Spring 2015 Undergraduate Creative Writing Awards
Judge: Ryan Kenealy
Ryan Kenealy, lives in Evanston with his wife and twin boys. He began his career selling novelty items at a flea market on a dirty street near Cleveland Hopkins Airport and has since worked for the circus in Chicago and sold pot roast in Japan. His recently published short-story collection Animals in Peril was cited as the "Best New Indie Title" by Newcity. His comments about the winning works are below.
John L. Rainey Prize, $1,000 (sponsored by Alpha Delta Phi Fraternity): Karolina Zapal, "Mała Means Little Feminine"
"Mała Means Little Feminine" is a swelling portrait of a family, a marriage, a house and a flood in Poland. The language seems like word play, but it's also concerned with portraying the idiosyncratic (or at least non-American, non-English) thinking of the characters. They think and act in a droll manner, moving through their lives without questioning much, but with a keen understanding of the earth around them, it's patterns and it's dangers. The language is deliberate and complex when it needs to be: "Neighbors looked dazed until worried until sedulous, occasionally shouting to one another, ‘This one's heading west and fast.'"--and often, it's funny: "Meanwhile at the window, I blistered, gripping the counter as the water rose above his torso, a firewood's length beneath his red-wet gob and the other breathing portal, hairy and two-holed." The flood moves through the story, interspersed with the narrator's incisive glimpse into the weathered love shared between her grandparents who no longer talked much or shared a bed and had accumulated some painful memories with age, but there was still a powerful love to behold as it's uncovered in quirky precision by the narrator.
Josephine M. Bresee Memorial, $400: Derek Hoot, "The Payer"
The excitement in "The Prayer" is driven by the details, the smells and sensations and of being an adolescent in a beautiful though cluttered and confusing foreign land experimenting with spirituality, fasting, drugs, and sex. The narrator's age and openness allow him to indulge in all of these equally without passing judgment or finding any sort of contradiction. The fasting of Ramadan sharpens his senses and electrifies the exotic world around him, but the bodily pain of the fast forces him to summon memories of carnal pleasure to make it through till sundown. The Prayer is a spiritual journey starting with the ablution and ending with the narrator feeling a deeper responsibility for his actions.
Leah Trelease Prize, $300: Preen Dhillon, "Mt. Lucifer"
The title definitely throws you off, just as the narrators are thrown off by luscious ad copy promoting Mt. Lucifer as a small hamlet in France where lavender grows along all the avenues and the strawberry mousse is exquisite. As it turns out there is no lavender and no mousse. A couple honeymooning there comes to an even starker revelation: that there is no love between them, that's it's all a contrivance belying the emptiness and compromise that connects them. The rhythm and pace of the story take you away from the hustle and bustle, allowing the characters to see clearly the false directions they've been moving in.
Honorable Mentions: Alexis Casati, "Johnny"; and Daniel Zillmer, "Mean Average."
Judge: Ryo Yamaguchi
Ryo Yamaguchi, 2003 University of Illinois alum and winner of the Spring 2002 version of this contest, is the author of The Refusal of Suitors, published by Noemi Press in 2015. His work has appeared in journals such as The Iowa Review, Tin House, American Letters & Commentary, and Barrow Street, among others. He lives in Chicago where he works at the University of Chicago Press. You can visit him at plotsandoaths.com. His comments about the winning works are below
Folger Adam, Jr. Prize, $1,000 (sponsored by Alpha Delta Phi Fraternity): Olivia Ingram, "Radiators"
CThese poems showcase an exploratory impulse that is exciting to see in a young poet, ranging in approaches from the catalog to the tableau to the narrative. But what sets them apart, why they rise to the top, is how accomplished each approach is, how thoroughly the poet has seen them through. The frenetic pace of the catalog, "Assorted Quotations," makes of propriety and (step)motherhood a kind of martial art, lines jutting left, hooking right:
You've got such a great face. Have you ever thought about modeling?
I'm throwing a dinner party for all our artist friends. The Swiss are coming.
Your dad doesn't need those pills. He needs herbs. Echinacea. Dandelion.
Darling, darling, darling.
We never fight except for when you're here, you know.
This portrait of a stepmother--and the relationship with the stepchild--is uncovered as though from beneath a scratch-off ticket, each line a stroke of the penny's edge (or, more accurately, the fingernail). In "The Evening Walk" we get something entirely different, a pacing of far greater composure, the poet directing our gaze with control and precision:
A stump-tailed cat prowls between
a rusted suit of armor and a mossy stone goose
half sunk into the feral lawn
of a withered yellow house.
There is an expertise to this poet's mimesis of looking, following the cat (who later turns invisible, the "empty air") like a white rabbit upward toward the grand façade of the mysterious kingdom, the "withered yellow house"--a continuity of adjectives ("stump-tailed," "rusted," "mossy," "half-sunk," "feral,") substantiating a distinct mood in vibrant image. The last image in particular--the tree's shadows drunk on headlights--is outstanding. But my favorite poem here is "Radiators," because it is much more understated and, thereby, evokes a more complex mood. The straightforward narrative is deftly written with the classic ambivalent tone of mid-century narrative poetics (see, for example, Robert Hayden's "Those Winter Sundays,"), but it is also a tone that sounds childlike at heart. What the poet achieves beyond this, however, is a pernicious sense of danger, the "thick heavy burning lids that would snap / down and brand your hands if you weren't fast enough," described here with an exquisite metrical sensibility, the driving trochees interrupted by the spondaic "that would snap / down," (also, the enjambment) and then inverted into the iambs. This meter screams trap. And yet the memory is a fond one--a Christmas memory--lovingly recounted here step by slopping step. This tension between tones is wonderfully realized in the closing image, which is at once a kind of celebratory fireworks, a steaming release/exhalation, and a surreal obscuring of tradition. It leaves the reader with a productive emotional discord, an uneasiness that makes us want to read the poem again, immediately. Congratulations, these are sophisticated, accomplished poems, and they deserve this accolade.
