Q&A with Colin Bailes, 2020 Levis Reading Prize Coordinator

September 24, 2020

Colin Bailes is the 2020 Levis Reading Prize coordinator and in his third year in the M.F.A. program for poetry.

Thanks for taking the time, Colin. Can you tell us a little about yourself?

Colin Bailes author photoI was born and raised in Orlando, Florida, spent a few years in St. Augustine for school, and settled in Gainesville, where I worked for five or six years in the service industry before applying to graduate school. I’m a Florida poet and am a sucker for any imagery that invokes that landscape: Wallace Stevens’s waves or how Jay Hopler’s work is steeped in sunlight, being closer to the equator you can’t escape the sun, and I love those poets who are able to engage with and deftly capture the properties of light.

From a young age, I was always drawn to the words in music, and my first poems may have actually been crafted as lyrics. Later on, though, I was introduced to poets like Frank Stanford, César Vallejo, and Louise Glück. What drew me to poetry in the first place, though, is its ability to communicate, that language is a direct channel from one human being to another. Like most young people, I was angsty and depressed, so poetry was essential in combating loneliness and feelings of isolation; it was comforting to know that what I was feeling—what I am feeling—has been felt by others for all of human existence. Collectively, poetry is the story of a shared human experience, and that’s both existentially terrifying and thrilling.

The Levis Reading Prize is a nationally prominent award that is organized and run by the yearly appointed Levis coordinator, in honor of the late poet and VCU faculty member, Larry Levis. The award receives hundreds of submissions of first and second books of poetry a year. How are the students in VCU's M.F.A. program involved in determining the winner?

The winning collection goes through a rigorous selection process conducted by the M.F.A. students. We receive about 150–200 books each year and hold four or five rounds of reading. Each book is read by two initial readers, who assign the books a numerical value, and, if given a favorable review, each book receives a third reading. These reviews are averaged and a list of ten finalists is determined from a longlist before being sent to the M.F.A. poetry faculty, who serve as the final judges. The whole process is a really cool opportunity for the M.F.A. students because so much of the initial review process is up to us.

What do you all look for in a winning collection?

A poet’s attention to craft and tradition while also heeding innovation and ingenuity; respect and care with language, its possibilities and its economy; an engaging subject matter; and, overall, a well-constructed and cohesive collection.

Deaf Republic by Ilya KaminskyLast year, you were involved with the selection of this year’s winner, Ilya Kaminsky, for his poetry collection Deaf Republic. What made Deaf Republic stand out to you amongst the other collections?

Deaf Republic is like nothing I’ve ever read before and it’s overall structure and form are what immediately stood out to me. It’s essentially a verse-play, and the narrative is relentless. But that narrative is also an allegory for America: police brutality, civil unrest, and resistance, but also collective silence. The events that transpire are frighteningly timely, and I think that speaks to the book’s universality, however depressing that truth may be.

What have you learned serving as the Levis Fellow?

What I’ve learned most from this process has more to do with publication and publishing houses. The sheer stylistic and aesthetic range of what’s being written and published today is staggering. It’s amazing the quality of work we receive, but it’s equally amazing how unique each collection is. I think it speaks to the boundless possibilities of poetics and language in general.

Thank you so much for taking the time, Colin!

Sponsors of the Levis Reading Prize include VCU Libraries, VCU Department of English, Barnes & Noble @ VCU, and the VCU College of Humanities and Sciences, with additional funding provided by the family of Larry Levis.