October 6, 2018

New York State Writers Institute, September 28

The New York State Author & New York State Poet are named every other year at a grand gathering on the University at Albany campus, this year at the Campus Center Ballroom. Officially, The Edith Wharton Citation of Merit for Fiction Writers was given to Colson Whitehead, The Walt Whitman Citation of Merit for Poets to Alicia Suskin Ostriker. I was not familiar with Colson Whitehead’s work, although I’d read a review of his latest novel The Underground Railroad. However, I have followed Alicia Ostriker’s work since seeing her read in Hastings-on-the-Hudson back in the early 1980s, & more recently at Split This Rock Poetry Festival.

It was full program, with speeches by Albany President Havidan Rodriguez, members of the NYS Assembly Patricia Fahey & John McDonald, a PBS film about the Writers Institute & then the presentation of the awards by H. Carl McCall, chairman of the State University of New York Board of Trustees.

Alicia Ostriker began with reading part of Emma Lazarus’ “The New Colossus,” then went on to claim Walt Whitman as her “grandmother,” & then talk about Edna St. Vincent Millay’s poetry; she read her “Requendo” & said Millay was one of our great forgotten & ignored poets. She also read from Waiting for the Light (University of Pittsburgh Press, 2017) some very New York City poems — upper Broadway in the morning, 2 women talking, the homeless, & learning to sing in 1st grade. An engaging, charming & very real poet, another great pick to join such past recipients as Stanley Kunitz, Audre Lord, Sharon Olds & Yusef Komunyakaa, among others.

Colson Whitehead’s novel The Underground Railroad, now available in paperback from Anchor, has received a slew of awards. He is also the author of 5 other novels & a couple of works of non-fiction. In his remarks he made a humorous reference to his mission as NYS Author to re-open the investigation into the Headless Horseman. He also read about NY City, from his essay “The City Limits” (from The Colossus of New York) which talked abut the ever-changing neighborhoods of the City, how each person’s concept of “their” City is different depending on when they lived there.

Of course, there was a book-signing afterwards with a chance to talk informally with both writers. I had the opportunity prior to the ceremony to talk to Alicia Ostriker & she asked me about the Millay Colony in Austerlitz New York.

For more information about the NYS Author & Poet & about upcoming programs at the NYS Writers Institute check out their website, https://www.nyswritersinstitute.org/

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