It's Actually About the Money: A Look at One the Biggest Prizes in Poetry

In a recent post about a gift to the UCLA Herb Alpert School of Music, we noted that campus music schools don't tend to get showered with big money. You know who else rarely gets showered with big money? Poets, that's who.

Sure, there's the Chicago-based Poetry Foundation's Ruth Lilly and Dorothy Sargent Rosenberg Poetry Fellowships, which netted five winners from the 2015 class $25,800 each. But such examples are few and far between. We're simply not conditioned to expect any correlation between poetry and vast riches. (To which most poets will say, "As it should be!")

But then there's the Kingsley Tufts Poetry Award. One of the most prestigious awards in poetry, the prize, which is administered by California's Claremont Graduate University, honors mid-career poets and provides them with the means to continue working at their craft.

By "means," of course, they mean money, so guess how much money we're talking about here. Maybe $25,000? Not even close. $50,000? You're getting there.

The 2016 Kingsley Tufts Poetry Award winner, Indiana University professor Ross Gay, walks away with a $100,000 prize.

That's a lot of means, at least in this poverty-ridden niche of the creative class. 

According to IU, Gay is an associate professor in the College of Arts and Sciences' Department of English as well as the associate director of the department's creative writing Program. His latest collection, Catalog of Unabashed Gratitude, was published by the University of Pittsburgh Press in 2015 as part of the acclaimed Pitt Poetry Series. It was a finalist for the 2015 National Book Award, the 2015 National Book Critics Circle Award and the 2015 NAACP Image Awards, all in poetry categories.

The backstory of the award is an interesting one. Kingsley Tufts was a Los Angeles-based shipyard executive who wrote poetry on the side. His works were published in the 1930s in Harpers, the New Yorker and Esquire. After his passing in 1991, his widow Kate established the $50,000 Kingsley Tufts Poetry Award at Claremont in 1992. Kate had no prior affiliation with the school, but when she met then-university President John Maguire and visited the campus, she was sold.

But Kate wasn't done. She established the $5,000 Kate Tufts Discovery Award in 1993, and in 2002, the award amounts for the Kingsley & Kate Tufts Poetry Awards were raised to $100,000 and $10,000, respectively. As Kate Tufts observed, these awards are intended "to give a poet a little breathing room and a little recognition."

And so we'd like to bookend this post by referring to the winners of the most recent round of PEN America Literary Prizes. We noted that the prize is a relatively modest $25,000, but in this case, the associated prestige eclipses any monetary windfall.

But let's be honest—sometimes awards like the one issued by California's Claremont Graduate University are about prestige and money. Sometimes, when the stars infrequently and magically align, it actually pays to be a poet.