Spring 2013 Undergraduate Creative Writing Awards
Judge: Jeff Parker
Jeff Parker is the author of the novel Ovenman and the story collection The Taste of Penny. His short fiction has appeared in American Short Fiction, The Best American Nonrequired Reading, n+1, Ploughshares, Tin House, and many others. He's co-edited two anthologies of contemporary Russian prose, and his nonfiction book about Russia, Igor in Crisis, is forthcoming in 2014. Currently he is Director of the DISQUIET International Program in Lisbon, Portugal, and he will join the faculty of the MFA in creative writing at the University of Massachusetts at Amherst in the fall.
Sixty-six writers submitted stories. Below are the winners and the judge's comments.
John L. Rainey Prize, $1,000 (sponsored by Alpha Delta Phi Fraternity): Ethan Madarieta, "Tension, Resistance"
"Tension, Resistance" is the story of the repatriation of the wooden leg of Mexican General Santa Anna from a military museum in Illinois to Mexico. It's a quest story of the highest magnitude. And it makes good on its title. This is a tense, tense piece. The wooden leg is pilfered in the first paragraph and the museum security guard who invites the bookish thieves for a battle re-enactment at the Alamo, keeps the nervousness high. The powers of description (a steak is "like a thrombus being pushed from a wound") and observation (her wry narrator admires her co-conspirator's attempt to distract the museum guard during the theft while wondering how much of his speech is bullshit and how much is really him) coupled with the hilarious dialogue and elegant sentences ("Elaine was in the back seat, spooning Santa Anna's prosthesis, and not having eaten but a few bites of blood-pinked potato the night before, she felt a faint levity similar to the preliminary effects of anesthesia") make the piece a real romp. The end is shocking and morbidly funny.
Charles and Susan Shattuck Prize, $500: Rebecca Kaplan, "Your Significant Other Called and Wants You Back"
A woman pleas for her lover's return over the answering machine in this dazzling, voice-driven story. The woman in question is a tad OCD—make that a lot OCD--so it's delightfully all over the place, a perfect example of a story fueled by high-octane language. Not a beat is off, not a tic is out of rhythm. Clocking in at one of the shortest submissions in this contest, the bigness of the emotional and physical world outside of the story's bounds is voluminous. It breaks hearts in under two pages, and that is a mean feat.
Josephine M. Bresee Memorial, $400: Amanda Toledo, "In Corners Thrown"
A unlikely MacGuffin presents itself in the first few pages of "In Corners Thrown": A mysterious box to be picked up by a townswoman's scandalized daughter (scandalized it turns out, because of her homosexuality). Our heroine, a strong and clever fellow townswoman, who starts the story by imagining snipping off her husband's humongous nose with the garden shears, is ambivalent until the story takes a fairy tale turn and piques her interest in just what effect the mysterious box may have on her if she opens it. The title character is incredibly well drawn, and we never lose sight of her as the vivid and real woman that she is--flawed and honorable and appalling and generous.
Leah Trelease Prize, $300: Dana Byerwalter, "Ossuary"
A Czech-American girl visits her homeland for the first time in part to see the church that she's named after, one decorated throughout with human bones. When mispronounced in English, her name sounds like "Aura". When pronounced correctly it leads to her slanderous nickname "Whore-a," which has caused all sorts of problems back home. On top of the important stuff of the great cross-cultural stories, she is a normal teenager, a curious one who wishes that she had a normal name like her friend Brittany. But being in the church she's named after produces a strange effect and she finds herself drawn to the architecture of this space, a physical space that resonates with her in ways that she can't explain. The story is a clever and disturbing examination of the ways in which cross-cultural experiences distance and separate us from ourselves. In the end, they can make us to very unusual and very dangerous things.
Honorable Mention: David Huettner, "Cancer Monkey"
Herald Feim's is not your standard redemption story. It's a hilarious riff related to Philip Roth and Woody Allen. The author can work a line, and there is zero patience here for any sentence that doesn't hit. On top of the line-level pyrotechnics, the story agreeably jumps back and forth in time. Most of it is told while the car is falling through the air into a body of water. In the end, there is the promise of a redemption of sorts, but the story wisely cuts out just before it's clear which way it might go. What's left is a Dali-like portrait of a man already gone well over the edge.
