The Literary Arts Department is proud of all its winners and applicants. Under each winner's name is the corresponding feedback from the judges.
2020 Literary Arts Prize Winners
Judge's comments: Where are we headed? Riding along with the poet of “Yuánfèn" our “Fate" claims not to mind, getting into a taxi and asking to be taken “anywhere” from the “mouth" of a market in Taiwan’s capital. In assured rhythms, long lines in formal stanzas, and with incisive play of punctuation, the poem takes us on a poetic, urban, local narrative journey, savvy with contemporary culture and globalized politics. Light-handed bilingual elements are there from the first, in characters, in the title, but always glossed and never interrupting a wide-ranging forward movement. We end up wondering where it is that we are from? No, it’s more that we end up realizing that we are a “from-where?” person. This is a marvelous poem from somewhere which, for most readers of English, is elsewhere, but which leaves one a little better able to acknowledge where one is and to “name where you’re headed."
Judge's comments: This group of poems conjures a speaker (or, if you prefer, a series of speakers) with the capacity to look at the small details of the world with wonder, and to share that wonder with the reader. The second poem in the group, “fruitful empathy,” seems written just for this moment in time. In writing about bananas, the poet notes “she’s been quarantining / the fruit on opposite sides of the kitchen table. / separation is lonely and there are no custody rights for bananas, but don’t call her cruel” — and thus, social distancing of the bananas delivers a wistful analog to the human effort to “feel for each other” in the face of pandemic. If “bananas have too much empathy,” the poem itself gives us a sense of how we might emulate this trait of the banana, and find ways to provide kindness without having this lead to loss. There are many pleasures throughout the group of poems, often based on the perceptive and curious attention paid, to the world and to words.
Judge's comments: “THE ALDABRA (WHITE-THROATED) RAIL (Dryolimnas (cuvieri) aldabranus)” attends to the remarkable bird of the title — a species that having gone extinct in certain locations, builds anew with new colonies coming from regions where the bird endured. This poem is both a celebration of life and a witness to the fragile balance in nature needed to sustain life. The poem uses language to mimic the regenerative spirit of the bird: “iteration after iteration / reincarnation” or “Feathers upon feathers upon feathers weighed down” afford a gesture of words iterating toward new life in repetition.These lines pack themselves with beauty and grief and mystery, and relay a sense of knowing and unknowing that makes a road through the dust of history, into the future.
Judge's comments: This work lives in a thrilling buoyancy at either the beginning or the end of existence. It seems to be standing on that horizon where existence is being made, in language, and where words and objects, even being, serve more than several purposes at once. I cannot tell if these poems are at the end or the beginning (of time) because, in fact, I think they are both at once. They are doing more than observing, they are making. Astoundingly, they create.
Judge's comments: I love being in this world, where someone is paying exquisitely intimate attention to how the world looks and feels inside a very awake self. Here, the body is a mirror or the body is an absent double. We find things in the world, and discover that they are themselves while being other things, too. Ice is like water because it is water. The body sheds and pearls. What we learn is that the frame is the body, but also how to see the picture beyond the frame, too.
Judge's comments: “Twone” is a crystal. Like when you learned the word for crystal and rolled one in your palm and thought: Yes. That’s the right name for This. “Twone’s” world has names like: The Harmony Sisters, Christ, Kissing Karen, The One. Bibles and guitar music and plain-old longing share the page with clones, official inspections, and an enforced one-child policy. The story's genius is compression. Voice is perfectly zippered to the sci-fi context and it all comes off in just three pages. Mark Baumer would’ve loved this. He loved a big fire.
Judge's comments: I am selecting “Y’all Means All” and “Five Queer Clowns” for the Mark Baumer Prize in part because of the way that this entry moves between the visual and textual space in ways that allow for playfulness but also a questioning of structures and hierarchies. An example would be the way that the piece places a term such as "heterosexuality" under erasure right next to a term such as "potatosexuality." I loved both the humor and the seriousness of this. A similar tone is struck by the way that the piece explores joblessness or unemployment as a kind of quantifiable entity. The humor and the tone of this as well as the characterization of the figures through the attribution of their employment status reminded me of the way that characterization often works in Baumer's narratives. Similarly the appearance of various food items from pizza to tacos, interspersed with details about animals such as sea turtles and their ecological status is evocative of the interplay between food and animal life in texts such as Baumer’s Holiday Meat. I was also struck by the way that the formal properties of the visual space guide the possibilities for the written text.
Judge's comments: “Alton Vaynsky and the Gradual Technique” had me from its first understatedly acerbic line to its less understatedly acerbic last. A comment on some of the more egregious vagaries of the contemporary art world and the desultory art making practices that undergirds it, “Alton Vaynsky…” is also an examination, never maudlin, of spiritual and cultural dissatisfaction. While one might hesitate to call these pages “experimental” for fear of their brilliantly crabby narrator somehow finding out, a welcome air of formal innovation nonetheless presides. I was put in mind of Gilbert Sorrentino’s later work, as each of the nine sections have a similar snap and hum. Donald Barthelme too is probably chuckling somewhere off around the edges, or just outside the gallery doors.
