I got a suspicious email back in August. It alleged I’d won a statewide contest. I am not so easily fooled. I wrote back:
“In case you are a wealthy foreign prince, I have nothing to extort. I’m a friendly hermit who drives a rusty 2004 Honda and wears worn out shoes.”
The emailer responded with contact info for the Ohio Poetry Day Association (OPD), which has awarded Ohio Poet of the Year since 1938. He said he wasn’t affiliated with the organization, but was helping out since they had trouble getting in touch with me. He asked me to call Amy Jo Zook, contest chairperson for Ohio Poetry Day and coordinator for Poet of the Year. He explained the organization is run by such a venerable board that they only operate by phone and mail.
Suspicious indeed. But I investigated.
I googled Amy Jo Zook and discovered she has a doctorate in English, won the Ohio Poet of the Year award herself back in 1988, and has volunteered for literary causes for decades. I reverse-searched the number I was given and it matched up with her name.
Hmm. Could this be a real thing? My publisher had sent my book off for several awards…
A Nigerian prince seemed a more likely possibility than my winning anything. Rather than think about it, I went back to editing manuscripts. When that distraction didn’t work, I took a bucket of kitchen scraps out to the chickens, picked some green beans, and watered our mulberry saplings. I still couldn’t muster up the courage to make the phone call. Maybe it was the memory of my mother listing among a woman’s sins the attitude, “she certainly thinks highly of herself.”
That evening, bolstered by two substantial glasses of Merlot, I finally called Dr. Zook. She explained that books are nominated by publishers, literary groups, libraries, and other independent sources — self-nominations are not accepted. No list of nominees is released. The choices are narrowed down to eight or fewer books, which the OPD judges then compare individually before voting.
She told me about the history of the award.
Back in 1938, the State of Ohio set the third Friday of every October as Ohio Poetry Day. This was the first poetry day established by a state government in the United States, thanks to Tessa Sweazy Webb who spent thirteen months lobbying the Ohio General Assembly. She argued, ‘For each living reader a living poet, for each living poet a living reader.’
And Dr. Zook told me about her years handling the details of Ohio Poetry Day and its publications, all proudly done without email or internet. She said the annual OPD event takes place the weekend of October 18-19th at the Troy Hayner Cultural Center in Troy, Ohio with workshops, readings, and all OPD awards. (She mentioned Mary Oliver was Ohio Poet of the Year in 1980!)
All this to say, I was indeed voted Ohio Poet of the Year on the strength of my newest collection, Blackbird.
My impostor syndrome is now in full flare. Vast appreciation for Tessa Sweazy Webb, Ohio Poetry Day board and judges, and my wonderful publisher at Grayson Books, Ginny Connors. Also, vast shock at finding myself in any category that includes luminaries such as these recent Ohio Poet of the Year winners: Susan Glassmeyer, Kathy Fagan, and Maggie Smith. Sometimes good news IS real.
Pinch me when you see me.
“Poetry is more a threshold than a path.” Seamus Heaney