Poetry like a marriage between a comet and a meteor
April 26, 2021
The New England breeze wafts through the open windows. Maybe it is mid-summer or early fall 2021. In this imagining, Carmen Giménez Smith’s laptop is open, and she feels residual energy from the poets who have come before her, inspiring new poems.
Yet this is more than a daydream; it’s a perk from her most recent literary honor, an Academy of American Poets Fellowship. Not only does the fellowship come with a $25,000 stipend, but it also includes a monthlong residency at the summer home of renowned poet T. S. Eliot.
Some awards require an extensive application package, such as the Guggenheim Fellowship she received in 2019. But others happen unexpectedly, like the academy fellowship. By majority vote, the academy’s Board of Chancellors nominated and elected her as a poet who deserves recognition for her distinguished poetic achievements.
“The work of Carmen Giménez Smith is a marriage between a comet and a meteor,” wrote Brenda Hillman, a chancellor for the prize. “Her poetry makes a distant and profound orbit — with materials received from folklore and myth, from surrealism and historical document, from popular culture and canonical women’s voices — but it also seems to be arriving in a flash in the night sky for the first time, with a dazzling style of its own.”
Since 1934, the Academy of American Poets has provided support for American poets at all stages of their careers and encouraged an appreciation of contemporary poetry. Its fellowship award came to fruition in 1936. Now it honors the memory of the Pulitzer Prize-winning poet James Ingram Merrill.
Giménez Smith, a professor in the Virginia Tech Department of English, joins the ranks of other academy fellows such as Robert Frost, Gwendolyn Brooks, and Tracy K. Smith.
“It just feels good,” Giménez Smith said. “I spent a long time writing my last book, and it was an important book for me to write, a proud moment. So, I appreciate the acknowledgment that I did a good job and I’ve been doing good work as an artist.”
The book is “Be Recorder,” for which she also received 2020 Albert Lee Sturm Award for Excellence in Performance and Creative Arts from the Mu of Virginia Chapter of Phi Beta Kappa. The book also made the short list for the 2020 PEN Open Book Award, the 2019 National Book Award for poetry, the Audre Lorde Award for Lesbian Poetry, and the Los Angeles Times Book Prize.
But this was not her first collection of poems to receive accolades. “Goodbye, Flicker” won the Juniper Prize for Poetry, “Milk and Filth” was a finalist for the National Book Critics Circle award in poetry, and “Bring Down the Little Birds” won an American Book Award. Her other published poetry collections include “Odalisque in Pieces,” “The City She Was,” and “Cruel Futures.” She was also coeditor of “Angels of the Americlypse: New Latin@ Writing.”
The Poetry Society of America named Giménez Smith one of the New American Poets in 2009, and she received a Howard Foundation grant for creative nonfiction.
She is currently director of the Virginia Tech master of fine arts in creative writing program and is researching and co-translating a volume of selected poems by Peruvian poet Mariela Dreyfus, a clinical professor at New York University.
But Giménez Smith will use the academy fellowship to make progress on her latest project, “Nostalgia Has Such a Short Half-Life,” for which she received the Guggenheim award.
“The book is really about television,” she said, “and how all the screens we look at shape us, distort us, and create the cultural mythologies that in many ways have gotten us to this historical moment. Television, art, and especially film have always had an enormous amount of influence on how we see gender and sexuality and race. But most importantly, it gives us a sense of how power works.”
She said television drives viewers to celebrate anti-heroes. Bad behavior makes for better entertainment rather than the uplifting roles of hard-working people who put in their time and try to make the world a better place.
Along with these insights, her book will examine the depictions of bipolar disorder and weight-loss shows. And her advocacy for the Latinx arts will also inform her words.
“I want to keep writing books that make people happy, that make them laugh and think,” she said. “And I’m lucky that this award happened to me. It may never happen again.
“My last book was the result of my trying some crazy thing and it worked out well. That book might be my pinnacle, but that’s okay because it gives me a kind of license to try the next crazy thing.”
Written by Leslie King