Tuesday, February 27, 2018

A toast to the NEA hopeful

I don’t know what’s going to poke up through the centers of the bright green bunches of leaves that line my front walkway. I know what’s there—hyacinths, crocuses, daffodils, tulips. Until they come to flower, I’m not sure what it is I’m looking at. I anticipate beauty.

Spring means flowers, but it also means the deadline to apply for a Creative Writing Fellowship through the National Endowment for the Arts. These applications happen on a rolling basis—every even year, poets can apply, and every odd year, prose writers (fiction or nonfiction) get their chance. I write in all of these genres, although I identify most readily as a poet, so I never miss a chance to be considered.

And why would it? The fellowships are for $25,000, and applying is free. A lot of writers complain about the multi-step application process, which includes verification of eligibility and a description of the project, among other odds and ends, and some throw up their hands partway through and opt out.

Not me. Maybe it’s because I’m an experienced grant-writer, but I see the NEA application as straightforward and simple—and $25,000 is totally worth an hour or two of effort. 

It’s like those bulbs that pop up where and when I’m not suspecting them. They wait underground, completely self-contained, until roots nose out from the basal plate, and deep within the tunic of the bulb, a lily makes ready to emerge and surprise me with its richness.

I wouldn’t mind being surprised with a little richness.

This past weekend, some of my poet friends had scheduled a toast to celebrate the completion of their grant applications. It was an idea of my friend Anna Leahy, who is a remarkable poet and thinker, well worth Endowment support. The toast was on my calendar, too—but as a part-time instructor and a freelancer, I’m constantly booked, and my personal projects, like applying for grants, often get put off until the very last minute. Because of this, I wasn’t ready to raise my glass, though I clinked for my friends in my imagination.

Writers are like that, I’ve found. There’s some competition, as anyone would expect, but there’s so much more. We help each other out. We inform each other of opportunities. We remind each other of deadlines (like the NEA fellowship application, due March 7, 11:59 p.m. Eastern time …). There’s sometimes a tinge, or more than a tinge, of envy when the grant recipients are announced in November—but for now, we toast. We’ve made the effort; we’ve put ourselves out there, planted our bulb, and now we wait.

Who knows what the current Congress and administration will do with the NEA? More than ever, sending off that application feels like shouting into a well. But I really believe in a nation that backs the arts—an investment that time and time again has proven to pay real dividends. The arts make up more than 4 percent of the nation’s gross domestic product ($704 billion in 2013, according to the NEA). And every practicing artist I know gives back in some way—through service, through mentorship, through meaning, and through beauty.

Artists are a good bet—no, a good investment. And all along the side of my lawn, I see green shoots, reminding me of how our hopes in one season sometimes manifest beautifully in another.


Me, with some of my spring flowers


  1. Lovely post. Makes me want to put my hat into the running, too. Although, I feel lost at just the thought of doing a grant application.

    1. Thank you! And you should apply. It's a multi-part application, and it's a little complicated at the outset, but it's not hard -- and you could get $25K. Not bad!