Understanding how Tim Seibles got the National Book Foundation’s attention requires some knowledge of neuroscience and of his persistence to be heard.
At any moment, the human mind rapidly shifts between thoughts. It’s that movement Seibles mimicks when arranging the sections of his books. “If we’re really listening, we’ll go from rage to tenderness pretty quickly,” he says in a recent phone interview. “I try to put together different kinds of poems in a section…approximately the ways in which our minds move.”
The results are five books that take readers on an exciting ride through a surprising twist of tone and subject matter on each page. This skill is one reason the National Book Foundation selected his latest collection Fast Animal as a 2012 National Book Award Finalists.
“Established in 1950, the National Book Award is an American literary prize given to writers by writers and administered by the National Book Foundation, a nonprofit organization,” according to nationalbook.org. A panel of five judges in each genre chooses five finalists from those submitted in their category, which ranges from 150 titles (Poetry) to 500 titles (Nonfiction).
The Foundation will honor Seibles and other finalists Nov. 14 at New York City’s Cipriani Wall Street. The evening before, he’ll be among those presenting during the National Book Award Finalists Reading at The New School.
News of his nomination pinballed through the national literary scene, with poet and activist Tony Medina weighing in. “Tim Seibles’ NBA nomination not only validates what has been a steady, stellar commitment to the word with an incredible body of personal, political, bitingly satirical poetry of integrity,” Medina says. “It also shines some much-needed light on the great, risk-taking work independent presses are engaged in in the face of such precarious times in publishing.”
Cornelius Eady is also ecstatic. “I’m really pleased about his nom,” says Eady, who co-founded the Cave Canem week-long summer poetry retreat for writers of African descent, where Seibles taught workshops. Of the nomination, Eady added, “It’s way overdue.”
That excitement spread to Seibles’ Facebook wall, where friends and colleagues congratulated him. Among them was Debra Marquart, who teaches with Seibles in the Stonecoast MFA Program in Creative Writing. “Not a bit surprised,” she posted, “but very much delighted by this news!”
“Yaaay, Tim!” posted Marilyn Nelson, poet, translator and children’s book author. “Congratulations!”
Seibles felt the love. “Most beloved friends!… It means a lot to have so many good people in my corner,” according to his wall post. “Again, I so appreciate your belief in me and my poems. For me, being a writer is all about these kinds of connections, fam. May only sweet luck rain on every one of you.”
To hear Seibles tell it, his nomination is icing on top of icing that includes his more than two decades of sharing his work to both national and international audiences. Philly born and bred, Seibles is a member of Old Dominion University’s (ODU) English Department and MFA faculty. A teaching board member of the Muse Writers Workshop, he received fellowships from both the Provincetown Fine Arts Center and The National Endowment for the Arts. He won the Open Voice Award from the 63rd Street Y in New York City. The Stadler Center for Poetry awarded Seibles a Poet in Residence post at Bucknell University. His poems appeared in many journals and anthologies, including Best American poetry 2010.
The National Book Award Nomination is also payoff for Seibles’ patience and sweat that produced his previous collections: Body Moves, Hurdy–Gurdy, Hammerlock, and Buffalo Head Solos. He got the news while he and Jamaican-American poet Shara McCallum visited the Nichols School in Buffalo, NY. “We read poems…talked about how you write poetry, how you analyze it,” Seibles recalls. He tried to ignore his vibrating phone. “Finally, I pulled it out of my pocket in the middle of class and looked at it and saw: ‘Congratulations, National Book Award Finalist.’”
Cait Johnson is another Stonecoast colleague thrilled by her “compadre’s” nomination. “I’ve been a fan since I read his Hurdy-Gurdy and realized that here was a rare man who honors the divine feminine while maintaining a warm, dynamic, and very muscular masculinity,” Johnson says. “Such luscious balance! Such gritty, real, and often lyrical work.”
My first encounter with Seibles’ work was in 2004, when I Googled him and came across his poem “For Brothers Everywhere” (from Hurdy-Gurdy). What blew me away was him calling the streetballers “…muscular saxophones/ body-boppin better than jazz.” Since then, I’ve always admired how Seibles sweats a poem to its maximum potential. Another example is his poem “The Applecake,” where he offers this stunning sequence:
I like to consider your applecake
smiling on the kitchen counter, dressed
only in its sweetness, its round face
a jubilant island of apple and sugar—
no mere strudel or sloppy cobbler—
it is a baked cathedral of promises
kept, your applecake
opening up like a three-day weekend,
a Good Friday for the mouth, a jailbreak
from the hard, inedible, unthinkable city.
