, Geoffrey G. O’Brien, and Kathleen Peirce. We all politely mingle, sweating in tandem.
When asked about the prize, Smith, whose collection Don’t Call Us Dead was released by Graywolf in 2017, remarks, “This feels like someone is directly rewarding your curiosity and hunger to know more about your subjects.” I take a big sip of coffee, buying time to come up with something equally profound in response. Thankfully O’Brien steps in and adds that, “it is also recognizing the version of poetry that demands a lot from the reader.” This is true. The Poetry Society and the T.S. Eliot Foundation deserve credit for honoring a long sequence poem in the digital age, as do the poets themselves for writing long in a time when shorter is deemed sweeter.
The prize—named after T.S. Eliot’s long sequence poem of the same name—celebrates a unified and complete sequence of poems published in America in a print or online journal, chapbook, or book in 2016-17. This inaugural year was judged by Linda Gregerson, Ishion Hutchinson, and Jana Prikryl. The prize is unique; it does not require nominees to have released a book or to be a certain age.
The afternoon feels supportive and intimate. Many make the switch to wine as afternoon fades into early evening. There are gourmet appetizers being passed around, and everyone goes particularly crazy over the beef puff pastries. There’s no shortage of food or poetry: each guest is involved in the poetry community in some way, as a writer, editor, publicist, or professor. After some mingling, the ceremony starts. It must be noted that this is probably the only poetry event I have ever attended that has started and ended on time (shout-out to Emily Hunt, programs manager at Poetry Society of America, for running a tight ship).
Alice Quinn, Poetry Society’s executive director, kicks off the event with a warm welcome and a bit of background on how the prize came to be. Quinn and Clare Reihill, from the T.S. Eliot Foundation, developed the prize to celebrate the 75th anniversary of the Four Quartets. The Quartets are near and dear to Alice, who first studied them intensely with a nun. Within a week of conception, the prize was up and running—and a year later, here we are with its first winner. “It’s nice to have a prize that might inspire people to write towards it,” notes Quinn.
Linda Gregerson makes remarks on behalf of the judges and reports that she found reading the long poem submissions to be downright thrilling. There were 41 sequences submitted from a diverse group of writers, each bringing their own history and voice to an obsession. Gregerson ends her speech by saying, “we live in a world in and of others. That is our charge and our challenge.”
Geoffrey G. O’Brien reads, in a booming yet humble voice, the title poem from his collection, Experience in Groups (Wave, 2018). Poet and professor Catherine Barnett follows, with a reading of sequences from Vault (New Michigan Press, 2017) by Kathleen Peirce. In the middle of Barnett’s reading, someone shouts, “speak up so Peirce can hear you,” and points to an iPad in the front corner of the room. Apparently, the event is being streamed live on Facebook—bravo to the guy who had to hold the iPad throughout the hour-long presentation. From the couch, Danez Smith remarks that their mom is probably watching because “she can find anything on Facebook.”
Finally, Smith reads from their sequence “summer, somewhere.” They step to the mic and immediately announce that we “don’t have to worry about me being loud enough!” Smith starts to read and I can see the crowd quiet into hushed reverence. Everyone is transfixed by Smith’s style: loud at the right moments, slow and soft at others, humble yet brimming with confidence.
Now, it’s time for the presentation of the award. Danez sits back on a couch in the middle of the room, gripping friend and fellow poet sam sax. O’Brien stands in the back of the room. Alice is apparently somewhere on Facebook. Actor Jeremy Irons—who performed the Four Quartets last night at the 92nd Street Y—presents the award swiftly, and without a gushing introduction. He simply announces Smith’s name, and everyone rises to their feet to applaud.
As Smith takes the mic, they’re quick to note that the painting on the wall beside them looks like Solange, the early years. They move on to thank the prize for honoring a sequence, “which is really an obsession,” and thanks the judges, the Poetry Society of America, and the T.S. Eliot Foundation, along with everyone at Graywolf, their friends, and—of course—their mother. Smith specifically calls out Saeed Jones, who pushed them to keep writing this sequence even after it seemed finished. After leaving the mic, Smith immediately calls their mother and grandmother. “I’m just beside myself. It’s cheesy to say that being nominated was an honor, but I was really just excited to be here and it feels really powerful,” Danez remarks. “It makes you feel really seen.”
It is hopeful to see something besides a book given this large a reward, and taken this seriously. There is “a faith and an optimism in a kind of attention that is currently being destroyed in the digital age,” O’Brien states. It’s a welcome change to witness someone win for a long poem—something poets are often told not to write because no one has the patience for it. It’s a welcome change to witness Smith take home $20,000 on a Friday afternoon—not because they met a certain set of strict criteria, but because, above anything else, they loved something enough to obsess over it.