Juliana Leslie, a Ph.D candidate in the Literature department at UCSC, has recently won a National Poetry Series award. The award is given out to five writers each year and the prize includes $1000 and the publication of their manuscript. Leslie’s book of poems, Green is for World was selected by poet Ange Mlinko and will be published by Coffee House press. The award was proposed in a speech to the Library of Congress in 1975 by poet and small-press publisher Daniel Halpern who wanted to bring more poetry into publication and therefore into more people’s lives. Aided by a generous contribution by novelist James Michener, the award was initiated in 1978 and the first awards given out in 1979. Michener is quoted on the award’s website, justifying his support for the project, saying, “I did so because I needed poetry. It was an essential part of my inheritance and I would feel impoverished without it, and without constant renewal…But I also suspected that while I was writing my long books of prose, there might be some gifted young woman at the University of Michigan who was saying it all in some eight-line verse, and saying it much better.” Michener’s sentiments and financial support launched a project that has put many notable poets into print, a former UCSC Literature department graduate student, and professor among them. Professor and National Book Award winner Nate Mackey won the award in 1985 and poet Cole Swensen won in 1988.
UCSC’s Literature department has long been a space where poets have resided, with William Everson on faculty in 1971, followed by Nate Mackey, Peter Gizzi, and Gary Young at present. Its students, Leslie included, formed the Poetry and Politics research cluster, which seeks to preserve and promote the study of poetry and other experimental writing within the university. Leslie credits the cluster’s activities for its support of her project, specifically the way its meetings, readings and conferences provided her with a sense of community with other writers. The group brings together students who produce their own creative work and who are also engaged in critical work in their theses and dissertations. The cluster, she says, helped her to “keep poetry central.”
Keeping poetry central amidst a teaching schedule, qualifiying exams and then a dissertation project is no mean feat. Green is for Word is not Leslie’s first book-length publication, either. In 2010 Lettermachine published Leslie’s 83-page More Radiant Signal, a collection of poems she worked on from 2001-2007. The poems in Green were completed in 2008-2011, the years she began her study of the long poem. For Leslie, the divide between a critical study of a poem and the way it can influence her creative work is blurry. She admits that there are some works she is interested in as a scholar that she doesn’t necessarily want to reproduce as a poet. When I ask her about the differences between studying a poem critically and studying a poem in her own process she tells me, “the scholarly work can produce an influence. The head-space (of study) can be the same, but the output is different.” Leslie’s work at UCSC is challenging the distinctions she traces back to Romanticism between critical and the creative thought and practice around language.
The Poetry and Politics research cluster, which Leslie now co-organizes along with Andrea Quaid also at UCSC, held a two-day conference last year exploring this “divide” and its implications for poets in the university. Leslie’s work as an academic and a poet can be thought as inhibiting the space of the poet-critic—perhaps traversing the space between the critical thinker and the creative maker. These are distinctions that she sees inhibiting thought across disciplines and genres, boundaries she sees as the “institutionalization of spaces—where dividing lines break things up: the nation, the museum, the university.”