Mei-mei Berssenbrugge wins Yale’s 2021 Bollingen Prize for Poetry

January 12, 2021

By Michael Morand

Mei-mei Berssenbrugge has been named the winner of Yale’s 2021 Bollingen Prize for American Poetry. The Bollingen Prize, established by Paul Mellon in 1949, is awarded biennially by the Yale University Library through the Beinecke Rare Book and Manuscript Library to an American poet for the best book published during the previous two years or for lifetime achievement in poetry. The prize includes a cash award of $165,000.

Berssenbrugge is the 52nd poet to be honored with the award and joins a list of past winners that includes W.H. Auden, Marianne Moore, Wallace Stevens, Louise Bogan, Léonie Adams, Robert Frost, Robert Penn Warren, Susan Howe, Charles Wright, Louise Glück, Nathaniel Mackey, Jean Valentine, and Charles Bernstein.

“Mei-mei Berssenbrugge’s poetry explores the permeable boundaries between the human and the natural worlds, as she makes palpable her communion with birds, plants, dolphins, stars, and the beyond,” the three-member prize judging committee said. “Emerging from the ferment of the Basement Workshop,  a collective of Asian-American poets, artists, and activists in the 1970s, Berssenbrugge went on to create a visionary ecopoetics that directly confronts our planetary –– and human –– crisis. With her preternaturally long lines, Berssenbrugge composes a syntax of unfolding vistas, stretching our senses of both the plausible and the possible, bringing new modes of affinity and new paths for freedom into view. Berssenbrugge’s entanglements of consciousness and perception have created a lyric that moves away from self-centeredness toward the cosmos. A Treatise on Stars is a far-out star flight—profoundly meditative, extravagant, disarming, open. ‘Any soul may distribute itself into a human, a toy poodle, bacteria, an etheric, or quartz crystal.’ As readers we are, again and again, enthralled by her radical wagers on poems enacting transformation. ‘Writing,’ the poet tells us, ‘can shift the mechanism of time by changing the record, then changing the event.’”

“It’s a feeling like a lock unclicking, like suddenly standing on the ground, when you send out words and those words are received,” Berssenbrugge said. “I’m thankful for the Bollingen Prize as an emblem of reading and being read. I’m thankful to be recognized by this award committee of inspiring writers, and inspired all my life from reading those poets recognized before me.”

Mei-mei Berssenbrugge was born in Beijing and grew up in Massachusetts. She is the author of fourteen books of poetry, including Hello, the RosesEmpathyI Love Artists; and A Treatise on Stars. Her collaborations include works in theater, dance, music, and the visual arts.  She is the recipient of two National Endowment for the Arts Fellowships, two Before Columbus American Book Awards, two Asian American Writer’s Workshop Awards, and a PEN West award. She lives in northern New Mexico and in New York City.

The judges — Charles Bernstein, Maureen N. McLane, and Nicole Sealey — noted: “While Berssenbrugge is a singular presence in American poetry, her collaborations with visual artists have been a significant part of her work, as is her connection to the landscape of Northern New Mexico, where she has lived for almost 50 years (while also living in New York).” 

 “I wanted my book to express one, unified ecosystem between the stars and earth, in order for our feelings and aspirations to extend their reach, so that our actions might have greater possibility and effect, through realizing our connectedness with others,” Berssenbrugge added.

She concludes A Treatise of Stars: “My book describes how communicating with star-beings can teach us to continue our world through love and grace, communal grace.”

The Bollingen Prize for American Poetry is administrated by the Yale Collection of American Literature (YCAL) at the Beinecke Library

 “Poetry is an enduring human necessity,” said Bollingen Prize Director Nancy Kuhl, curator of poetry for YCAL. “The Bollingen Prize celebrates and supports the work of living poets whose voices resonate in our complex time, poets who comfort, guide, coax, and warn; poets, like Mei-Mei Berssenbrugge, whose work enlivens and transforms all we are capable of thinking. We are thrilled that the 2021 Bollingen Prize for American poetry has been awarded to Berssenbrugge for her lifetime contributions to American poetry and  for her beautiful and transporting book, A Treatise on Stars.”

Throughout its history, the Bollingen Prize for Poetry has recognized and honored the best in American poetry. Early Bollingen Prize winners — Stevens, Moore, E.E. Cummings, Auden — are today widely considered to be writers whose work defined a new American literature of the 20th century. More recent winners — John Ashbery, Robert Creeley, Glück, Charles Wright, Gary Snyder, Howe, Mackey, and Jean Valentine — have been praised for bringing stylistic diversity in American writing. 

Bollingen funds also provide for various poetry-related activities at the Beinecke Library, including readings and public seminars; curatorial projects; and graduate and undergraduate student publications and research. 

Biographies of the 2021 Bollingen Prize judges

Charles Bernstein: Winner of the 2019 Bollingen Prize for American Poetry, Bernstein is the author of numerous books of poetry, including Near/MissRecalculating, and All the Whiskey in Heaven: Selected Poems, among many others. His collections of essays include Pitch of PoetryAttack of the Difficult Poems: Essays and Inventions, and A Poetics. Bernstein is also known for his translations, collaborations with artists, and libretti. With Al Filreis, he is the co-founder of PennSound, an extensive archive of recorded poetry. Bernstein was elected a Fellow of the American Academy of Arts & Sciences in 2006. Other awards and honors include Janus Pannonius Grand Prize for Poetry, the Münster Prize for International Poetry; a John Simon Guggenheim Memorial Fellowship; and a National Endowment for the Arts Creative Writing Fellowship. Bernstein is Donald T. Regan Professor Emeritus of English and Comparative Literature at the University of Pennsylvania.

Maureen N. McLane: Educated at Harvard, Oxford, and the University of Chicago, McLane has published six books of poetry, including This Blue (Finalist for the 2014 National Book Award in Poetry), Some Say (2017 finalist for the Audre Lorde/Publishing Triangle Award and for The Believer Award in Poetry), and What I’m Looking For: Selected Poems. Her book, My Poets, an experimental hybrid of memoir and criticism, was a 2012 finalist for the National Book Critics Circle Award in Autobiography. She has also published two critical monographs on British romantic poetics and numerous essays on contemporary literature and culture. Honors include a Rhodes Scholarship; fellowships at Harvard’s Society of Fellows and the Max Planck Institute for the History of Science (Berlin); and the NBCC Nona Balakian Award for Excellence in Book Reviewing. Her poems have been translated into French, Greek, Spanish, Italian, and Czech. She is Professor of English at NYU.

Nicole Sealey: Born in St. Thomas, U.S.V.I. and raised in Apopka, Florida, Sealey is the author of Ordinary Beast, finalist for the PEN Open Book and Hurston/Wright Legacy Awards, and The Animal After Whom Other Animals Are Named, winner of the Drinking Gourd Chapbook Poetry Prize. Her honors include a Rome Prize from the American Academy in Rome, a Hodder Fellowship from Princeton University, the Stanley Kunitz Memorial Prize from The American Poetry Review and a Poetry International Prize, as well as fellowships from the Bread Loaf Writers’ Conference, CantoMundo, Cave Canem, MacDowell, The New York Foundation for the Arts and the Poetry Project. Her work has appeared in Best American Poetry 2018The New Yorker, the Paris Review and elsewhere. Formerly the executive director at Cave Canem Foundation, she is a visiting professor at Boston University and Syracuse University.