Announcing the 2023 Shelley Memorial Award winner, Evie Shockley

March 16, 2023

Evie Shockley has been named the winner of the 2023 Shelley Memorial Award. Established by the will of Mary P. Sears in 1930, The Shelley Memorial Award recognizes poetic genius and is bestowed upon one distinguished American poet each year.

Selected by Mary Jo Bang and Monica Youn.

Poet & literary scholar Evie Shockley thinks, creates, and writes with her eye on a Black feminist horizon. Her books of poetry include suddenly we, semiautomatic, and the new black. Her work has twice garnered the Hurston/Wright Legacy Award, has been named a finalist for the Pulitzer Prize, and has appeared internationally. Her honors include the Lannan Literary Award for Poetry, the Holmes National Poetry Prize, and the Stephen Henderson Award, and her joys include participating in poetry communities such as Cave Canem and collaborating with like-minded artists across media. Shockley is the Zora Neale Hurston Distinguished Professor of English at Rutgers University.

improper(ty) behavior

racial profiling: the idea that there’s no legitimate reason for driving while black.
take sean bell: he got 50 bullets pumped into his car for driving while black.

homeownership is also improper behavior, in cambridge and beyond.
ask henry louis gates—arrested in his own home for thriving while black.

seemed like the obamas’ celebratory fist-bump might derail his campaign.
now they know they should avoid things like high-fiving while black.

inner-city hoops are, of course, appropriate—unlike swimming in the suburbs.
the creative steps day camp kids were booted from a pool for diving while black.

even b-ball can fall out of bounds, if the finals pit you against a whiter team.
the rutgers women’s players were slammed on the air for striving while black.

post-katrina new orleans is open to anyone with the money to rebuild—
except the 9th ward, which they’re discouraged from reviving while black.

it’s all about belonging: even now, who belongs where is often based on who
belonged to whom. i sometimes wonder how i get away with living while black.

Judges' Citation:

Evie Shockley’s work is imbued with a particular kind of tenderness, for the world and for the self in the world. It’s a savvy tenderness wedded to a type of vigilance that continually tracks the lines of the political and the personal, documenting where they meet and where they later separate again. There is, as well, a keen recognition of how prosody can heighten the reader’s awareness of the fact that what is in front of them on the page has been curated so that the complexity of the presentation will echo the complexity of the human actions that make up the moral universe of the poem.

Each of Shockley’s poems is a document that says: I was here, and you were here, and together, we comprise an entity that occupied this moment. In that togetherness, there is hope, although hope forever tempered by the awareness that change is slow and sometimes illusive.

From the end of “the blessings”: 

. . . i gave away
the power to hold—and be held
in—sway, but i kept
cho, parton, finney, chapman,
and tomei. i gave away the eve
who left the garden
that day, but kept the cool,
green, shady, fruitless,
fruitful stay, the evening
that did not fall