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Poet's 'Blessed' Life Honored At Connecticut Book Awards

December 4, 2006
By CAROLE GOLDBERG, Courant Staff Writer

Marilyn Nelson, who completes her term as Connecticut's poet laureate this month, told the audience at the Connecticut Book Awards Sunday she was "grateful and humbled" by receiving the Lifetime Achievement in Service to the Literary Community honor, but felt she was "getting an award for breathing - for something I could not not do."

"Poets are dreamers and live in the imagination," Nelson said. "My achievements are really blessings for being in the right place at the right time. It's odd to be honored for being blessed."

Nelson, whose career includes teaching at the University of Connecticut and founding the Soul Mountain retreat for poets in East Haddam as well as writing award-winning books, was among the winners named at the ceremony at Hartford's city hall.

Founded in 2002, the awards honor books published the previous year and are presented by the Connecticut Center for the Book, a program of Hartford Public Library and affiliate of the Center for the Book in the Library of Congress. The awards are given to authors, illustrators and designers who live or have lived in the state or whose books have a Connecticut setting.

"My family gave me roots and wings," Nelson said, referring to her mother, who taught history, and her father, an Air Force pilot.

Calling herself "a strange, bookish, solitary, sensitive child" who cried at the beauty of sunsets, Nelson recalled her mother explaining her emotional reaction to others by saying, "she's our poet."

The program also included remarks by author and UConn Professor Sam Pickering, the model for the character played by Robin Williams in "Dead Poets Society." Pickering described his process of jotting down thoughts he overhears or spots on signs as inspiration for his writing. He urged the audience to "read the books by the finalists to see what they have jotted down - you won't be disappointed."

Roya Hakakian's recollections of how her family had to flee Tehran when Islamic fundamentalists took power, "Journey from the Land of No: A Girlhood Caught in Revolutionary Iran" (Random House), won the award for biography or memoir.

Hakakian considers her book a success because "it was published and I was not hauled off to be executed. I come from a place where writing is a matter of life and death," she said.

Alice Mattison, who won the fiction award for "In Case We're Separated" (HarperCollins), short stories tracing the lives of a Jewish family from the 1930s to the eras of Vietnam and AIDS, said her recent conversations with editors in New York "have all been about gloom and numbers," so she was "immensely comforted and reassured to hear about all these wonderful books."

"I've always really wanted to be a finalist for something, so I am delighted beyond my wildest dreams," Mattison said.

Winners in other categories were:

Children's Author: Philip Caputo for "10,000 Days of Thunder: A History of the Vietnam War" (Simon & Schuster Children's Publishing). This book for children ages 9 to 12 assesses the war through the eyes of American and South Vietnamese soldiers, Viet Cong, and citizens of South Vietnam and the United States.

"The aftershocks of the Vietnam War affect us down to this day," Caputo said.

Design: George Kokkinidis with Alexander Isley Inc. for "The Works: Anatomy of a City" (Penguin Press), a look at the systems, such as garbage collection, water supply and traffic control, that keep New York City functioning.

Nonfiction: Robert Farris Thompson for "Tango: The Art History of Love" (Random House). Thompson could not be present for the award for his book, which traces the history of the tango from Africa "across centuries and continents and religions and art forms," said award presenter Vivian Zoe.

Poetry: Gabrielle Calvocoressi for "The Last Time I Saw Amelia Earhart" (Persea Books), which contains a cycle inspired by the Hartford circus fire of 1944.

Calvocoressi recalled getting her first library card at the Hartford Public Library, which she thanked for supporting her work. "They've been with me all along, every step of the way," she said.

Children's Illustrator: Nancy Elizabeth Wallace for "Alphabet House" (Marshall Cavendish). Wallace displayed some colorful artwork that enlivens her tale of rabbits living in an "alphabet house."

Reprinted with permission of the Hartford Courant. To view other stories on this topic, search the Hartford Courant Archives at http://www.courant.com/archives.
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