celebrated robert creeley award goes to tracy k. smith

Susan Edwards Richmond is President of the Robert Creeley Foundation.  She is the author of four poetry collections, and the forthcoming picture book Bird Count (Peachtree Publishers). She is poet-in-residence at Old Frog Pond Farm & Studio, and works at Mass Audubon's Drumlin Farm.

What makes Tracy K. Smith, this year’s winner, an exciting recipient?
How is the Creeley Award winner chosen every year?

The Foundation is thrilled to be awarding Tracy K. Smith the 16th annual Robert Creeley Award. She so perfectly embodies what we mean by honoring the legacy of Robert Creeley with this award—the  inventiveness and expansiveness of her work, her interest in the beauty and complexity of everyday life, her far-reaching imagery from science to popular culture, her sense of community with her fellow human beings, her deep compassion. We are delighted to be honoring this year such a distinctive and important new voice. The fact that she’s a Pulitzer Prize winner is icing on the cake. All I can say to your readers is please come, please come! This is certain to be a memorable night.

The Robert Creeley Award winner is chosen each year by a Poet Selection Committee made up of three to five Foundation members and usually one or two previous winners. Thomas Lux, our 2012 award winner, was on the Selection Committee which chose Tracy K. Smith. Each committee member proposes for consideration by other members several poets who fulfill a set of criteria, which includes, among other things, work of the highest quality with some national or international recognition, a dynamic presentation style, and the ability to connect with a live audience, including high school students. Committee members read and discuss work by all of the proposed poets, and work their way to a consensus.

Give us a brief history of the Annual Robert Creeley Award Reading. How did it start? What have been some of the highlights over the years?

In 2000, poet and Acton resident Robert Clawson chanced to meet Robert Creeley, and they got to talking about their roots, a conversation that revealed that Robert Creeley grew up in West Acton. At the town’s invitation, on April 11, 2001, Creeley returned to Acton to become the first recipient of the Robert Creeley Award and to visit with students at the Acton-Boxborough Regional High School.  Until his death in 2005, Robert Creeley collaborated with the newly formed Robert Creeley Foundation and traveled to Acton each year to present the Robert Creeley Award to a distinguished poet. Past recipients have included such icons as Galway Kinnell, Sonia Sanchez, Gary Snyder, and Naomi Shihab Nye, and many, many more.   

What draws such large crowds to the award reading each year?

I think it has to do with Community. The Robert Creeley Award was founded in the spirit of the generously community-minded Robert Creeley. Poets and poetry lovers come from all over the region to see our renowned award winners read. And we are thrilled to attract them. But there are plenty of readings in the Boston area—what makes us special? Many people from Acton, Boxborough, Concord, and surrounding towns, come because they relate to the legacy of Creeley as a homegrown artist—there’s a sense of pride. Willow Books makes a special effort to order the books of our poet and promote the work in their store.  Not Your Average Joe’s gives us the opportunity to earn dollars through their community night, and has sponsored our poet bookmark series for the last two years. The Colonial Inn in Concord is donating Tracy K. Smith’s lodging and breakfast this year. And Enterprise Bank in Acton stepped up their contributions to include a bronze level sponsorship because they were so impressed by our young people’s involvement in the organization. Old Frog Pond Farm & Studio in Harvard, MA, sponsors us every year, because they see a connection with their own efforts to promote arts and community. And of course the connection with the Acton Memorial Library (the library’s Director, Marcia Rich, has been our Treasurer for years) and Acton-Boxborough Regional High School is huge.   

How did you become involved in the program?

Robert Clawson, one of the Founders, approached me following an open mic at the Brookline Booksmith, after learning that I, too, was from Acton.  He told me about a reading coming up in Acton with Grace Paley. I don’t think he even mentioned the Robert Creeley Foundation—just that I should come and I would be amazed. And indeed I was amazed when I walked into the Acton Town Hall and saw more than 200 people gathered to hear this legendary writer!  Since then I have attended all of the events and helped with publicity but only in the last few years did my schedule allow me to join the Foundation, and start contributing in larger ways.    

Tell us about the Helen Creeley Prize for students. How many schools participate? How many students? Can you tell us who this year’s winners are?

This is the 10th year of the Helen Creeley Student Poetry Prize.  Our participation has been growing steadily, but particularly in the last two years, when submissions doubled and then more than doubled again. This year we had more than 180 applicants from 60 high schools and 70 hometowns.

This year we selected two winners and two runners-up. The winners are Alma Bitran from Brookline High School and Samantha Mackertich from Walnut Hill School for the Arts.  The runners up are Meera Joseph from Acton-Boxborough Regional High School and Christopher LaMountain from Westborough High School.

What are you most excited about for the March 29th meeting?

I’m very excited to meet Tracy K. Smith and to hear her read.  Her work is a phenomenon—rich, varied imagery and exceptional craft, and it explores deep subjects from the personal to the political. In fact, in much of her work, those two realms become one. Of course, I am also, as always, looking forward to hearing the Helen Creeley winners read, and to witnessing the interactions between the high school students and this wonderful poet—which for me is one of the highlights of the event and at the heart of our mission.

In addition to being President of the Robert Creeley Foundation, Susan Edwards Richmond has taught at Clark University and the Shirley Medium Correctional Facility. A founding member of the Concord Poetry Center, she has been poet-in-residence at Fruitlands Museum, editor of Wild Apples journal, and poetry editor for Sanctuary: the journal of the Massachusetts Audubon Society. Susan’s poetry collections are Purgatory Chasm, Boto, Birding in Winter, and Increase. Her poems have appeared in Green Mountains Review, The Iowa Review, Perihelion, Poetry East, and Runes.