John Keene wins the National Book Award for Poetry Collection


John Keene Keene, professor emeritus at Rutgers University in Newark, won the National Book Award for Poetry for his latest collection Punks: New and Selected Poems (The Song Cave).

Keene received the award last night at the 73rd National Book Awards Ceremony and Benefit Dinner, hosted by the National Book Foundation at Cipriani Wall Street in New York City. The event took place in person for the first time in two years due to the Covid-19 pandemic and was streamed live online.

Keene, chair of RU-N’s African American and African Studies department, who also teaches in the MFA’s English department and creative writing program, has won wide acclaim for the volume, which won the Lambda Prize. Literary and the Thom Gunn Prize for Gay Poetry earlier this year.

As he stood on the dais after receiving the award and searched for a sentiment to capture his feelings, Keene said: “I’m actually crying. I’m in shock!” much to the delight of the audience. After the hearty laughter died down, he continued, “I gathered some notes because I said, in the unlikely event that I receive really this price, all the words – I work with words, don’t I? – would fly out of my head.”

A sprawling 234-page volume, it is divided into seven sections, spanning decades, and includes unpublished and new work by Keene. The collection weaves together historical tales of loss, lust and love via many voices, ranging from historical black figures to Keene’s friends and lovers in gay bars and bedrooms addressing topics such as lust, oppression , AIDS and grief. Keene calls the work a “mixtape” for the wide array of poems in an array of styles that the volume encompasses, from conventional (including sonnets) to experimental, all woven together with an overarching theme and internal architecture that provide basis and consistency.

At the awards ceremony last night, the Keene Category winner was announced by National Book Award Poetry Jury Chairman Kwame Dawes, George Holmes Professor Emeritus of English at the University of Nebraska and a chancellor of the Academy of American Poets. Dawes is the author of 22 books of poetry and numerous other books of fiction, reviews and essays.

After Keene reached the stage, he hugged Dawes, posed for photos, then began his acceptance speech by thanking the judges and congratulating his fellow finalists, long-listers and short-listers. He then thanked a number of people, including his partner, Curtis Allen; his parents; its publisher, publishers and agent; the Dark Room and Cave Canem Collective; and his RU-N students and colleagues.

He went on to dedicate his award “to all readers and to my ancestors on whose shoulders I stand, ancestors by lineage and association, including the many generations of writers, especially black, gay and trans writers, in especially those we have lost. to HIV/AIDS in the 1980s and 1990s,” said Keene. “I had the pleasure of hearing and meeting some of these writers, and let me say they were brilliant, they were fierce, they were original, they were bold, they were brave, and their voices not only captured the world they lived in but envisioned a better one.Let’s go back to their words and the words of so many vital writers and artists that we may have forgotten.

Keene urged the public to support libraries and librarians, who have come under attack in several GOP-run states as activists and lawmakers have called for book bans, along with publishing and library workers. other industries, writers speaking out and facing censorship and oppression. , those who fight for social, political and economic justice and a more equitable and just world, and those who fight against climate change and its devastating effects on the planet.

On Wednesday morning, as Keene basked in the afterglow of the award, he paid another tribute to RU-N.

“It’s an incredible honor to receive this award, and I’m still in shock,” he said. “In my speech last night, I began by noting that of all the unlikely outcomes, this was definitely one of my brilliant students, colleagues, and the Rutgers-Newark administration, and I want to share with again that they inspire me enormously and make it a joy to come to work every day.

Keene’s UK-N colleagues also celebrated her latest achievement, including SASN Dean Jacqueline Mattis, who had kind words for her colleague.

“You see the proof of John’s brilliance in the accolades he continues to amass, from the McArthur Genius Award to the multiple awards this book has brought,” Mattis said. “We are so proud of him for the work he has produced. And we are certainly grateful for the gift that he is as a human being, and also grateful for the gifts that he brings to our community and to all communities through his writings, his teaching, and through the beauty and humanistic power of his words.”

Keene is known to be a man of many hats. He is not only an award-winning novelist and poet, but also a translator of Brazilian authors, as well as Spanish and French texts.

His published works include the collection of short fiction Counter-narratives (New Directions, 2015), which won several awards, including the 2016 American Book Award, the 2016 Lannan Literary Award for fiction and the 2018 Windham-Campbell Prize for fiction. He is also the author of the novel Remarks (New Directions, 1995); the collection of poetry Seismosis (1913 Press, 2006), a collaboration with artist Christopher Stackhouse; the art book GRIND (ITI Press, 2016), an art-text collaboration with photographer Nicholas Muellner; and the collection of poems Playland (Seven Kitchens Press, 2016).

In 2017, Keene received the Rutgers Faculty Scholar-Teacher Award, given across all Rutgers campuses to “honor tenured faculty who make outstanding connections between their academic research and their teaching.” And in 2018, he was awarded a coveted MacArthur “Genius” Fellowship.

On the podium last night, as Keene finished his acceptance speech, he paused before reciting a line from Robert Hayden, one of his favorite poets, which echoed themes of loss and love sprinkled in his new volume of poetry, Punks: did I know, what did I know of the austere and solitary offices of love?


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