Rutgers University Newark’s John Keene Wins National Book Award for Poetry

John Keene, a Distinguished Professor and chair of Africana studies at Rutgers University Newark, received the National Book Award for Poetry. He was honored for his 234-page collection entitled Punks: New & Selected Poems (Song Cave, 2021).

The collection is split into seven sections, spans decades, and includes previously unpublished and new work by Keene. The collection weaves together historic narratives of loss, lust, and love via many voices, ranging from historic Black personalities to Keene’s friends and lovers in gay bars and bedrooms addressing topics such as desire, oppression, AIDS, and grief.

In his acceptance speech, Professor Keene said “I’m actually crying. I’m in shock! I put together some notes because I said, in the improbable instance that I actually receive this award, all the words — I work with words, right? — would fly right out of my head.”

Professor Keene dedicated his award “to all the readers out there and to my ancestors on whose shoulders I stand, ancestors by lineage and association, including the several generations of writers, particularly the Black, gay and trans writers, especially those whom we lost to HIV/AIDS in the 1980s and 1990s. I had the pleasure of hearing and meeting some of these writers, and let me just say they were brilliant, they were fierce, they were original, they were daring, they were courageous, and their voices not only captured the world they were living in but envisioned a better one. Let’s return to their words and the words of so many vital writers and artists we may have forgotten.”

Professor Keene received a bachelor’s degree from Harvard University and a master of fine arts degree from New York University. Before joining the faculty at Rutgers University-Newark, he taught at Brown University and Northwestern University.

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