He makes it look effortless, yet it’s a labor-rich process. “When I think about a poem, I think about it being analogous to a song,” Seibles says. “I think about the songs I love the most.” Among those is Jimi Hendrix’s “Power of Love” from his Band of Gypsies album. “In those five minutes, there’s so much happening in that song both in terms of lyrics and…the sound of the guitar,” he recalls. “Man, I have played that song, since 1970, probably 10,000 times.”
Another inspiration is Sade Adu’s title song “Soldier of Love”. “The musical composition behind her voice sonically is perfectly conceived…the instrumentation is perfect, the inflection of her voice is perfect, the tonal and timbre qualities of her voice is perfect,” Seibles says. “It’s like everything is in place and it makes the song so rich, second by second that it’s irresistible.”
He added: “I know the only way Sade…and Hendrix did that was they worked their asses off. They kept thinking, ‘I can do more. I can make this better.’ They went into the studio and stayed until it rang. So what I try to do, when I think about my poems, is try to approach that work with the same integrity of Hendrix, Sade, and many others.”
DC poet Brandon Johnson certainly puts Seibles up there with Sade and Hendrix. “I admire Tim Seibles’ work because of his ability to inject deep tones into conversational communications,” he says, citing Seibles’ skill at turning pop culture into social commentary.
He does this through his persona poems that speak through Wile E. Coyote and the Roadrunner, where a classic cartoon subtly shifts into a discussion on human character. “Tim’s work always speaks to me because of his sensible way of reminding me that the complex can be explained without charts and graphs,” Johnson says, “just an entreaty to pay attention and think past yourself.”
Seibles developed that skill and integrity as a young poet, 19 years old, dreaming of writing books and sharing his work with the world. “Once I got hooked on writing, I was going to be writing something, and most of it was going to be poems,” he recalls. “I was just really thinking, “I’m going to be writing poems, nothing’s going to stop me, and—damn it!—somebody’s going to hear me at some point.”
He learned humility from his teachers Michael Ryan, John Skoyles, and Jack Myers at Southern Methodist University (and later from Mark Cox, Myers again, Susan Mitchell, and Richard Jackson at Vermont College, where he got his MFA). “Because of the ways my teachers spoke about paying your dues, like how many rejection slips they got and how long it took before someone was even willing to publish one or two of their poems, let alone a book, I just assumed it was going to take a long time to get much notice,” Seibles recalls. “That’s just the nature of things. There are a lot of writers out there who are better…who’ve been doing it longer, whose craft is sharper. You just keep doing your thing and eventually someone would notice what I was doing.”
Sarah Browning and Melissa Tuckey definitely noticed. “As his many devoted readers know, Tim’s poems are tender and righteous, playful and erotic, lyrical and full of heart,” says Browning, who met Seibles at the Association of Writers and Writing Programs (AWP) conference in 2006.
That year, she attended his panel on the erotic in poetry. “Needless to say, I was knocked out,” recalls Browning, director and co-founder of Split This Rock, a nonprofit that celebrates the poetry of witness and provocation through a biannual festival, where Seibles read and led a workshop. “Every book of Tim’s has been extraordinary and, last month, the National Book Foundation wised up,” Browning says. “I’m thrilled that the NBF’s recognition will bring more readers to Tim’s essential work. He is truly one of the most urgent and necessary poets of our time.”
Melissa Tuckey agreed. “I love the humor and joy and political engagement in his work, his generous imagination,” says Tuckey, co-founder of Split This Rock. She served as co-director of the nonprofit from 2008 to 2010.
She first heard Seibles read at Ohio University more than a decade ago. She’s been a fan since. “I am super excited about Fast Animal‘s National Book Award nomination,” Tuckey says. “It’s well deserved, terrific to see his work in the national spotlight.”
The nomination still feels surreal to Seibles. “I’m only now beginning to realize how big a deal it is,” he says. “I always imagined it would be a big deal to get a major award or to be nominated for a major award.” The closest thing he’s experienced to a National Book Award nomination was when he won the National Endowment for the Arts (NEA) grant in 1990. That year, Seibles was among the 40 people the federal arts agency awarded.
However, the National Book Foundation spotlights five writers in each genre: Fiction, Nonfiction, Poetry, and Young People’s Literature. “That’s a very big thing,” Seibles says. Of being among the five, he added: “It really puts you in a tight set of company.”
In addition to comments on his Facebook wall and my conversations with his friends and colleagues, I constructed this article from a small part of an interview I conducted with Tim Seibles for an extended Q&A-piece that’s forthcoming in BOMB Magazine.