Tao Lin wins Cave Canem First Book Prize & I talk to Prize Judge Yusef Komunyakaa
********UPDATE: APRIL FOOLS’********
The announcement isn’t up on their site yet, but after I heard from the source himself, I called Yusef Komunyakaa–who is judging the contest this year–and asked for clarification. “I wish you wouldn’t post about this conversation,” Komunyakaa said, “but I’m not telling you that you can’t. Anyway, if you don’t break the story, one of our interns–or Tao’s–is probably going to.”
Here’s a bit of info about the Cave Canem prize:
Established in 1999, this first book award is dedicated to the discovery of exceptional manuscripts by African American poets. The participation of distinguished judges and prominent literary presses has made this prize highly competitive.
As you can see, this is an incredibly audacious choice for Komunyakaa and Cave Canem to have made, since Tao Lin is neither a first-book author or an African American. “We thought about that,” Komunyakaa told me, “but after last year, when the judge declined to even award the prize, I thought it was time to shake things up. If Tao Lin had the courage to unironically enter a contest for which he was entirely unqualified at every conceivable level, then maybe we should try and reward that courage, as a message to other young African American writers out there.”
I asked Komunyakka if it had occurred to him that perhaps Lin’s entry was not, in fact, unironic at all. “Yes, that did occur to me,” he said. “Some people on the Graywolf board were especially concerned about this, but I finally just said, ‘Listen, what does it matter? A good book is a good book, and this kid’s stuff actually sells.’ It’s the name of our prize–and your press–that will be on the cover of his book, which we expect he will promote with the same machine-like relentlessness that is his trademark–which of course is how he ended up entering our contest in the first place. I said to them, ‘you want to see Cold-Pressed Organic Virgin Coconut Oil come out with that little Melville House logo on the spine instead of your wolves, be my guest. But this is the book I’m writing an introduction for.’
I’m a little baffled by all this, but I have to go start preparing for teaching this afternoon, so I can’t really give this thing the attention it deserves, but anyway, congrats, I guess.
Previous winners of the Cave Canem Prize include Major Jackson, Natasha Tretheway, and Tracy K. Smith. Tao Lin finds himself, as usual, in good company.