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Syracuse University, College of Arts and Sciences

Bruce Smith named a 2011 National Book Award finalist

SU poet recognized for "Devotions" collection

Nov. 21, 2011, by Rob Enslin

An English professor in Syracuse University’s College of Arts and Sciences has been named a finalist for the 2011 National Book Award (NBA) in poetry. Bruce Smith, who also teaches in the college’s creative writing program, was nominated for the prestigious award for his book “Devotions” (University of Chicago Press, 2011). He has been touring in support of “Devotions” since its publication in February.

Smith is the author of five other volumes of poetry, including “The Other Lover” (University of Chicago Press, 2000), which was a finalist for both the NBA and Pulitzer Prize.

“I am extremely pleased that Bruce Smith’s work was nominated for the National Book Award in poetry,” says Arts and Sciences Dean George M. Langford. “As a poet, teacher and scholar, Bruce is an undisputed star of The College. His work is a major source of inspiration to our students, and has helped put us on the literary map.”

Smith was recognized at the recent NBA dinner and ceremony in New York, where he was awarded the following citation: “'Devotions' is a plentitude of plentitudes, virtuosic in its range of diction, allusion, association and rich in its propulsive linguistic variety, rhyme, rhythm and wisdom. Below each moment of adoration, rage. Within each rant, a lament.”

In an interview with poet Cat Richardson, Smith describes each poem in his book as a kind of ode—a meditation on a single subject that is skewed toward a devotional, and has its own internal rhymes and echoes. “The acoustic qualities of poetry supply a beat, a pulse and a value not found in the semantic values of the words,” he says. “My relationship to sounds is like my relationship to my kid making noise in the other room; I wish she’d be quiet, but I love her, and I can’t help listening to and being moved by the sounds.”

When asked by Richardson how he reacted to the news of his nomination, Smith, ever the music lover, emailed her an MP3 of the cult classic “Just a Little Overcome.”

Smith provided a glimpse of “Devotions” more than a year ago, when he read at The SU Humanities Center’s “Faculty Works” series. “His writing has always been rhythmic,” says Gregg Lambert, who serves as Dean’s Professor of the Humanities and as founding director of The SU Humanities Center. “’Devotions’ reads like a good jazz solo. It bristles and pops, but keeps you hanging on to every line.”

Since then, critics have lavished praise on the book. Publisher’s Weekly, which named “Devotions” one of the best books of the year, considers it Smith’s “best collection yet.” The New York Times Book Review characterizes “Devotions” as “ambitious, agile and unpredictable, as well as viscerally affecting.”

Fans of Smith’s work may have recognized parts of “Devotions” that previously appeared in the New Yorker, the Nation, the New Republic, the Paris Review, the Partisan Review, Kenyon Review, Poetry, the American Poetry Review, and the “Best of the Small Presses” series (Pushcart Press, 2007-09).

One such fan is Terrance Hayes, a poet on the faculty of Carnegie Mellon University who won the NBA last year: “'Devotions' reads like a series of protean ‘Ars Poeticas.’ The poems glow with ghost rhymes, hypnotic catalogues, and lyric enchantments that constitute ‘a blues about the rules for distance and difficult love.’”

Mike Goode, associate professor and chair of English, has this to say about the best-selling book. “Bruce has the ability to transform the most mundane object or experience, be it a Syracuse snowfall or a Red Roof Inn or the act of doing laundry. That someone so adept at elevating and, really, converting the humble could remain so unassuming as he goes about his everyday work-life testifies to the kind of rare artist and colleague he is.”

A “Discovery”/The Nation Award winner, Smith has received a Guggenheim Fellowship, as well as grants from the National Endowment for the Arts and the Massachusetts Foundation for the Arts. Prior to SU, the Philadelphia native held faculty positions at Harvard, Tufts, Boston and Portland State universities; at Lewis & Clark College; and at the universities of Alabama and Houston.