in david raeburn’s translation of Ovid’s Metamorphoses, the poet begins, “Changes of shape, new forms, are the theme which my spirit impels me / now to recite.” And he might as well be talking about the work of this year’s Windham Campbell Prize recipients as about the creation of the universe out of chaos. These artists are a group whose writing is bound by the theme of transformation.
While some of these remarkable writers work legibly within the categories for which they’ve been awarded the prize, others do not, either because they write fluently and easily in multiple genres or because their artistic practice is one of recombination and experimentation with the categories themselves, sometimes expanding these categories’ meanings and sometimes obsolescing them.
Their work has made me wonder, Why categorize writers at all? Why put labels on them—playwright, novelist, poet—and say anything other than that they write, and that we should support them in this endeavor?
The writing that excites us the most, the writing that stays with us, does so in part because it rubs up against our notions of the given and the known—that is, against our tendency to categorize and place things into neat little boxes for the sake of convenience. What happens when a novelist refuses the conventions of narrative? Or a poet writes a novel? What happens when a translator speaks in her own voice? Or when musical theater meets postmodern theory and afternoon soap operas?
The answer can be found in the work of the writers featured in this year’s special Windham Campbell Prizes issue of The Yale Review. If these writers have something in common it is that they are too busy exploring big ideas or constructing fantastically imagined architectures to worry themselves about what label may be attached to their names on a bookstore shelf, or what audiences might expect to see or hear or feel once they enter the theater. As in Ovid’s poem, changing the shapes of convention gives vitality to art, and to life.
Real Character The sources of storytelling
Michael R. Jackson
The Novel as Arc Lamp The uncompromising innovations of Hélène Bessette
The Power of Testimony How narrative displaced invention
Lili Is Crying
Hélène Bessette, translated by Kate Briggs
People in the Grasses
The Boy, the Girls, the Dog, and I Was There
Revising Nat Turner The afterlives of first drafts
Nathan Alan Davis
This That We Have
Writing and the Space It Makes
Kate Briggs and Renee Gladman
Two Playwrights on Finding One's Voice
Nathan Alan Davis and Abe Koogler
Poetry in an Era of Anxiety
Natalie Scenters-Zapico and Dana Levin
Longer Than the Longest Rope
Dionne Brand and Canisia Lubrin
How the Pandemic Changed Theater
Michael R. Jackson and Lileana Blain-Cruz
Vivian Gornick On how to become oneself