blackbirdonline journalFall 2015  Vol. 14 No. 2
 print preview
 download audio
back DAVID WOJAHN  |  Levis Remembered

Introduction to Sandra Lim

[eds. note: The audio version may contain extemporized material that is not reproduced in the text provided to us for publication.]

Before I give you an introduction to Sandra Lim, I’d like to say something about the Larry Levis Reading Prize itself. First, to thank all those who helped sponsor and enable this event: the family of Larry Levis, the VCU College of Humanities and Sciences and the English Department, Barnes and Noble @ VCU, and the VCU Libraries, especially head librarian John Ulmschneider, for the support and financial backing that has allowed this prize to continue and thrive for eighteen years now. And I want to thank my colleagues—Kathy Graber, Greg Donovan, and Thom Didato—for their involvement in this process, our MFA students and alumni, and our Larry Levis fellows John-Michael Bloomquist and Christian Detisch for coordinating the selection of the prize and hosting our winner.

The Levis Prize is really unlike any other award in the poetry world, not merely because it honors the memory of a significant American poet whose influence, in the almost twenty years since his death, continues to grow. It’s unique because it honors a particularly distinguished first or second book of published poetry, meaning that the standard of excellence the prizewinner meets is very high indeed. Many of the books submitted to the competition are the winners of significant book prizes, ones in which a judge has chosen the book from among entries that number in the thousands. And the number of books that are entered into the Levis competition grows larger every year—this time the winning collection was chosen from nearly two hundred submissions. And the process by which the prizewinner is chosen is a rigorous one. The Levis fellow and her fellow MFA students scrupulously screen the submissions over a period of several months and select ten finalists’ books to present to the VCU poetry faculty, who then choose the prizewinning volume. We’ve chosen some very distinguished collections over the years, and several of the winners are now poets of considerable reputation. All of us involved in the selection are immensely proud to be part of this process. And now, I’d like to introduce our current winner, Sandra Lim, author of The Wilderness,which was selected by one of our finest poets, Louise Gluck, as the winner of the prestigious Barnard Women Poets Prize, and published by W.W. Norton & Company.

Ever since the time of the Romantics, we’ve been told that two of the principal purposes of the lyric poem are self-discovery and self-reckoning. “Nothing endures but personal qualities,” wrote Walt Whitman. In recent decades, such notions have been assailed from many quarters—the very concept that a poetic self can exist at all in a poem has been called into question, and the autobiographical poetry that so dominated our verse for a good portion of the last half century has come to be seen as quaint and self-indulgent—and there’s a fair bit of truth to that accusation. Yet if self-knowledge isn’t something we strive for in our poems, what worth is there in writing them? That question is one that preoccupies Sandra Lim in The Wilderness. The book is about many things, but it is crucially about the quest for identity, a quest which eschews all the received pieties and cultural clichés about what currently constitutes are notions of identity. Lim undertakes her project with a cautious and skeptical precision, and her stance reminds me of something which Carl Jung once said: that the self can never be known, only circumnavigated. The self that Lim investigates, speculates upon, and wryly confronts is a slippery and quicksilver thing. The author draws her insights from it, yet they are always provisional ones, and they are often darkly brooding. And yet the poems of The Wilderness never lapse into solipsism or ennui, partly because the speaker’s tone exhibits such confidence, authority, and unflappability—as well as erudition. The transcendentalists, the puritans, and the writing of the great high modernists haunt the book’s pages, and in them we meet everyone from Whitman and Dickinson to Buson, Anne Bradstreet, and Edward Taylor. This is a poet who knows and loves the tradition but who is never merely beholden to it. All of these qualities combine to make The Wilderness a book whose formal rigor is always matched by its openness to serendipity and surprise, and the collection has an integrity and cohesion that is rare even in the work of our very best poets. We will hear more from this writer, and it’s a delight to be able to bring her to VCU tonight.

Sandra Lim attended the Iowa Writers’ Workshop and Stanford. Her work has been published in a number of important journals, she has been awarded fellowships from the MacDowell Colony and the Vermont Studio Center, and she is the author of a previous book, The Loveliest Grosteque (Kore Press, 2006). She teaches at the University of Massachusetts Lowell. Please welcome Sandra Lim.  

David Wojahn’s eighth collection, World Tree, was published by the University of Pittsburgh Press in the spring of 2011. His previous collection, Interrogation Palace: New and Selected Poems 1982–2004 (University of Pittsburgh, 2006) was a named finalist for the Pulitzer Prize and winner of the O.B. Hardison Award from the Folger Shakespeare Library. He has received numerous awards and honors, among them a Guggenheim Fellowship, two National Endowment for the Arts fellowships, the Amy Lowell Traveling Poetry Scholarship, and the Carole Weinstein Poetry Prize. Wojahn teaches at Virginia Commonwealth University and at Vermont College of the Fine Arts.

return to top