Judge: A.E. Watkins is the author of Dear, Companion, released in 2012 by Dream Horse Press. His work has appeared in Copper Nickel, Denver Quarterly, Hayden's Ferry, Ninth Letter, Notre Dame Review, and elsewhere. He has also published critical work on seventeenth-century poet George Herbert. He holds an MFA from St. Mary's College of California and is currently a Ph.D. candidate in Literary Studies at Purdue University. As an alumnus of the University of Illinois, he is honored and humbled to judge this contest to which he used to submit.
Sixty-three writers submitted poems. Below are the winners and the judge's comments.
Folger Adam, Jr. Prize, $1,000 (sponsored by Alpha Delta Phi Fraternity): David Huettner, "After the Hospital"
Conjuring the subtle surrealism of a Charles Simic or (more cinematically) a Michel Gondry, "After the Hospital" depicts a scene of domestic trauma that is wildly and appropriately uncanny. The principle subjects are all exposure and exposed--a husband spilling truths as moths that prove for the mother who must hear them hard, winged pills to swallow. The language--staggered as the stairs where much of the scene happens--offers not the fluidity of lyric romance but a rough, appealing texture evocative of quotidian strangeness. Consider when the mother's hair begins "blooming with moths / that flap with such a newspaper noise." Consider when the objects of the scene offer their odd, sympathetic unraveling: "The kitchen sink drips drill bits"; "The hot cooking pans sprout steel wool fungus." In its highly effective close--"The father, he begins to weep crushed ice. / The mother, she begins to sew herself shut"--the poem is itself shut down and sewn up in a heap of sorrow. This is not the click of a too neat close, but rather the kind of closure that is earned through numerous pains, each the size of a pinprick.
Thatcher H. Guild Prize, $500: David Chambers, "On the Zephyr to California"
"On the Zephyr to California" is America through and through. It is the America of a rich, albeit brief, cultural heritage as it reaches back to the Beats, to Thomas Wolfe, to Walt Whitman, all the way to manifest destiny. In this apostrophe to Wolfe, the speaker, having fallen for the author's books, imagines they are amorous "co-pilots of time and memory" on a westbound train. In such a context, the wonderfully lyric sentiment, "I walk with you down the aisle Wolfe, and what matrimony of experience do I find crossing the / Colorado Rockies," takes on numerous, complementary valences. The America of this poem is also one of social progress that builds and strains from tradition, and in this light, the theme of gay marriage is well situated within a form borrowed from Whitman, a form at once experimental and hallmark. "On the Zephyr to California" is itself a "hand-built America," one that shows a supple dexterity and the kind of craftwork that makes a poem seem more nature than product.
American Academy of Poets Prize, $100: Kelsey Wiora, "Shucking Corn"
A poem impressive for its efficiency and depth, "Shucking Corn" depicts a simple interaction between the speaker, as a child, and their mute mother. Simple, indeed, but also wrought, as indicated by its abrupt opening: "Mother looks like a brain patient." The notion of brain surgery is echoed in the scene's primary action--the child's and mother's hands peeling back corn husks and uncovering "a layer of tangled // corn silks." This action is both domestic and violent, as "white / hands rip husk away," but there is a kind of empathy suggested when the hands are likened to "doves hopping / through a cattail forest." The poem offers several other recurring images that are folded into the layers of the poem, and their symbolism is well situated in the straightforward language, allowing the reader to pull back the husk of the poem and take hold of its entangled threads.
Honorable Mention: Jessica Sung, "wearing the quiet hours"
In the poem's closing image, the speaker looks out from her bus seat at a woman waving back, but sees also the mirrored image of "identical seats / suspended just outside my window." As in this image, "wearing the quiet hours" looks to a world haunted by reflection and repetition, to the beauty and banality of domestic relationships that, like fresh cut flowers, "live on so little // only to bloom." The drawn out heartbreaks of days and weeks are here compacted into singular images more immediate and intense. Compressed, like the glass of a vase or a window, the poem powerfully conflates the beauty it contains and the sorrow it reflects.
Honorable Mention: Karolina Zapal, "Where the Apple Falls"
Large, sprawling, and provocative like its dominant symbol--of personal history as timberland--"Where the Apple Falls" reveals the growth and shifts in the relationship between a mother and son. The poem utilizes a disjunctive language reminiscent of Woolf or Stein to convey the child's budding awareness of the depths and complexities of his parent: "her eyes sad for the first time went somewhere without me / she said look son here is my past where I followed." As the speaker follows further into the mother's history, he finds himself sympathetically and similarly trapped within the forest of her past. The journey for both speaker and reader is often mysterious, startling, and stunning.