USA Literature Panel for 2006

Reginald McKnight

Writer and Hamilton Holmes Professor of English, University of Georgia, Athens, GA

Maile Meloy

Writer, Los Angeles, CA

Lan Samantha Chang (Chair)

Director, University of Iowa Writers’ Workshop, Iowa City, IA

Eavan Boland

Poet, Bella Mabury and Eloise Mabury Knapp Professor in Humanities and Melvin and Bill Lane Professor for the Director of the Creative Writing Program, Stanford University, Stanford, CA

Henri Cole

Poet, Boston, MA

Statement by Maile Meloy

My grandfather’s brother was a painter who had some success but no money. He contracted pneumonia while living in a cold-water walk-up in New York in 1951 and died running up the steps from the subway to teach a painting class. He was a source of pride for my family in Montana, but he was also an object lesson about the lunacy of trying to make a living as an artist. We learned, growing up, that art was important—it was a natural part of life to write or make pottery or act or play music—but it was something to do on the side.

That family philosophy made it hard for me, for a long time, to admit that I wanted to be a writer. Writing fiction was the first thing that felt consistently engaging to me as a practice, but it seemed impossible as a way to make a living. That I’ve had help from grants and awards since the beginning has been important financially—sometimes it was all the money I had—but also psychologically. It helped me justify what I was trying to do, to my skeptical family and to myself.

When I told my father about United States Artists, he asked if I thought grants made writers better. At first I said that the writers we’d chosen didn’t need to be better and that it would just give them time to work. But I think that recognition has made me a better writer, because it makes me feel that I have to go out and earn it, or prove that I can do something more. That may be a perverse response, but it’s helped me stay interested.

A grant half this size would have changed everything for my great-uncle; a grant one-thirtieth of this size got me my first apartment in Los Angeles and therefore my life. The writers on the list are at different points in their careers, but all of them are doing the kind of writing that can make us see the world more clearly or from another point of view. One said that the award would allow him three years devoted exclusively to writing, which is an arresting thought: three years of poetry from a living writer doing beautiful work.