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Poet Laureate's Prized Words

By Linton Weeks
Washington Post Staff Writer
Tuesday, April 5, 2005; Page C01

Two Washington authors -- a reporter and a poet -- were awarded Pulitzer Prizes yesterday. "Ghost Wars: The Secret History of the CIA, Afghanistan, and Bin Laden, From the Soviet Invasion to September 10, 2001" by Steve Coll, an associate editor, and former managing editor, of The Washington Post, won for general nonfiction. And "Delights & Shadows," a collection by U.S. Poet Laureate Ted Kooser, won for poetry.

Other winners in the Letters & Drama categories included: drama, "Doubt" by John Patrick Shanley; fiction, "Gilead" by Marilynne Robinson; history, "Washington's Crossing" by David Hackett Fischer; biography, "de Kooning: An American Master" by Mark Stevens and Annalyn Swan; and music, Second Concerto for Orchestra by Steven Stucky, which premiered March 12, 2004, in Los Angeles.



Kooser, who keeps an office at the Library of Congress and oversees a poetry-reading series there, is known for his plainspoken verse. "It's a marvelous honor," said Kooser, 65, from his 62-acre spread in Garland, Neb. "There are hundreds of really very good poets in this country. This is something poets dream about."

He said when he heard the good tidings he was just sitting back, "putting my feet up" and recuperating from the launch of a new Library of Congress Web site based on a poetry column that Kooser offers to newspapers for free -- www.americanlifeinpoetry.org. He has recently been invited by James H. Billington, the librarian of Congress, to extend his laureateship another year, through October 2006.

In a world wallpapered with literary and drama awards, the Pulitzers still matter. "It's great," said Michael Wiegers, executive editor of Copper Canyon Press in Port Townsend, Wash., the small house that published Kooser's collection. "It adds to the prestige that this press has been building over the years, and it means a lot in terms of sales."

Wiegers said that, in the wake of yesterday's announcement, he received orders from book distributors for an additional 10,000 copies of "Delights," which has already sold some 30,000 copies. "You're looking at selling 40,000 copies of a poetry book in a world where you'd be happy if you sell 3,000," Wiegers said.

Until his Pulitzer Prize yesterday, dramatist John Patrick Shanley was best known for a screenplay. His script for "Moonstruck," the 1987 comedy that starred Cher and Nicolas Cage, won Shanley an Oscar.

The critically heralded "Doubt," a play about a battle in 1964 between a popular priest and the nun who suspects him of improper relations with boys at her Bronx school, opened on Broadway last week after a successful off-Broadway run at the Manhattan Theatre Club. Its 54-year-old author, a New York native, has written other well-regarded plays, including "Italian American Reconciliation." But "Doubt" is destined to be his biggest hit yet.

"When you work in the entertainment business, it's a shock when things go well," Shanley said from New York. Though the play draws a bit on people from his own Catholic school upbringing, Shanley said the work was inspired by events outside the realm of faith.

"It either took a few weeks to write or a whole life, depending on how you look at it," Shanley said.

Coll's book "Ghost Wars" was "an extraordinary tour de force of reporting and quite a narrative masterpiece," said nonfiction juror Michael Skube, a professor at Elon University. "The reporting and the narrative had no equal in the books we saw last year."

At a Post newsroom celebration of Coll's prize, Executive Editor Leonard Downie said that "Ghost Wars" will long be considered the definitive detailing of 20 years of largely covert American involvement in Afghanistan, and the simultaneous formation of the al Qaeda terrorist organization.

Dozens of pages of source notes and bibliographical material "show the amazing extent of Steve's overt research," Downie said. "In addition, he penetrated the CIA and certain foreign intelligence agencies as effectively as any counterspy and made his own forays into Afghanistan and neighboring countries. And he analyzed all the information he found with the penetrating intelligence and objectivity from which so many of us have benefited in the newsroom."

On his way to a radio interview, Coll said, "For me this book was the product of such a long commitment to a story." He was assigned as a foreign correspondent to South Asia in 1989. "I'm caught up in the story. I'm still working on it."

The 89th annual Pulitzer Prizes were announced by Columbia University. Newspaper mogul Joseph Pulitzer outlined the awards in his 1904 will. He declared that four were to be handed out in journalism, four in literature and drama and an award in education. He established an advisory board and gave it the power to change the categories. Today the board gives out 21 Pulitzers, including prizes in music, photography and poetry. The awards will be presented at a luncheon on May 23. Each winner receives $10,000; the prestige is priceless.

Staff writer Peter Marks contributed to this report.


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