NEA Literature Fellowships

James Richardson

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(2013 - Poetry)


In Shakespeare a lover turns into an ass
as you would expect. Others confuse
their consciences with ghosts and witches.
Old men throw everything away
when they panic and can't feel their lives.
They pinch themselves, pierce themselves with twigs,
cliffs, lightning, to die -- yes, finally -- in glad pain.

You marry a woman you've never talked to,
a woman you thought was a boy.
Sixteen years go by as a curtain billows
once, twice. Your children are lost,
they come back, you don't remember how.
A love turns to a statue in a dress, the statue
comes back to life. O god, it's all so realistic
I can't stand it. Whereat I weep and sing.

Such a relief to burst from the theater
into our cool, imaginary streets
where we know who's who and what's what,
and command with Metrocards our destinations.
Where no one with a story struggling in him
convulses as it eats its way out,
and no one in an antiseptic corridor
or in deserts or in downtown darkling plains
staggers through an Act that just will not end,
eyes burning with the burning of the dead.

(from By the Numbers, Copper Canyon Press, 2010)

James Richardson was awarded the 2011 Jackson Poetry Prize. His most recent books are By the Numbers: Poems and Aphorisms, which was a Publishers Weekly "Best Book of 2010" and a finalist for the National Book Award, Interglacial: New and Selected Poems and Aphorisms, a finalist for the National Book Critics Circle Award, and Vectors: Aphorisms and Ten-Second Essays. His work has appears in The New Yorker, Slate, Paris Review, Yale Review, Great American Prose Poems, Geary's Guide to the World's Great Aphorists, several numbers of The Best American Poetry series, and the newest Pushcart Prize anthology. He is Professor of Creative Writing at Princeton University.


Photo by Pryde Brown

Author's Statement

For me, writing poems is aimless drifting and gazing. It wastes time, it kills time, in fact it is the wholesale slaughter of days and weeks and months. It should be the opposite of hard work, but in fact it is very hard, partly because everything around us tells us we should be busy and efficient and productive. After all, it's easy to give into anxiety and do that memo, those e-mails, those million things you need to cross off your list. What's hard is staying devoted to poems so far in the future you can't tell from hour to hour or day to day whether they're approaching or moving further away. A fellowship awarded by your peers helps you believe it's right to stick with that harder work, and buys you the time to do it.