by Octavia Findley
A New York state of mind was the defining feature of Friday night’s Award Ceremony, presenting the honor of State Author to Colson Whitehead and State Poet to Alicia Suskin Ostriker. The murmurs of the audience slowed to a hush as the previous award recipients came in like a wave, chatting and laughing amongst themselves like old friends. The welcome was steeped in the history of the thirty-fifth anniversary of the New York State Writers Institute, with many tributes to William Kennedy, who raised his cane in salute as the applause thundered at first mention of his name.
After, Havidan Rodriguez, the President of the University at Albany, SUNY, gave his opening remarks and thanks to the attending guests, Assembly member Patricia Fahy and John McDonald, were invited to the stage. Fahy reminisced about how although the physical and social landscape of Albany, New York had changed in the last thirty years, the Writers Institute had remained the same in its passion and focus. After thanking the Assembly members for their time, Paul Grondahl, presented the PBS documentary series, The Great American Read, a section of which was dedicated to the founding of the Institute, its key players, and how a perseverant vision became the hallmarks of the University’s and the Capital’s literary values.
H. Carl McCall ascended the stage to formally bestow the honor of State Poet to Alicia Suskin Ostriker. A standing applause came and passed before she adjusted the mic. “I want to honor two great New York Poets,” she began with Emma Lazarus’ “The New Colossus,” and Edna St. Vincent Millay’s “Recuerdo,” both connecting to her experience with the ever changing yet the ever free spirit of New York City. She read selections from her newest book, Waiting for the Light, that capitalized on the moment even though “she did not know that all my selections were so close.” She ended on a commentary on “American the Beautiful,” and how despite the dubious nature of the word “beautiful” in today’s political climate, she still believes in the spirit of the American Dream and the promise of Lady Liberty.
Colson Whitehead walked on after a similar introduction by McCall and the audience, on a much more humorous note. After giving his own thanks, he joked about his first hundred days after taking Governor Cuomo’s position, petitioning to reopen the case of the Headless Horsemen and to remove the term “fuhggedaboudit” from the New York lexicon. His selection was from his book, “The Colossus of New York.” It read like a memoir but flowed like poetry, lamenting the ever-changing skylines and street views of the city streets, how the travel agency was once his pizza shop and will be something else some indeterminable time in the future. “You are a real New Yorker when what used to there is more real than what is there now…You didn’t know that each time you passed a threshold, you were saying goodbye.” The natives in the room nodded somberly, as another round of applause carried Whitehead off the stage.
Paul Grondahl stepped up to the microphone for the last time, giving thanks for the attending guests and sponsors, opening the floor to conversations, book signings, and tooth achingly sweet brownies. The spirit for the next day’s Albany Book Festival was already palpable in the air.