Practicing Poetry at the Nimrod Conference

by Britton Gildersleeve

“As a poet I hold the most archaic values on earth.
They go back to the Neolithic: the fertility of the soil,
the magic of animals, the power-vision in solitude,
the terrifying initiation and rebirth, the love and ecstasy
of the dance, the common work of the tribe.”
                                                                     —Gary Snyder

 The poets I love best—those I return to over and over again—are the poets who share these archaic values, as Snyder names them. Many of them have Nimrod ties—Nimrod is where I first encountered many of them. When I recently moved halfway across the country, I had the unenviable task of downsizing a lifetime’s library of books (mostly poetry) autographed by wonderful writers Nimrod has brought to its annual Awards Weekend, as well as to other events.

Many of these writers were recognized not only by Nimrod for their exceptional quality, but also by other national awards: the Pulitzer, the National Book Award, Library of Congress Poets, state poet laureates. . . . The list is long and illustrious, particularly if you include the writers—like my beloved Seamus Heaney—whose past visits Nimrod has co-sponsored with The University of Tulsa, where we’re housed.

There was Henry Taylor, whose books The Flying Change and Understanding Fiction: Poems 1986-1996 helped fuel my desire for an advanced degree in creative writing. He knew so much I didn’t! Even during a 45-minute workshop at the Nimrod Conference in 1998, he had us writing and working. A true writer and teacher. Write every day, he urged us, sharing that during his bout with “chemo brain,” he did clerihews, a short fun exercise that he insisted kept his “poetic brain” alive and functioning.

And Mark Doty, who teaches me every time he comes to Nimrod, and whose poetry and fiction both are revelatory. When you get to where you think the poem stops, he told us, write one more page. You may be finished. But the poem may, instead, take a turn you never expected. Or Pattiann Rogers, author of more than an armful of great books—my favorite collection of hers spans 30 years of poetry: Song of the World Becoming. Her work taught me—teaches me still—that the natural world around me is full of magic, if I just stand still, watch, and listen.

doty_si-303x335(Mark Doty, Blue Flower Arts)

There is W.S. Merwin, who has written not only remarkable lyric poetry, but has written an entire epic. And also, by the way, completely restored acres of ravaged rainforest on Maui. In his spare time.

As judges of the Nimrod awards, fiction and poetry writers from around the country read their work to conference attendees. They teach short workshops. They share their craft, their ideas on art and life, their selves, with all of us. Looking at a list of all the judges we’ve invited to be part of the Nimrod family (which is how all of us think of Nimrod), I’m stunned all over again at the amazing diversity of work represented, including young, new writers—Anthony Doerr, for instance, was pre-Pulitzer, and less well known when we asked him to join us as a fiction judge in 2008. I had the great fun of reviewing his collection of short stories, The Shell Collector. Six years later, he was both a finalist for the National Book Award and a Pulitzer Prize winner. What I remember best? That Tony Doerr was so knowledgeable about craft, and took all of us in his workshop as seriously as we took him. That’s true of almost all the Nimrod judges.

From established names like Denise Levertov, Ishmael Reed, Stanley Kunitz, and W.S. Merwin to newer craftsmen like Chase Twichell, Colum McCann, and B.H. Fairchild, each year some of the best writers in the country make themselves available to writers of all levels, from all over. During Awards Weekend there’s an entire evening and a full day devoted to writing. To poetry and prose. To writers. How rare is that, these days? That a town like Tulsa, Oklahoma, would be the site of a glittering weekend of literati?

My point? That even a short Nimrod Awards Weekend can function as almost a full course—certainly a workshop—in writing. And that’s the reason so many of us call it our writing home, even many of these illustrious judges.

I thought it might be fun to include a list of the judges for the original Nimrod/Hardman Awards, which have since become the Nimrod Literary Awards.

Here goes:

2017: Laura van den Berg and Jericho Brown
2016: Angela Flournoy and Robin Coste Lewis
2015: Karen Russell and Tina Chang
2014: Chris Abani and W. S. Di Piero
2013: Cristina Garcia and Aimee Nezhukumatathil
2012: Gish Jen and Philip Levine
2011: Amy Bloom and Linda Pastan
2010: David Wroblewski and Molly Peacock
2009: Robert Olen Butler and Marie Howe
2008: Anthony Doerr and Mark Doty
2007: A.G. Mojtabai and John Balaban
2006: Gina Ochsner and Colleen McElroy
2005: David Plante and Charles Martin
2004: Aleksandar Hemon and B.H. Fairchild
2003: Colum McCann and Chase Twichell
2002: Ron Carlson and Edward Hirsch
2001: Janette Turner Hospital and Pattiann Rogers
2000: John Edgar Wideman and Thomas Lux
1999: Ron Carlson and Mark Doty
1998: Anita Shreve and Henry Taylor
1997: Francine Prose and W.S. Merwin
1996: Antonya Nelson and Lucille Clifton
1995: William Kittredge and Peggy Shumaker
1994: Timothy Findley and Lorna Crozier
1993: Janette Turner Hospital and Lars Gustafsson
1992: Ron Carlson and Colleen J. McElroy
1991: Gladys Swan and James Ragan
1990: John Leonard and W.D. Snodgrass
1989: Toby Olson and Olga Broumas
1988: George Garrett and Stephen Dunn
1987: Gordon Lish and Carolyn Kizer
1986: Rosellen Brown and Stanley Kunitz
1985: Mary Lee Settle and Lisel Mueller
1984: Paul West and Richard Howard
1983: Ishmael Reed and Denise Levertov
1982: Diane Johnson and Marvin Bell
1981: R.V. Cassill and Mark Strand

Britton Gildersleeve’s creative nonfiction and poetry have appeared in Nimrod, Spoon River Poetry Review, This Land, and many other journals. She has published three chapbooks and was the director of the Oklahoma State University Writing Project for twelve years.



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