On May 16, 2020, the Big Other Book Awards Ceremony recognized excellence in literature published in 2019. During the livestreamed event (video below), I announced a winner in each of the following categories: fiction, graphic novel, poetry, nonfiction, and translation. A Readers’ Choice Award and awards for lifetime achievement and outstanding service to the literary community were presented.
After their marvelous readings, I asked each of the writers the following question. “What’s the importance, if any, of art, the making of it, the experience of it, etc., during a catastrophe? Here’s how they responded:
Arthur Sze: I think that during a catastrophe art is even more precious. C. D. Wright once said, “Poetry is as essential as breathing.” And I’ve always loved that comment. That making art, reading art, experiencing art, literature, poetry is as essential as breathing. It sustains us; it gives us life; it gives us energy. And I think during a catastrophe even more so. It helps us with mindfulness, to be really aware of what is right in front of us, our mortality, and that with each breath it just makes life so essential and important.
Rae Armantrout: Those kinds of questions are really hard for me because I never know whether making art is important at any time. I mean, I think people who write, honestly, do it from some kind of inner compulsion. I mean, I wrote when I had cancer. I wrote a lot then. And I’m writing a lot now, actually, too. But I don’t think I write with a purpose, like, of making things better. I think I just seem to be pulled to write when things are strange and I’m trying to understand them. And the world is very strange right now. And somehow, the way I deal with that is to try to put it into words. Solitude’s challenging, for sure, as we all know by now. And I tend to get a lot of material from interactions and now the only other person I see is my husband. So since he’s got his own things going, I’m thrown back a lot into myself more than usual and drawing more on dreams—which may not be a good idea—and memories; and of course there’s always that flood of terrible news that we can draw on. Whatever our intentions, when we all write in response to a catastrophe, we’re leaving a collective record. So that’s something that happens whatever we think we’re doing.
Norman Lock: I think that making art and experiencing it do what they have always done best, and that is to open up the world, open up the country, the country of the imagination, the country of vital social interactions, those that transcend our very cramped spaces and our very cramped and prejudiced, at times, minds. Somebody wrote: “The poem is as necessary to life as bread.” And I feel always the metaphoric truth of that statement. And yet—and this is the paradox that plagues me also, and I think has ribbed, thematically ribbed all of my work for the past fifty years—is that the actuality of that statement falls flat. I have never gone more than a day without eating. I guess it’s the disparity between metaphoric truth and actuality that is the place where all serious literature has its play, has its field. I would like to end my comment with a story that has always intrigued and haunted me. It’s by Ursula Le Guin: “The Ones Who Walk Away from Omelas.” I don’t know if you know the story; it’s a parable. And it posits a civilization come to fruition, incorporated in the city of Omelas; arts, athletics, a sort of Attic culture is now flourishing and perfect. It is a paradise if a communal one. And the secret of Omelas is that locked in a dark dungeon in the basement, in the foundation of the city, is a child, who is wretched, who suffers untold misery of isolation and deprivation so that the city, the city of art can flourish. I have no answer for that irreconcilable difference.
Victoria Redel: So I was nodding my head to each of the prior responses. So yes and yes and yes! And Norman said—I quoted it when I first came on after Norman read—“Stories help us endure it,” right? So I think there’s a piece of that in the moment. As Rae said, writing is a kind of compulsion. The way a writer manages this time, circumstance, is through writing her way or his way through experience. On a kind of personal level: it’s the navigation, it’s the steadying state, it’s a way into something bigger, better, the imagination, as well as just the gift of giving story to others. So that’s one piece of it. This week, I was rereading Anna Akhmatova’s “Requiem,” and in that poem—it’s during the Stalin purges, and her son is in jail, and her husband is in jail—and at some point, somebody comes up to Akhmatova and says, “Can you describe this? Can you tell this story?” And she says, “Yes.” So the other point of writing is to bear witness, to bring into a future the “what it is,” the texture of what we’ve lived through. I think a piece of it is for us to bring forward into the future the texture of what experience is, not necessarily that everyone will write about what our breath smelled like in a mask or what it felt like to Lysol your newspaper when you wanted to read it or any of the specificity of what Flannery O’Connor calls the specific detail, the dust that we have to be in to be a writer. But where that brings us to and where each writer will take it is important.
Thanks, Arthur, Norman, Rae, and Victoria for your superb readings and responses!
Without further ado, here’s the video of the ceremony:
Due to the COVID-19 lockdown, we were unable to hold the inaugural Big Other Book Awards Ceremony at Murmrr Ballroom or anywhere else in person. Thanks, Brian Kelly for agreeing to hold the event at Murmrr. And for his enthusiastic willingness to realize the event as a livestream. Thanks, too, to Justin Hrabovsky, who handled the production behind-the-scenes.
John Madera's fiction may be found in Conjunctions, Opium Magazine, The &Now Awards 2: The Best Innovative Writing, and many other journals. His criticism may be found in American Book Review, Bookforum, The Review of Contemporary Fiction, Rain Taxi: Review of Books, The Believer, The Brooklyn Rail, and many other venues. Recipient of an M.F.A. in Literary Arts from Brown University, John Madera lives in New York City, where he runs Rhizomatic and manages and edits Big Other.