Read any great poems lately? Transylvania University professor Maurice Manning has read thousands of them.
Manning, an award-winning poet whose work includes Bucolics and The Common Man, is spending a few days in New York as part of a panel of judges picking the best poetry collection for the National Book Awards, to be handed out Wednesday.
Lexington poet Nikky Finney won the poetry prize last year for Head Off and Split and became a breakout star of the event when an online video of the University of Kentucky professor's acceptance speech went viral.
Besides poetry, the National Book Awards, considered one of the most prestigious literary prizes in the United States, include picks in fiction, non-fiction and young-adult literature.
A Danville native, Manning was a finalist for the 2011 Pulitzer Prize in poetry for The Common Man and won the 2000 Yale Series of Younger Poets for his first collection, Lawrence Booth's Book of Visions.
Still, Manning said he is not sure how award administrators decided to ask him to be a judge. He has been delighted to do the work — which has been substantial.
Beginning in June, the poetry prize's judges — Laura Kasischke, Dana Levin, Patrick Rosal and Tracy K. Smith, all writers and university professors — began receiving books, nearly 300 of them altogether.
The judges emailed one another and discussed chunks of 50 to 60 books at a time, Manning said. A four-hour conference call was required to narrow the 20 semifinalists to five finalists: David Ferry, Cynthia Huntington, Tim Seibles, Alan Shapiro and Susan Wheeler.
The winner has yet to be picked, Manning said.
On Tuesday evening, finalists in each category will give a reading at a sold-out event in New York. Finalists include such weighty names as Junot Díaz, Dave Eggers, Louise Erdrich and the late Anthony Shadid.
Manning has assigned all of his students at Transylvania to watch the readings, streaming live online, but he and the other judges are forbidden from watching or attending.
"We're not supposed to let that influence our final decision," he said.
On Wednesday, Manning's panel meets for lunch "at a very fancy French restaurant," he said, to select the winner, which will be announced at a dinner that night.
"Each of us has our preferences, the book or two books we're really pulling for," Manning said. "I was worried that we would spend a lot of time politely arguing with each other, but it's not been that way at all. It's been an opportunity to learn from the other four judges who have completely different aesthetic values and interests, although we have things in common as well."
After agreeing on a winner, judges "run back to our hotel and have to put on fancy clothes" for the awards ceremony, he said.
Manning is in the midst of a high-profile month. An op-ed piece he wrote appeared last week in The New York Times and has generated nationwide attention. Headlined "My Old Kentucky Conservatism," it argued that authentic conservatism comes from safeguarding the land, living frugally and thoughtfully, and avoiding the greed and speculation seen on Wall Street.
Manning said that after the piece appeared, he heard from people all over the country.
He said, "Some people have said things like, 'This is what I've been thinking all along. I'm glad somebody finally said it.'"
Manning becoming a judge the year after Finney's win is a bright moment for Kentucky poets. But Finney argues that Manning's high profile is based on talent, not geographic proximity.
"Maurice's many awards — and his poetic acuity — make him perfect to be an National Book Award judge," said Finney, who will not attend the awards this year.
Manning has an equally high opinion of Finney. Transylvania's opening convocation address this semester was a reading by Finney.
"My involvement with the awards this year has been a nice bookend for my students," Manning wrote via email. "Having enjoyed Nikky's visit — and been wowed by her presence — I think my students feel as if they have arrived at a place where literature matters. They're right about that."