Mar 20, 2007 Erin Smith Uncategorized
Martin Walls of Baldwinsville was recently selected as a judge for the prestigious 2007 Scholastic Writing Awards, a national awards program administered by the Alliance for Young Artists & Writers.
Alumni of the awards include some of America’s most celebrated artists and writers, such as Truman Capote, Sylvia Plath, Robert Redford and Andy Warhol. The ceremony celebrates the creative efforts of students in seventh through 12th grades offering recognition, scholarships, exhibitions and publication.
British-born Walls is a Witter Bynner Poetry Fellow of the Library of Congress, whose other poetry awards include The Nation/”Discovery” Prize and a Breadloaf Writers’ Conference scholarship.
The Baldwinsville Messenger recently interviewed Walls to learn more about the talented British-born poet.
You were born in Britain – How did you come to move to Baldwinsville?
I was born in the seaside-city of Brighton and Hove, and I lived in England until I was 23 years old. Then I set out for America to pursue a Master’s degree at Purdue University in Indiana. There I met my wife, Christine Braunberger. After she graduated, she got a job in the English Department at Onondaga Community College, and that’s how we moved to this area. We moved as a family to B’ville (now with a four-year-old son, Alex) last year, having lived in Solvay since 1999. We like B’ville very much–as a poet, I have to say that I’m very impressed with the library, although I’ve only really checked out the kids section, on account of my son. One day I’ll sneak in on my own.
As a youth, were you interested in writing? How did your writing develop over the years?
Until I was about 16, I had lots of different interests. My favorite subjects in school were geography and chemistry, not really English. (To this day my poems have a scientific theme–I write a lot about bugs, for instance, and I am probably a frustrated entomologist.) However, at English schools, you had to drop a lot of subjects at 16 in order to take college-entrance exams, and I gravitated toward English as my core subject. Luckily, I had an excellent English teacher who taught us Keats, Wordsworth and Coleridge. After reading those poets, I was pretty much hooked and started writing myself. Partly what attracted me, coming from an interest in science, was the close observation these poets used in their poems–to some extent, they were poet-naturalists themselves.
How many books have you published? Do you focus mostly on poetry?
I have published two books of poems: “Small Human Detail in Care of National Trust” and “Commonwealth.” Creatively, I write mostly poetry, although I have published a few essays and book reviews.
I write for a living nowadays. I’m the managing editor at the Syracuse publishing firm Bentley-Hall. I write poetry in my spare time now. I guess I’m like the apocryphal postal worker who goes for a walk on his days off.
What does it mean to be a Witter Bynner Poetry Fellow?
It’s quite a big honor, mostly because the award is given to a poet at the Poet Laureate’s discretion.
I didn’t enter a competition to win it, and I had no idea whatsoever that I was being considered. Ted Kooser, then the poet laureate, had published one of my poems in a textbook he’d written, and I sent him “Small Human Detail” as a thank you. I guess he must have been impressed.
The $10,000 honorarium was nice too, of course. I’ve tried to use my award here to help raise funds for the Syracuse YMCA’s Writer’s Voice program (we brought Kooser to Syracuse last year as a fund-raiser), and raise awareness about the importance of teaching poetry well in schools. Now that poetry is on that state curriculum and appears in school English Language Arts tests, we must ensure that the art form is de-mystified and brought out of its hiding place in the universities.
How did you become involved with the Scholastic Writing Awards?
I was introduced to the work of creative education guru Sir Ken Robinson by Andrew Mount, director of ThINC. I was so impressed with a speech that I heard online by Sir Ken, that I wrote to him, told him who I was, and that like him, I was interested in how the arts and creativity can augment general education. Next thing I know, he got me in touch with the Alliance for Young Artists & Writers suggesting I be a judge for the Scholastic Awards.
What is the judging process like?
I have at home about 85 poems, essays and stories by students from around the nation in seventh through 12th grades. I must read them and score them based on a rubric that I have been sent. Basically, I’m looking for excellence in creative writing, which means a mature knowledge of style and form and an emerging voice. Some of the past winners of this venerable award have gone on to be great artists, so I am hoping to find a real gem among the work I have to judge.
When and where will the awards be presented this year?
This summer in New York City. I believe the awards ceremony will be at Carnegie Hall, so in a way, I can tell my mom that I really made it and am going to the shrine of American arts.
What type of impact do you feel the awards have on youth?
This is the premier award for arts and writing in the country. I think the number of years (this is the 85th year) it has been in existence and the list of truly incredible past winners proves that. As such, it’s a fantastic project for any school to get involved with and a way to push promising artists and writers toward a goal that will focus their energies.
The Alliance does a lot of work promoting arts-in-education. Artists and writers who care about secondary education are concerned that a (largely welcomed) focus on high education standards nevertheless will mean that the arts will be ignored in schools as being superfluous to a teach to the test mentality.
I’m sorry to say this is what happened in England in the years I was in school, and it is the reason Sir Ken came to prominence in his opposition to the lack of arts and creativity in English schools. Ultimately, the awards and the alliance are a way to keep the importance of arts-in-education in the public eye.
For more information about Alliance for Young Artists & Writers, visit artandwriting.org.