On Tuesday we announced this year’s winners of the Rebekah Johnson Bobbitt National Prize for Poetry: Rita Dove for Lifetime Achievement and Heid E. Erdrich for her book “Little Big Bully.” Before I sing the praises of both, a little background on the prize: it was first given in 1990, as a biennial prize for the best book of poetry in the preceding two years by an American poet. In 2008 the prize rules were changed to allow the prize to be given for Lifetime Achievement or best book of poetry, or both.
This year marks the fourth time the prize has included both winners–the first was for Charles Wright (Lifetime Achievement) and Bob Hicok (for “This Clumsy Living”). In 2016 the Bobbitt Prize went to Nathaniel Mackey (Lifetime Achievement) and Claudia Rankine (for “Citizen”), and in 2020–the last iteration of the prize–it went to Natasha Trethewey (Lifetime Achievement) and Terrance Hayes (for “American Sonnets for My Past And Future Assassin”).
Rita Dove follows Natasha Trethewey as a former U.S. Poet Laureate receiving the honor, and for Dove it follows almost three decades from the announcement of her laureate appointment (she served from 1993-1995, and as a Special Bicentennial Consultant to the Library of Congress from 1999-2000). Dove has continued to stay connected to the Library throughout this time, giving readings and participating in conversations (most recently with then-Poet Laureate Joy Harjo at the 2020 National Book Festival). She even participated in a webinar for high school teachers, cosponsored by the Library and the National Council of Teachers for English, that drew in over 1,000 attendees!
For those of you interested in a deep dive into Dove and her laureateship, I suggest you visit her LOC Resource Guide online. The guide includes Library-related links and external links to articles, interviews, audio and video, as well as a selected bibliography. I would like to highlight the quote from our former Librarian of Congress, James Billington, on his appointment of Dove in 1993: “I take much pleasure in announcing the selection of a younger poet of distinction and versatility . . . Rita Dove is an accomplished and already widely recognized poet in mid-career whose work gives special promise to explore and enrich contemporary American poetry.” I am grateful the Library has the opportunity to honor her again now and celebrate all she has accomplished in the art.
Our book prize winner, Heid E. Erdrich, is also no stranger to the Library of Congress. In 2018 she came to the National Book Festival for a program celebrating her anthology, “New Poets of Native Nations.” She was also a featured poet in Joy Harjo’s signature laureate project, “Living Nations, Living Words.” A recording of Erdrich reading her poem “Peacemaking”–from her Bobbitt Prize-winning book!–is featured as part of the American Folklife Center collection connected to the project.
Erdrich returned to the Library this spring as a faculty member of the In-Na-Po: Indigenous Nations Poets inaugural retreat, part of Joy Harjo’s third term closing events as Poet Laureate. The Library videotaped faculty and guest poets for the retreat in the office of the Poet Laureate, reading their poetry and talking about the historic occasion, and we are delighted to air those webcasts throughout the rest of November for Native American Heritage Month–starting with Heid’s webcast!
We hope you will come to see our two winners in-person on Thursday, Dec. 8, at 7pm ET at the Thomas Jefferson Building. The Bobbitt Prize reading will be part of our popular “LIVE! at the Library” series, so be sure to get there early–free timed-entry passes are required to enter the Thomas Jefferson Building, which will provide entry to the program.