Issue 95 |
Winter 2004-05

Zacharis Award Winner: Mark Turpin


Ploughshares is pleased to present Mark Turpin with the fourteenth annual John C. Zacharis First Book Award for his collection of poems, Hammer (Sarabande, 2003). The $1,500 award—which is named after Emerson College"s former president—honors the best debut book by a Ploughshares writer, alternating annually between poetry and fiction.

 This year"s judge was the poet John Skoyles, who is a Ploughshares trustee. In choosing the collection for the Zacharis Award, he said: "Mark Turpin"s Hammer focuses on a man"s occupation in a blow-by-blow account of what it"s like to work with your hands, and to live with men who do the same. These poems rise to that occasion by maintaining a balance between their burly subjects and musical language. Turpin"s enormous skill lets him wrest from this rough world the heart and soul of workingmen, their families, their labors, and their rest. By concentrating on his subjects with rigor and imagination, the poems resound beyond the day-to-day, and engage matters of life and death. Hammer is a moving collection, spoken in a voice marked by strength and warmth."

Mark Turpin was born in Berkeley, California, in 1953, and grew up mostly in Livermore, a Bay Area bedroom community populated half by ranchers and half by nuclear physicists who worked at the weapons laboratory. His father was a Presbyterian minister, his mother a schoolteacher. In 1969, the family moved back to Berkeley, their first day coinciding with the riot at the People"s Park, where James Rector was shot by the police.

At Berkeley High School, Turpin decided he wanted to become a writer. "I had a great English teacher/actor who introduced Shakespeare to us—with all its violence and bawdiness and ambiguity," Turpin says. "I think the intellectual action of crossing over into a more comprehensive understanding of Shakespearean language, that feeling of the intervening centuries disappearing, was the catalyst for my passion. It is paradoxical that the same teacher who inspired me to love literature also advised me that I was not eccentric enough to be a writer. It"s true—I was a fairly sweet, anxious, good-hearted boy. I felt terribly ordinary and longed for distinction."

After graduating high school, he attended Feather River College, a junior college in the Sierras, but never obtained a bachelor"s degree. He got married at nineteen, had two children, and worked as a carpenter. In 1985, he was invited to audit Robert Pinsky"s graduate writing workshop at Berkeley. His first publication was in The Paris Review in 1987. It wasn"t until 1999, however, that he went to the graduate writing program at Boston University for his master"s.

Asked how Hammer came about, Turpin writes: "I was mainly just engaged in the process of writing poems. I wrote a poem about construction that worked, and so, I wrote another one. The writing of the book took many years, too many to number in public. For a while it was to be a book half-devoted to construction; in fact, many of the poems in it still are only peripherally related to construction work. Once I recognized the theme, I took it on as if it were a rehabilitation, a recovery of an undocumented life—but mainly it was a vocabulary of images and actions I was familiar with, a way to get at feelings and ideas more universal."

Turpin is still working as a carpenter, but he functions more as a contractor now, his clients mainly artists, architects, and poets. He is writing poems for a new book and developing a one-man performance piece loosely based on the material in Hammer. He has also been teaching poetry privately. "I love to teach," he says. "I"d like to do it exclusively, since I"ve spent twenty-five years earning my bread as a carpenter. I"ve paid my dues. I"d rather stay fit going to the gym."