Joan Larkin is awarded the 2011 Academy Fellowship, one of the poetry world’s most distinguished prizes.
After decades as a poet, Joan Larkin is still tunneling into fresh experience to understand herself. Nearly anything can start her off—reading about a stoning in Afghanistan, listening to jazz in a little club, exploring passages in someone’s old family Bible—but where the poem goes from there is a bit of a mystery, even to her. “One image leads to another, and then to another,” says Larkin, who teaches in Drew’s Master of Fine Arts in Poetry program. “I don’t sit down to write on a theme. I enter a poem through a phrase, or a rhythm, and I’m sometimes very surprised about the feeling that comes through.”
Over the years Larkin has received numerous awards for her poetry and prose. Yet another honor arrived Sept. 12, when the Academy of American Poets announced she had won the 2011 Academy Fellowship, one of the poetry world’s most distinguished prizes. The fellowship, awarded to one American poet every year since 1946, provides a stipend of $25,000.
Larkin, 72, began writing poems and stories as a child. She grew up in Boston, one of two children in a family who treasured music and books. After high school she went to Swarthmore on a scholarship. Later she received an M.A. from the University of Arizona, and an M.F.A. in playwrighting from Brooklyn College. These days she concentrates on writing poems, and finds her work growing and changing. “I feel we always write out of our lives, but—partly because of my age—I don’t think I have the same need for literally autobiographical poems,” says Larkin, whose most recent book is My Body: New and Selected Poems (2007).
She works on one poem at a time, revising up to 50 times. The first draft is written on paper, in black ink. Eventually she moves to the computer. Revisions are of two sorts: the overhaul, “where you open the poem up wide and challenge yourself to go deeper and say the difficult thing, the thing you may have censored,” and the meticulous editing, “where you make the language more active, and cut out what’s unnecessary.”
Larkin will be honored at the Poets Forum in New York on Oct. 20-22. She will read from her work at the award ceremony Oct. 21 at the New School’s Tischman Auditorium. To read some of her poems, go to her website, www.joanlarkin.com, or look for her work at www.poet.org.—Mary Jo Patterson