Baltimore's literary reputation cranked up a notch or three yesterday as a poet and two novelists here were named as
finalists for the 1995 National Book Awards, which rank second only to the Pulitzers in prestige among American writing prizes.
Baltimore authors captured two of the five nominations for fiction. Stephen Dixon received his second nomination in four years, this time for his novel "Interstate," an exploration of the traumas of parents whose children have been victims of violence. And Madison Smartt Bell was named a finalist for his novel "All Souls Rising," about a slave uprising in Haiti about 200 years ago.
Poet Josephine Jacobsen was nominated for a third time in poetry for "In the Crevice of Time," 176 new and collected poems.
The National Book Awards have gained increasing importance in recent years, both as a marketing tool for publishing houses and as an indicator of who may be nominated for the Pulitzer.
Finalists receive a $1,000 cash award and a potentially big boost in sales and name recognition. Winners, who will be named Nov. 15, receive $10,000 and a crystal sculpture.
The nominations were a bit of a coup for the Johns Hopkins University. Mr. Dixon is a professor in the university's Writing Seminars, and Mr. Bell has taught in them. Johns Hopkins Press published Mrs. Jacobsen's poems.
"Well, I feel very happy about it," said Mrs. Jacobsen, who at the age of 87 has been nominated twice before. "At the end of the road it's nice to have this happen."
"I'm ecstatic," said Stephen Dixon, 59, who was a finalist four years ago for his novel "Frog."
Mr. Bell, a writer-in-residence at Goucher College, was on the road between Baltimore and Iowa City, where he was promoting "All Souls Rising" at Prairie Lights Bookstore.
"I know it's banal, but he was just extremely pleased," said his wife, Elizabeth Spires, a poet who teaches at Goucher. "I would be, too."
Mr. Bell and Mr. Dixon are in effect in competition for the fiction award. But Mr. Dixon said they wouldn't arm wrestle for the championship.
"I'm delighted he got [nominated]," Mr. Dixon said. "He's a very nice guy."
They both have formidable competition in Philip Roth, one of America's leading contemporary novelists, whose 21st book, "Sabbath's Theater," is among the final five. He won the National Book Award in 1960 for his first book, "Goodbye, Columbus."
Others nominated were Edwidge Danticat, a 26-year-old Haitian emigre whose first book, "Krik? Krak!", is a cycle of nine stories about Haiti, and Rosario Ferre, for "The House on the Lagoon," a novel that interweaves the stories of two families during several decades of Puerto Rican history.
Just being nominated is "a wonderful thing," Mr. Dixon said. Maybe better than winning, he said. "Winning is not important. Winning could be a mixed blessing. If you're just one of five guys nominated, you don't have to make a speech."
The nomination was totally unexpected, he said.
"When I got the call, I was absolutely shocked. My face went pale. Somebody felt my chest. I guess I've reached an age people get worried when I get good news."
The nomination of "Frog," which didn't win in 1991, sparked four years of creativity during which he completed two novels and a collection of short stories. "It kept the fire burning in my belly," he said.
He likes the idea that his two nominations have been for novels: "I'm supposed to be a short story writer.
"Since I got the word, things have been great at home: The birds are chirping. The cat's purring and the kids said that's great."
He has two daughters, Antonia, 10, and Sophia, 13.
Mrs. Jacobsen also was pleased to be nominated "out of all the books that were published this year." She was last a finalist in 1975.
"I am very, very surprised," she said.
The reviews of her book have been "wonderful," Mrs. Jacobsen said, but she insists that she is "not a household name."
She is, in fact, widely acclaimed and has received the Lenoree Marshall Award. Last year she was named a fellow of the 'D Academy of American Poets.
"It would be nice to win it," she said. "But you don't count your chickens and don't even aspire to anything."
"I'm still writing and publishing," she said. "But both are a question of energy and on your way to 90, you don't have much energy."
Mrs. Jacobsen, too, faces stiff competition. Stanley Kunitz, who has been showered with a galaxy of honors, is a finalist with "Passing Through: The Later Poems, New and Selected," his ninth collection published in celebration of his 90th birthday.
"He's a wonderful poet," Mrs. Jacobsen said. "I think he's one of our best poets.
"It's nice to have very good people against you," she said. "You don't feel so bad when you lose."
And the other finalists are very good indeed.
They are Barbara Howes, twice a finalist, for her "Collected Poems, 1945-1990"; Donald Justice, a Pulitzer Prize and Bollingen Prize winner and twice a National Book Award finalist, for his "New and Selected Poems"; and Gary Soto, a National Endowment for the Arts fellow who has received the Andrew Carnegie Medal, for his "New and Selected Poems."
The nonfiction nominees and their books are:
Dennis Covington, "Salvation on Sand Mountain: Snake Handling and Redemption in Southern Appalachia."
Daniel C. Dennett, "Darwin's Dangerous Idea: Evolution and the Meanings of Life."
Jonathan Harr, "A Civil Action."
Tina Rosenberg, "The Haunted Land: Facing Europe's Ghosts After Communism."
Maryanne Vollers, "Ghosts of Mississippi: The Murder of Medgar Evans, the Trial of Byron De La Beckwith, and the Haunting of the South."