Why does Carl Phillips need the Washington State Book Award?

The truth is, he doesn’t. In fact, Carl Phillips is confused about the controversy his nomination is causing among Washington state poets. When I spoke with Phillips this morning he mentioned his total surprise and delight when informed by his publisher that his book Renaissance was nominated for this year’s Washington State Book Award. He went on to say that the book was submitted by his publisher, Farrar, Strauss & Giroux. “It wouldn’t have occurred to me,” to send the book, he said, and followed up with how honored he felt. And why would Carl Phillips believe he was eligible? Phillips left the state a little less than a year after his birth and has returned exactly twice – once for the recent AWP in Seattle and once to board a cruise ship. He doesn’t think he will be able to attend the October 8th award ceremonies.

The real problem is not his nomination — Phillips is a lovely man and an extraordinarily gifted lyric poet, he deserves many awards. But for this year’s Washington State Book Award in Poetry, three out of the five finalists do not live in Washington State. They are residents of Missouri, Tennessee, and Utah.

Seattle Library’s website states a poetry book is eligible if the author:

was born in Washington state or is a current resident and has maintained residence here for at least three years.

So let’s unpack this. A poet could be born outside of Tacoma, leave before attending nursery school over 50 years ago, and become the winner of the Washington State Poetry Award. Perhaps she (or he) has never returned to Washington except for an AWP Conference. Another poet could have moved here in 2014, worked hard in the literary community, published a fabulous book, but she would not be eligible for this year’s award because she hasn’t lived in state for three years. How can we change these antiquated rules?

This year marks the 50th anniversary of the Washington State Book Awards. Each year a select group of booksellers, librarians, and writers come together to decide on approximately five finalists in eight categories including Fiction, Poetry, Biography/Memoir, History/General Non-Fiction and four Children’s Books/YA categories. You can check their names on the Seattle Library website (scroll down to the very end). My point is not to vilify any hard working judge or any talented poet.

But is there any reason why a Washington state birth certificate trumps 30 months of actually living in this state? I’m genuinely confused. Perhaps the judges don’t think Washington State has enough skilled poets publishing books within our state lines? This is definitely not the case. Rick Barot’s, Chord, is the best book of poetry I have read in many years – it’s won several important national awards, but has not even been nominated for an award here where he has lived for more than a decade. Katharine Whitcomb’s, A Daughter’s Almanac, is a gorgeously experimental and important book, Whitcomb is a former Stegner Fellow and the co-editor of A Sense of Place: The Washington State Geospatial Poetry Anthology. Other poets with strong books that were passed over this year include Jenifer Lawrence, Jeannine Hall Gailey, Martha Silano, Michael Schmeltzer and Maya Zeller.

Poets in this town don’t like to cause a fuss. No one wants to seem unkind, or impolite. So when the list of finalists was announced last week, there were only a few quiet conversations with friends about why the Seattle Public Library Washington State Book Awards would decide to go outside the state for 3/5ths of the poetry finalists.

So after a lovely Washington road trip with another poet friend, I decided to broach the subject of this year’s award choices on social media. Here’s what I wrote on FB on Sunday:

Is anyone else concerned that WA State Book Awards in Poetry this year have more than half the nominations going to poets who do not live here and have not lived here in ages? I've no skin in the game (this year) other than this seems plain wrong. I was born and bred in Massachusetts. Until I was 38, the Boston area was home. But that doesn't make me eligible to send my poetry books to their prizes. And I agree that since I'm not living there — not for 18 years now — it would be odd to submit books written elsewhere.

Within a few hours over 45 people had responded — each of them agreeing that the rules of who is eligible for the Washington State Book Awards need to be changed. Kelli Agodon responded with this comment:

My concern is that the majority of the poets selected won't be at the award ceremony since they live out of state, while so many Washington poets who live in the state were neglected. I was shocked by the number of non-Washington poets & writers who were on this year's list. As a poet and cofounder of Two Sylvias Press, an independent Washington State book publisher, this troubles me. It is the "Washington State Book Award," and for me, this means that you live in the state currently.

So the problem isn’t with the three nonresidents or even with this year’s judges (only one of whom is a poet). The problem is with the rules. How can we get them changed?

For the last ten years or so, the library’s beloved Chris Higashi has organized the logistics of the judging. However, she has just stepped down and it is not clear yet who will take over her position. In the meantime, Carl Phillips is scheduled to read for Seattle Arts and Lectures this coming May. I hope to give him a tour of the area; it’s changed quite a bit since he left in 1960.