Judge's comments: These seven stories are brief, enigmatic, beautifully written; many, though not all, are creation stories – in these pages, a growing child invents the world; a narrator builds a house containing, it seems, all possible things, including the wolf that destroys the thing the narrator loves best; history itself is revealed as the by-product of an endless primeval orgy. But here there are endings, too: in “Lighthouse,” the narrator and a friend spend “our planet’s last day of summer” together, in a world of Escher-like images: “We spent the morning in the ocean and watched the water turn to fish, the fish to pelicans, and the pelicans to sky. I saw the sun turn into Rav’s hair while I melted with the heat into the sand.” I am pleased to award the Feldman Prize for Fiction to these lyrical and mysterious stories.
Judge's comments: This multi-genre work crosses boundaries, working with fiction, essay, literary criticism, poem, (possibly) memoir, image, and historical fragment. Emily Dickinson’s garden, her poems, her relationships, and her various handwritten scraps – recipes, notes, and envelope-jottings – serve as a jumping-off place for a piece that evolves into the telling of tales that may be fiction, or may be autobiography/family history – we as readers are never quite sure. In the latter section of the piece, we travel from Amherst to Hanoi, and to the very engaging tale of a beloved dog named Little Foot. “Having been relegated to the back yard during the day, Little Foot began inventing strange games – stacking and restacking coconuts, chasing, then stomping shadows across the hour, driving a tricycle from one corner to the next, as if constantly rearranging the furnitures of her aloneness. My mother thought at first, that the change in coconuts was a temperament of memory. Then ghosts (they lived near a cemetery). Then it was clear someone had been terribly bored” – then back to Dickinson and her dog, Carlo. A wide-ranging rumination, a pleasure to read.
Judge's comments: This “compilation of fictional vignettes based off of queer love stories found in the John Hay Library archive,” as an introductory note describes it, is written with enviable precision, its pages illuminated by careful, detailed, crisply delineated light. The air in this fictional world becomes “grainy, like little bits of table salt being thrown into the air” and faces take on the hue of “chewed bubblegum” and everywhere “is a place I can go.” It makes sense that poets like Jack Spicer and June Jordan haunt the “Book of K” as the language feels emphatically, unpredictably alive. The short, inconclusive-but-memorable sections accumulate into a striking whole, like hours within days, like days within a life.
Judge's comments: “A Taste of Home” is a richly-drawn and sensitively written portrayal of a seeker of fortune in the gold rush era of California. Our protagonist misses his family left behind in China – and encounters economic and personal hardship. As the difficulties of panning for gold become evident, and as he makes two friends, his wistful memories of the meals his mother made for him brings him to find another path — he opens a restaurant in San Francisco and serves authentic Chinese food to a delighted and varied clientele. The interaction of image with text gives the project a depth and a degree of wonder that offers hope. The historicity — a reminder of how past generations faced challenges much like contemporary immigrants — gives the text additional resonance.
Judge's comments: “The 8th House” is a lovely, heartrending account of intergenerational subjectivity, of legacy and grief. It takes many forms, so many forms that it’s nearly impossible to say what it is. But what the manuscript never wants for is feeling, the ache of feeling, in the wrestling with family and legacy. The forms—pictures, redactions, footnotes—all go to that place, the human place, with stunning, and sophisticated intensity. This is a new approach to the construction of self in the contemporary novel.
Judge's comments: “All Science” is a great and spirited collection of stories. At once wonderfully observant, alert to the world, to the voices and languages of the world, especially the sights and sounds of Mexico, but also thrillingly smart, and animated with respect to the history and philosophy of contemporary literature. As such, throughout, the stories sing with human foibles, are funny and sad, but they also think about what language is, and how language and discourse refracts, and fails to refract, the landscapes and events around us. This is an extremely thoughtful and warm first collection of stories, by a writer of great promise.
Judge's comments: "bygones be" is a stunningly mature and clear-eyed cycle of stories about couples in the US and Taiwan falling in and out of love—and constructing "a grammar out of [their] disparities." A man becomes obsessed with reading letters sent by his partner's ex-lover; a college graduate deals with the violation of being written about by a hookup; two women start a love affair in Taipei against the backdrop of an approaching pandemic. These stories are also deep in conversation with other artists and works of art: Godard, "In The Mood for Love," "The Girl from Ipanema." An original, vivid, and tender collection.
