Words at Play: 31st Nimrod Literary Awards Conference

Linda Watanabe McFerrin
Linda Watanabe McFerrin

This time last week I was still in Tulsa, Oklahoma, where I was a workshop leader and panelist at the 31st Nimrod Literary Awards Conference for Readers and Writers 2009 at the University of Tulsa. Other Faculty included Peter S. Beagle (a past LCW Presenter), Marvin Bell, Robert Olen Butler, Marie Howe, W. Scott Olsen, James Ragan, and Nimrod International Journal Editor in Chief, Francine Ringold. The judges for the 2009 Katherine Anne Porter Prize for Fiction and the Pablo Neruda Prize for Poetry were novelist Robert Olen Butler and poet Marie Howe. The winners were Alicia Case (fiction) and Mike Nelson (poetry).

The theme of this year’s Awards Celebration was “Words at Play,” a topic that award winning poet and Iowa’s first Poet Laureate, Marvin Bell, tackled creatively. Here’s an excerpt:

I like ideas to have a little dirt on their shoes. Therefore, I was not just delighted but downright giddy when the astronomers came up with the term “dark matter” to refer to what they can’t see that lies between what they can see. In other words, “dark matter” is the stuff between the stuff. Meanwhile, the quantum physicists decided to refer to what holds together the smallest recordable elements of the atom as . . . what else?, ”sticky stuff.” How better to refer to what we can’t see and can’t escape? I may not be able to follow Einstein’s theory of relativity, but I feel I understand in my bones the concepts of “dark matter” and “sticky stuff.” I have not traveled in outer space, I do not leave my body, I have never–not even once–been abducted by aliens, I am not in touch with spirits from the past, I am neither a psychic nor a seer, but I have been living with dark matter and sticky stuff my whole life.

Think about it. Writing is about . . . dark matter and sticky stuff. So are philosophy and religion. Morality, ethics and anything sociopolitical are about dark matter and sticky stuff.

How, then, in a universe of dark matter and sticky stuff, can we encourage—indeed, even validate–an idea of writing as “words at play?” Well, writers to whom the very language matters–which is to say, any writer one would wish to reread–such writers do not so much express in their work what they knew beforehand as what they didn’t know they knew. When you think about it, that’s not so strange. We all do this in conversation, confidently dogpaddling forward without quite knowing where we will end up. To anyone who insists that we “get to the point,” or “cut to the chase,” we might respond, as a frustrated writing student said to the novelist E. M. Forster, “How do I know what I mean till I see what I say?”

There is a fair amount of improvisation in the arts, a good deal of flying by the seat of one’s pants and going on one’s nerve, lots of accident and a whole lot of dumb luck. Now I believe wholeheartedly in dumb luck. But you have to make yourself available to it. Hence, artists accumulate techniques, but they also trust their instincts. It’s hard to get writers, in particular, to fess up about how they make art because they fear that, if they tell you the truth, you won’t respect them in the morning.

Nor is it always possible to explain. The story goes that one of George Balanchine’s dancers asked him what the ballet they were rehearsing was about. In order to dance it, she said, she needed to know the story. But Balanchine wasn’t one of those choreographers who thought ballets needed to tell a story, and he said, “It’s not about anything; it’s just steps.” But the dancer said again that she simply had to know what the ballet was about, and Balanchine said, “Okay, then, it’s about time.” And the dancer said, “What do you mean it’s about time?” And Balanchine said, “It’s about fifteen minutes long.”

—Marvin Bell, excerpted from “Words at Play,” Nimrod Literary Awards Celebration 2009

The 32nd Nimrod Literary Awards competition begins January 1, 2010; the postmark deadline is April 30, 2010.