National Book Award

National Book Award Last November, Door in the Mountain: New and Collected Poems by Jean Valentine, published by Wesleyan University Press, was awarded the prestigious National Book Award. At the Press, the announcement was a cause for celebration. Director Suzanna Tamminen ’90, MALS ’94, was the book’s editor; Visiting Artist Keiji Shinohara designed the cover. Tamminen offered this account: On Wednesday, Nov. 17, at 9:57p.m., I sat in the kitchen at my home computer and logged onto the National Book Foundation homepage. They had promised to post the winners of this year’s National Book Awards by 10 p.m., and I was eager to see if one of our books by Jean Valentine, which was nominated in the poetry category, had won. Many months earlier, when this book was just heading into production, I predicted that it would win a major award. Of course, editors always champion their authors, but in this case I felt especially strongly; not only was the work deserving, but the author is simply one of the sweetest people I’ve ever met. I first read Jean Valentine’s poetry as a Wesleyan undergrad. I remember sitting on the floor in the stacks at Olin Library reading her early books ,Pilgrims and Ordinary Things, and marveling at the weight of emotion carried in the simplest of lines. Her poems are direct, often dreamlike, and always opening out to the ineffable, to the mysteries at the heart of life, so that to read her works is to open oneself. Their grace, and beauty, and humility issometimes breathtaking, but you haveto be quiet enough to hear them. Shedoesn’t force anything; there is no sense of her trying to captivate. She steps out of the way and allows the poems to come through. When I was first reading her work, I was often stymied by my inability to “figure out” the poem—I could feel its

power, but what did she really mean? The aspect of Valentine’s work that I appreciate most is that it has helped me to become a different kind of reader.

I no longer have to master a poem, I can simply be in it. In this sense, I think I have always read Valentine’s poetry as a kind of Zen teaching (even though she herself makes no such claims for her work). In 1998, I read anew manuscript by Valentine which included “Mare and Newborn Foal.” I love this poem, which changes each

time I read it, so subtly are the tones of grief and hope, love and submission interwoven:



When you die

there are bales of hay

heaped high in space

mean while

with my tongue

I draw the black straw

out of you

mean while

with your tongue

you draw the black straw out of me.

That same evening at 10 p.m., I hit

the refresh button and as the screen

filled, there was Valentine’s book, with

the lovely cover art by Keiji Shinohara

conveying all the delicacy and immediacy

of the poetry. She won! I did a victory

dance by the kitchen table and then, as a

tribute to Valentine, for a few moments I

simply sat and let it be.


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