“The flint was struck, and after a 35-year hiatus in my writing, I was back in, flaring with hope and plans. I began a regular submission practice, shooting high and, to my enduring surprise, sometimes hitting the mark. The year I actually turned 50, one of my notebooks became Dark Card and won the 2007 Robert Philips Poetry Chapbook Prize. The poems written for my mother went into Mom’s Canoe and won the Phillips Prize again the next year. I enrolled in Warren Wilson’s low residency program, graduating in 2010 with an MFA in poetry and a thesis (All That Gorgeous Pitiless Song) that won the Many Mountains Moving Book prize. A collection of environmental poems written in collaboration with my friend and artist Lorna Stevens morphed out of its three-ring binder into God, Seed: Poetry & Art about the Natural World and received a Foreword Book of the Year Award in 2010.
My poems are widely published now, and I am making inroads with book reviews, essays and short fiction. 2014 was a watershed year, beginning in January with a residency at Vermont Studio Center, followed by the summer as the Dartmouth Poet in Residence at the Frost Place, then by an October residency at MacDowell. An essay called “Venn Diagrams” won the 2014 Constance Rooke Award for Creative Nonfiction, and two poems were featured on Poetry Daily. Shortly after coming home from MacDowell (and just before the Giants won the World Series—what a great week) I was notified that my book-length sequence of Sonnets, Paradise Drive, had won the Press 53 Award for Poetry and would be published in April 2015.
Which brings me to one last story. The book I remember best from grad school, assigned to me by Heather McHugh, is The Whole Truth by James Cummins. It’s a brilliant collection of wickedly funny sestinas populated with characters from the Perry Mason series along with a few Iowa workshop types and one hilarious jive-talking, joint-sucking housefly. I admired Cummins’s finesse and apparent ease with a challenging form. But I also marvelled his conjuring of character, dialogue, and plot; the book was alive, making me laugh till my sides hurt and then after the knife was slipped in, making me ache. In his blending of high with low style and comedy with tragedy, Cummins seemed like a modern Shakespeare. I wrote three annotations on The Whole Truth and bought copies for my friends. And it was shortly after reading it that I wrote, in one heady insomniac rush, more than 30 linked sonnets that are the core of Paradise Drive. That was in 2008. Fast forward to the summer of 2011 to a summer workshop with Molly Peacock. The subject of sestinas came up, and I mentioned this wonderful book I’d loved so much. “Jim’s my friend!” Molly said. I had all Mr. Cummins’s books by then and wanted to get them signed, so Molly gave me his contact information.”