Charles and Susan Shattuck Prize, $500: Madeline Nevis, "Sugar Skulls"
I love the peculiar voice of these poems, its playfulness and confidence, the way it balances innocence with the sinister. These are poems that have no anxiety about sounding traditionally "poetic," and this makes them memorable and refreshing. In "Sugar Skulls" the voice effects a particularly strong persona--the grade-school child--in highly believable schoolyard banter that is yet realistic and startling:
Jackson said she was the ugliest
girl in the second grade.
I told him to shut up.
He said I was the second ugliest.
I didn't say a thing.
In other places we see the poet's more virtuosic craft emerge, which enriches the child-like voice with impressive sonic talent:
Our fingernails made gritty snow angels
and sliced four pearly worms of burning sugar
which slithered up my skull
and made my nostrils howl.
The assonance of "four pearly worms of burning sugar" plays against the sibilants and sharper "i" sounds in "slithered" and "nostrils" very well. These poems also exhibit a precision of image, such as in "Aunt Tina's Dead Right Side" (which is a great title for its straightforward but startling sense):
I clutched a box of macaroons she bought me.
I told her they looked like Pretty Patties.
"That show is filthy," she said,
"Fish in pushup bras?"
They were dry rice cakes
but I said they were moist rainclouds.
Her teeth peeked out from behind
She smelled of wet patio bricks.
There is a very smart development in these lines. The poet sets up distrust in description with what she tells Tina about the macaroons--her politely emphatic simile: "they were moist rainclouds." The resonance of the deceit, however, extends to Tina herself--the "red curtains" of her lips are also overly emphatic, with something more brute waiting behind: her teeth. These teeth are at once metaphorically biting instruments, but also, because of their proximity to the lines on the texture of the macaroons, they are literal ones. And it's a little gross, as though they are caked in chewed-up food. The poet takes this duplicity of nice and gross and closes it out with a perfect ambivalent image: "She smelled of wet patio bricks." It's a beautiful image, specific, evocative of the hush that follows rain, and yet also a little dirty, musty--I wouldn't necessarily buy perfume that smells like that. Altogether, the quirky, playful nature of these poems belies a thoughtful writer who is deeply engaged in studies of tone, sonics, and image.
American Academy of Poets Prize, $100: Ariel Jones, "For S"
These are remarkably mature poems whose craft testifies to the poet's deep familiarity with poetic traditions and her/his practiced hand. The pacing of breath and breaking of lines is particularly sophisticated and imbues this work with greater corporeality as the images are rendered. Here is a stanza from "NOLA:"
I need to be slow--
find the dewey tantara
of jazz in me, spread
the blues fine and wide
to pull about my height--
a dress snapped in at the waist
that crawls up my hips
and rises at my breasts,
clutching at the ribs
in a wicked bodycon.
The enjambment directs the image in turns down angular line breaks: "find the dewey tantara / of jazz in me, spread / the blues fine and wide"--one can almost feel one's hands splaying over that "fine and wide." The motion that is evoked is perfectly suited to the poem's subject, but it also exemplifies a larger approach that this poet has to image, which is a kind of organic assembly or constitution--we watch these images come into being. In a similar way, this poet seems to have a definite muse--the Goddess--and some of the function of the poems, as seen in the above lines, is a kind of summoning. This meditative focus extends into the two addresses ("For S." and "For B."), which bring us into somewhat looser, more naturalistic, social territory. We get a similar control in imagistic development--for example, I love this cinematic pan upward (and outward, into history) in "For S.":
your desk is unbound with aging dates
it's stacked with books I lent you on Middle Eastern conflict
under the high Catholic ceilings.
But these address poems also offer moments of greater imprecision, which contrast the self-assured posture of the poet elsewhere, things like: "we are close to / our customary badinage, / or have just fallen out of it" or, in a more complicated example (both from "For B."):
Ben, you are boyish;
definitely wise and intolerant--
curled up in your serious quiet
unless something gives in some sport.
There is a perplexity between "boyishness" and "wisdom," between "wisdom" and "intolerance," and between "intolerance" and "quiet"--these aren't totally congruous notions, yet their repelling forces are bound by the craft of the line, and the result is a realistic-feeling portrait--one roughened by contradictions and spiked by that final word, "sport." This sort of thing won't be effective for every reader, but to me it's a pathway of development and worth exploring. Altogether, these poems exhibit an irrefutable talent and writerly control that are solid ground for a long future of poetry writing.
Honorable Mentions: Noelle Africh, "When We Eat and Sleep and Kiss, We Do It on a Death Timeline"; John Milas, "Angels of Generation Y"; and Jessica Sung, "Drawn and Quartered."