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Campus News

Writers Institute Names State Author and Poet for 2004-2006

by Mark Koplik

Russell Banks is New York’s new State Author and Billy Collins the new State Poet, the New York State Writers Institute has announced.

Banks, novelist, short story writer, and screenwriter, and resident of Keene and Saratoga Springs, received the New York State Edith Wharton Citation of Merit for fiction writers; and Billy Collins, resident of Somers, New York, received the New York State Walt Whitman Citation of Merit for poets. The two laureates read from their work at a special celebration on Thursday, March 4, 2004 at Page Hall on the University at Albany’s downtown campus.

The citations, established in 1985 by the governor and state legislature to promote fiction and poetry within the state, are awarded biennially under the aegis of the New York State Writers Institute. Awardees serve two years in their honorary positions and each receive a $10,000 honorarium.

Previous state authors have been Grace Paley, E. L. Doctorow, Norman Mailer, William Gaddis, Peter Matthiessen, and outgoing state author Kurt Vonnegut. Previous state poets have been Stanley Kunitz, Robert Creeley, Audrey Lorde, Richard Howard, Jane Cooper, and outgoing state poet John Ashbery.

Billy Collins, former United States Poet Laureate for two consecutive terms (2001-2003), is one of America’s best-loved and best-selling poets. No poet since Robert Frost has managed to combine high critical acclaim with such broad popular appeal. His readings are usually standing room only, and his audience — enhanced tremendously by his appearances on National Public Radio — includes people of all backgrounds and age groups. Author of seven collections, his poems are enjoyed by critics and readers alike for their plain language, friendly tone, intelligent humor, and profound observations about the meaning of everyday life.

Collins’s poetry collections include Nine Horses: Poems (2002), Sailing Alone Around the Room (2001), Picnic, Lightning (1997), The Art of Drowning (1995), Questions About Angels (1991), which won the National Poetry Series competition, and The Apple That Astonished Paris (1988).

Upon notification of his award, Collins responded:

“Moving from the position of United States poet laureate to New York State poet laureate might seem like a demotion or a drop in rank to the military-minded. It might even appear that I am heading toward eventually being crowned laureate of my zip code. But in fact, it is very gratifying to be honored again as a representative of poetry, this time by my native state where I grew up—more or less—and continue to live.”

“We are delighted to work with Billy Collins,” said Donald Faulkner, Director of the Writers Institute. “And since New York State is more important in the literary world than the United States, we expect that Mr. Collins will consider this a step up.”

The advisory panel that recommended Collins as state poet included John Ashbery, the present state poet, poets Sydney Lea, and Eamon Grennan, and poet, nonfiction writer, and Institute Director, Donald Faulkner.

Russell Banks has been called, “…a writer we, as readers and writers, can actually learn from, whose books help and urge us to change.” (Fred Pfeil, “Voice Literary Supplement”). In a writing career spanning five decades, Russell Banks has published five short story collections, nine novels, and four poetry collections. His fiction captures the experiences of working class people who live in the Northeast, and often deals with issues of family conflict, addiction, economic hardship, and racism.

Banks’s novels include Cloudsplitter (1998), Rule of the Bone (1995), The Sweet Hereafter (1991), Affliction (1990), Continental Drift (1985), The Relation of My Imprisonment (1984), The Book of Jamaica (1980), Hamilton Stark (1978), and Family Life (1975). Continental Drift and Cloudsplitter were finalists for the Pulitzer Prize. Affliction was short-listed for both the PEN/Faulkner Fiction Prize and the Irish International Prize.

Upon notification of his award, Banks responded:

"I’m honored and extremely pleased to have been chosen state author. My predecessors, from the first New York State Author Grace Paley to the most recent, Kurt Vonnegut, are a distinguished group of writers, and I’m flattered to have been invited to join their august company."

The advisory panel that recommended Banks as state author included the present laureate, Kurt Vonnegut, novelists Jonathan Lethem and Susan Minot, and novelist and executive director of the New York State Writers Institute, William Kennedy.

Kennedy said of the choice of Banks as laureate, “There was a unanimity among the judges that the depth and scope of Russell Banks’s novels represent a major literary achievement, and place him in the first rank of American writers.”

The New York State Writers Institute of the State University of New York, located at the University at Albany, was mandated as a permanent state-sponsored organization through legislation signed into law in 1984. Celebrating its 20th anniversary this year, the Writers Institute provides a milieu for renowned and experienced writers from all over the world to come together with new and aspiring writers for the purpose of instruction and creative exchange.

More information is available at