Charles Webb recently experienced a homecoming when he was asked to select the 2007 winner of the prestigious Samuel French Morse Poetry Prize – a prize Webb won himself in 1997 for his book Reading the Water. In the same three-month period, Webb also judged two other competitions: the California Poetry Exchange and the two Tufts prizes administered by Claremont Graduate University.
For the Morse Prize – $1,000, plus publication by Northeastern University Press – Webb read 15 pre-screened poetry manuscripts, then wrote an introduction to the winning volume. “It’s not an easy job,” said Webb, who has taught in the English Department at CSULB since 1984. “Contests like this often involve comparing apples and oranges. And I take the responsibility of judging very seriously. The choice I make reflects on the reputation of the press and the series, and I know first-hand how much such an award means to the poet who wins. It’s not only a book. It’s instant literary respectability.”
The California Poets Exchange contest required Webb to review a series of manuscripts submitted by California poets with at most one published book of poetry. “The winner will be flown to New York to meets agents and various literary notables, while, at the same time, New York sends one of its poets to California,” he said. “Being chosen for this program gives a big boost to the selected poet’s career, and also shows New York – which can be kind of insular – the first-rate poetry that’s happening out here on the West Coast.”
Webb shared the judging duties for the Tufts Prizes with four other distinguished poets and scholars: former Poet Laureate Robert Pinsky, New Yorker poetry editor Alice Quinn, and poet/professors Robert Wrigley and Allison Joseph. The Kingsley Tufts Prize of $100,000 is the largest prize for a single volume of poetry currently awarded in the United States. The Kate Tufts Discovery prize, which Webb won in 1998, also offers a substantial prize of $10,000 and has been a springboard to national prominence for many of its winners.
“Choosing the Tufts winners is a huge amount of work,” Webb said. “It’s also a strong statement of my – and by extension my department’s – standing in the national poetry community. Winning the Tufts Discovery Prize was enormously important for my career as a poet. So, despite the work load, when I was asked, I couldn’t say no.” Webb feels honored to be asked to judge the three prestigious competitions. “My own manuscripts have languished in a lot of contest piles. I know what that feels like,” he said. “Now that I’ve been lucky enough to win some of these contests, and to be asked to judge, I want to make the best and fairest decisions that I possibly can and in the process alert the public to some fine poetry.”
Serving as a contest judge also raises Webb’s classroom credibility. “My students – some of them, anyway – know that the person who is commenting on their work is also handing out checks for $100,000,” he laughed. “Judging contests also helps me to spot negative trends in poetry that my students should avoid. Poets today may not call sheep ‘fleecy flocks,’ but contemporary poetry has evolved its own set of poeticisms and clichés. I see the latest ones spread out before me, and warn my students away.”
In March 2006, Webb published his fifth major book of poetry, Amplified Dog, which won the $3,000 Benjamin Saltman Prize from its publisher, the Granada Hills-based Red Hen Press. Besides the 1997 Morse Prize, he won a Whiting Writer’s Award in 1998, the 1999 Felix Pollak Prize from University of Wisconsin Press for his book Liver, and a Guggenheim fellowship for 2001-02. In addition, he published Tulip Farms and Leper Colonies with BOA Editions, Ltd. in 2001, and Hot Popsicles, a book of prose poems, with University of Wisconsin Press in 2005.
Overall, Webb is encouraged by the state of modern poetry “One of the difficulties in drawing modern readers to poetry is that there is so much being published right now, that it’s hard to find the really good stuff. Most contemporary poetry is mediocre, but that’s no surprise. Most art has always been mediocre – by definition,” he said. “But even if 90 percent of modern poetry is mediocre or worse, that still leaves 10 percent that is good. I’m trying to help identify that upper 10 percent.”