Criticism & Features

NBCC Reads

Guest Post by Katha Pollitt: The NBCC at 35

By Jane Ciabattari

Former NBCC board member (and NBCC awardee in poetry for “Antarctic Traveller”) Katha Pollitt sends her reflections on “how the sausage is made” from Berlin.

I won the NBCC Award in Poetry in l982, and was elected to the board the following year.  The books my first year were terrific—I remember in particular Louise Erdrich’s “Love Medicine,”  Robert Darnton’s “The Great Cat Massacre,” Elinor Langer’s biography of Josephine Herbst. The discussions were both passionate and—- thanks to the unflappable Brigitte Weeks—civil. Well, mostly civil. The voluble and enthusiastic polymath Greil Marcus did have a way of bringing out the wild man in some usually mild literary gents. (“I used to admire you,” one such began ominously.  You can imagine where that sentence ended.)

One thing that struck me as a prize-panel neophyte was how often the award went to a compromise candidate—it was sometimes better to be the second or even third choice of lots of board members than the first choice of a smaller group, because the first choices attracted thunderbolts and knocked each other out.  Another eyeopener:  Critics who had no fear of evaluating books about Japanese literature, biology, law or obscure corners of history quailed when asked to grapple with even one slim volume of verse, let alone five of them.  As a poet, I found this depressing, although it did have the effect of magnifying the preferences of those of us who cared about the poetry category.

It was an interesting experience seeing how the sausage was made, and helping to make it myself.  But it did have the effect of making me wonder a little about my own NBCC award…