Judge's comments: "Amphitheatre" is an undulating, gorgeous prose-poem which induces a feeling of dramatic stasis. Each of its numbered sections is a still life that approaches knowability before purposely flaring out into abstraction ("A piece of sea is laid in the floor, spreading to every corner of the space submitting to its physical quiddity, dark, plausibly a fragment of night sea, impenetrable of light, dense, undefined.") One vivid section purports to be stage directions for 16 actresses who are lying on stage "on top of mirrors." Overall, this piece is a beautiful meditation on how "'[we] are natural manifestation of finite, either circuit or fringes."
Judge's comments: "Arthur Rimbaud in Tallahassee" is brilliant, biting satire: irreverent, beautifully rendered, sacred and profane, filled with intelligence, wit and wistfulness. Shot through with a subversive darkness, it is work the great John Hawkes would have surely admired. Written in energetic and elegant prose, highly readable and seemingly effortlessly conceived, “Arthur Rimbaud” is a profound cri de coeur from darkest Florida and beyond.
Judge's comments: "All Science" is a highly original sequence of poetic fictions, mysterious and strange, deeply meditative, tipping its hat to both science and philosophy. A moving and startling account of young people moving through this precarious and wondrous world. This is visionary work, in love with the infinite, drawing increasingly from an endless well of possibility.
Judge's comments: Any selection for the Honig Prize should begin with a remembrance of the poet himself, Edwin Honig. This year I'd like to remember his watershed work of criticism Dark Conceit. Published in 1958, Dark Conceit is widely considered the first serious critical edition on conceptions of allegory in English language literature. And it's precisely this dark conceit of allegory, of dreaming and duality and paralleled ontology, that has drawn me to "4 Meals". While grounded in the lineal history of a presumably Jewish family with roots in the Bronx, the text departs decisively into realms of ritual and dream to commune with a world and a being beyond the language that ultimately underscores our finitude. Each of these four meals is titled enigmatically in Hebrew and each suggests an object vital to the ritual supper performed, presented, dreamed through. There is a confidence to the poet's vision—at once precise and expressionistic. Naive, maybe. Like a child at a Passover Seder translating for the first time all of the alien objects and songs that constitute the annual remembrance. Or, more gravely, a child witness to adults sitting shiva. There's more than a bit of bitter herb here and maybe I'm just emotional these days, but something in this monumentally bittersweet poetry has moved me to tears. It is certainly not an easy thing to write distinctly within and also outside a literary tradition that dates back thousands of years—but here is a voice that is contributing a new sound to ancient traditions, and I think Edwin Honig would've found that beautiful.
Judge's comments: A diffuse meditation on the reliability of perception and the language used to articulate its findings, this piece put me in mind of both Rosmarie Waldrop and René Descartes. The deduction of selfhood is executed in beautifully wrought prose laced with strange and strangely concise images: “…I transfer words in and out of their packets until I’m able to disconnect entirely from any potential meaning. Packets crinkle and that unraveling becomes a new form of dust.” The world and the mind moving through it slip through the fingers of the words used to capture them. Rather than eliciting horror at the limitations on our knowledge, though, “Index” creates a soft cocoon of uncertainty.
Judge's comments: Nora Graham’s feature screenplay Drain follows a student (Mallory) home to Texas after an assault causes her to leave college mid-semester. Home provides little comfort. Her elderly father, alone since her mother’s death and in poor health, is allowing frackers to exploit his property. The site operates 24/7, but he is largely able to shut it out by switching off his hearing aids. His former co-worker, who manages the site, has a history with Mallory’s family and is an increasingly ominous presence. This may sound like a grim premise, but Nora’s keen insights into human behavior and cinematic vision make her screenplay a deeply satisfying and gripping read. She has been working on Drain since September, translating her profound excavations into affecting and nuanced screenwriting. She has sharp instincts for giving away just the right amount of information to captivate, and the skill to do so with sensitivity, rich subtext and vivid imagery. Among the many talented writers with whom I have worked at Brown, she is exceptional.
Judge's comments: Sad and funny, these short pieces cover a wide range of tones and circumstances, but all of them are willing to look at darker elements that range through society and history. The humor lightens this darkness, not in a sense of levity, but in a sense of illumination—we are able both to see it better and to bear looking at it.
The writing itself is sharp, dynamic, and odd to just the right degree. Never weird for the sake of weirdness itself, every twist of syntax, every unexpected word has a precise place in the overall clockwork-like structure. And while every piece has a different structure, showing the writer's remarkable facility and flexibility with form, each one shows a similar intricacy and internally consistent logic.
The work seems particularly appropriate for the Waldrop Award because it is not only highly experimental, but is so in a way that echoes their own experiments; that is to say, the whole radiates an inventive intelligence and clearly seeks connection and communication through language, while also enabling language to go beyond itself in subtle, moving ways.
Judge's comments: These prose poems treat serious themes--our limits and especially the precariousness of our bodies and even of more solid matter like houses--with sly humor: what shows the limits of perception is "a spot on the back of my head!" The dissolving of the body "just means I can reach a bit further!"