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Webb Pleased with “Shadow Ball,” Book of New and Selected Poems

Published: October 1, 2009

English Department faculty member Charles Harper Webb adds another laurel to his distinguished resume with the publication of Shadow Ball, a 144-page collection of his new and selected poems from the University of Pittsburgh Press.

“Naturally, I’m pleased,” said Webb, who joined the university in 1984. “A new-and-selected is like a painter’s retrospective. When a press publishes a new-and-selected, it means they think the author’s work is important enough to keep even his older poems in print. It tells the poet, ‘Your work deserves serious study. It deserves to last.’”

A complex but accessible collection meant for both poetry insiders and general readers, Shadow Ball includes selections from Reading the Water (1997), Liver (1999), Tulip Farms & Leper Colonies (2001), Hot Popsicles (2005), and Amplified Dog (2006)—books which, among them, have won The Samuel French Morse Poetry Prize, the Felix Pollak Prize in Poetry, the Benjamin Saltman Prize in Poetry, the Kate Tufts Discovery Prize, a Whiting Writer’s Award, and a Guggenheim fellowship.

Webb is especially pleased to be recognized by the University of Pittsburgh Press. “I think they have the best poetry list in the country,” he said, then added with a laugh, “And that’s before they published me.”

Webb also expressed satisfaction in receiving the Provost’s Award for Impact Accomplishment in Research, Scholarly or Creative Activity, presented in April at the All-University Celebration of Research, Scholarly and Creative Activity. “The award is meant to honor faculty members for outstanding impact in their field,” he said. “Others on campus could easily have won. Thanks to the judges for picking me.”

Shadow Ball was a big reason he won, Webb believes. “The book embodies my impact on the national poetry scene,” he said. “For years I’ve been an advocate of reader-friendly poetry which also stands up to close literary study. My anthology Stand Up Poetry is full of that kind of work—poems that literary specialists can enjoy but that don’t make non-specialists feel stupid. That book, which is used in college classes across the country, also helped put me on the national literary map.”

Webb earned his Ph.D. in counseling psychology and his MFA in professional writing from USC, his M.A. from the University of Washington and his bachelor’s degree from Rice University. A judge for the $100,000 dollar Kingsley Tufts Poetry Prize, he feels his new collection adds to his credibility in the classroom. “Students see that I’m successful as a poet, so maybe I know what I’m talking about. Also, the book shows that I’m still going strong—still working in the literary trenches, ready to share what I know, and what I learn.”

Shadow Ball is a perfect introduction to my poems,” Webb says. “It lets readers see the arc of my work over the past dozen years. It puts my poetry in perspective—even for me.”

Photo by David J. Nelson
Charles Harper Webb

Though Webb is known for his use of humor in poetry, Shadow Ball shows that his poems are anything but frivolous. They hit hard. Even his humor has a serious literary purpose. “Humor,” Webb says, “is ideally suited to capture the absurdities, enormities and pathos of modern life.”

Critical feedback to Shadow Ball has been highly positive. Poet Tom Lux wrote of the new collection, “Operating somewhere between the lyric and the narrative—that rich grasslands where absolute clarity and reverberant mystery can happily exist—Shadow Ball shows us why we love poetry: it tries to tell us the truth and because the truth is often painful it sometimes makes us laugh. I can’t wait to stand on a chair, wave this book in my hand, and shout: ‘Read this book, citizens, read this book!’”

“Poetry is a gamble,” Webb says. “I think it was Robert Frost who said, ‘No surprise in the writer, no surprise in the reader.’ What I like to do is to sit down with the germ of an idea, and see what sprouts. It may be a sequoia or it may be a weed. That, to me, is the exciting part of writing. I can’t wait to see what happens next.”