Book Award Nominees Include U-Md. Poet

By Linton Weeks
Washington Post Staff Write
Thursday, October 11, 2007

As a rite of autumn: The National Book Awards finalists were announced yesterday.

Washington poet Stanley Plumly thinks the awards mean more to the poetry world than most other accolades. "They have behind them the National Book Foundation -- the people who make the books and are responsible for the books," he said. "The Pulitzer Prize, oddly enough, is more of a journalistic award and the written arts sort of got glommed on it. This is a purer notice of the achievement in the art."

Plumly, director of the creative writing program at the University of Maryland, is particularly attuned to this year's nominations because his collection "Old Heart" is a finalist.

Other finalists include "Ralph Ellison: A Biography" by Arnold Rampersad and "God Is Not Great: How Religion Poisons Everything" by Washington resident Christopher Hitchens. Joan Didion and NPR host Terry Gross will be honored with special achievement awards at the ceremony on Nov. 14 in New York. Winners in the four categories of fiction, nonfiction, young people's literature and poetry will be announced.

Here are the lists. For fiction: "Fieldwork" by Mischa Berlinski; "Varieties of Disturbance" by Lydia Davis; "Then We Came to the End" by Joshua Ferris; "Tree of Smoke" by Denis Johnson; and "Like You'd Understand, Anyway" by Jim Shepard.

For nonfiction: "Brother, I'm Dying" by Edwidge Danticat; "Unruly Americans and the Origins of the Constitution" by Woody Holton; "Legacy of Ashes: The History of the CIA" by Tim Weiner; and the books by Rampersad and Hitchens.

For young people's literature: "The Absolutely True Diary of a Part-Time Indian" by Sherman Alexie; "Skin Hunger: A Resurrection of Magic, Book One" by Kathleen Duey; "Touching Snow" by M. Sindy Felin; "The Invention of Hugo Cabret" by Brian Selznick; and "Story of a Girl" by Sara Zarr.

For poetry: "Magnetic North" by Linda Gregerson; "Time and Materials: Poems 1997 to 2005" by Robert Hass; "The House on Boulevard St." by David Kirby; "Messenger: New and Selected Poems 1976-2006" by Ellen Bryant Voigt; and Plumly's just-published book.

Though Plumly, 68, chaired the NBA poetry committee a few years ago, this is his first nomination. Awards for poets are few and far between; little indignities are not. He was in the running three decades back for a National Book Critics Circle award, but lost to Robert Lowell; he was a great poet, Plumly conceded, "but he was dead."

Plumly has written a dozen or so books and received honors along the way. In the spring he will publish a nonfiction meditation on another poet, John Keats. It is, Plumly said, an ode on immortality.

Poetry today, like politics and religion, is deeply fractured. "It's a strong, constituent-alized art now," Plumly said. "There are different groups with different intentions and ambitions."

An award such as this pulls the warring worlds together for a night. Each victor will take home $10,000; each finalist receives $1,000. Comic writer Fran Lebowitz will be the emcee.

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