NEA Literature Fellowships

Norman Lock

Back to NEA Literature Fellowships
(2011 - Poetry)

Alphabet of Birds

Surprised by birds on a hillside in Crete, the youngest member of

the Dutch legation to the Ottomans, Wilhelm van der Meer, an

amateur ornithologist, attempted until well into his middle age to

invent an alphabet whose letters, startled from repose upon the

page, would let go their grip on the paper--like those dazzling

birds the branches of the pine trees--and vanish into the shadows. 

Van der Meer's Alphabet of the Birds, cut in 1730 by the German

typographer Karl Bernheimer, was used once only, in a printing of

Jakob Böhme's treatise on the natural language of man to be

spoken on his return to Paradise.  A single copy of this work is

extant, in the Jakob Böhme House in Görlitz.  While all its pages

are blank, to turn them is to hear the rustling of wings.

Norman Lock wrote the novels A History of the Imagination, The Long Rowing Unto Morning, The King of Sweden, and Shadowplay (awarded the 2010 Literary Fiction Prize by The Dactyl Foundation for the Arts & Humanities) and the short fiction collections, Trio, Grim Tales, and Pieces for Small Orchestra & Other Fictions. Most popular of his many stage and radio plays is The House of Correction, voted one of the best plays of 1988 and 1994 by the Los Angeles Times and acclaimed at the 1996 Edinburgh Theatre Festival. A revival in the U.K. is scheduled for October. His screenplay, The Body Shop, was produced by the American Film Institute.

Lock received the Aga Kahn Prize, given by The Paris Review, and fellowships from the New Jersey Council on the Arts and from the Pennsylvania Council on the Arts.

Photo courtesy of Norman Lock

Author's Statement

Having time to write, at this moment in my personal history, is not an issue; survival--for my wife and for me--is, as no doubt it must be for many more in these hard times. Like so many others in the occupation that was mine for nearly 40 years--advertising, I am out of work. Our losses have been considerable, and the strain of anxiety has militated against the imaginative life--at times, threatening to overwhelm it. The NEA Fellowship will afford me the equanimity to finish The Book of Imaginary Colophons: Alphabets of Desire & Sorrow--excerpts from which pleased this year's panel, for which I am grateful. Beyond this work, I look forward to writing a book of long poems, whose subjects are slowly becoming known to me and whose music and structure I can very nearly grasp. Let me call that subject grim, as befits these times, alas; and let me say that the poetic line conveying that subject will be highly stressed, the language appropriate to the extremes of experience the book will record. To have been granted so enviable an award as this one, at this stage in my artistic career, makes me almost believe in Providence: I should not have needed or valued it half so much when I was younger, nor was I so ready then to make good use of it. I say, again, I am grateful for it.