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When John Smith received a late-morning phone call at work from National Endowment for the Arts chair Dana Gioia, it didn’t take him long to realize what it was in regard to. “As soon as [Gioia] identified himself, I figured what it was,” says Smith, 43.

The news, however, would take a little longer to set in. Gioia rang Smith up at his day job at the Inter-American Development Bank, where he serves as an editor, to tell him he’d just won a huge honor in his other profession—as a poet. Smith was awarded a $20,000 NEA Literature Fellowship in Poetry. “I’m still a little stunned about the whole thing,” the Southwest resident says.

Smith was one of only 50 poets nationwide to be awarded a grant and the only Washington, D.C., poet to snag a fellowship, but he hopes his gain will benefit D.C. poets other than himself. “This is not just for me—it kind of shows and hints at the amount of poetic activity that goes on in Washington,” Smith says. “There are several different scenes and some very good people—a lot of them have been very supportive [of me].”

Smith is the author of two volumes of poetry—2005’s Settling for Beauty and 1999’s The Hypothetical Landscape—and edited Northern Music: Poems About and Inspired by Glenn Gould, an anthology of writing about the Canadian musician. Smith’s poems, essays, and fiction have appeared in publications as diverse as crime-fiction Web site Thuglit.com and the self-described “modern dog culture magazine” The Bark. He’s also recently completed a children’s book slated for publication in 2008. Still, poetry “is at the center of what I do,” Smith says.

Having unsuccessfully submitted his work to the NEA twice before sending his latest application in February of this year, what finally worked for Smith was sending in a collection of formal verse rather than a sampling of his free-verse poems. After a “nerve-wracking” selection process, he decided on “a polished collection of formal verse—or at least as polished as I know how to make it—rather than include a little bit of everything,” Smith says. “I tried the eclectic manuscript before. It hadn’t worked, [so I] decided to put all of my eggs in one basket.”

Smith’s next big decision will be what to do with the unexpected windfall. For its part, NEA has helped him narrow his list of options: The grant is to be used for research, travel, and time off from one’s regular job to allow more time to write—not, say, for a down payment on a new house or paying off a car note.

“They don’t send me a check,” Smith says. “[The money] is held in an escrow account and drawn down for specific purposes—it’s taxable. It’s not really a license for irresponsibility.