The Literary Arts Department is proud of all its winners and applicants. Under each winner's name is the corresponding feedback from the judges.
2021 Literary Arts Prize Winners
Judge's comments: "Why is everything built to hurt?" is the surprisingly earnest question at the center of this wise and touching poem. At once both tender and sardonic, this speaker offers up a dark humor in the strange and particular incongruities of grief, "Your funny mother burns plastic in the New Jersey cemetery so your father can have an iPhone in the afterlife," and deftly traverses complicated emotional terrain in long, self-assured lines. In the swirling universe of this poem, the present is tethered to the past, the influence of ancestors is felt and enacted in "Tinder hookups" and in a lover's "thunderous joints," and in death asserting itself "with a vengeance." This is a poet attentive to sonic texture and internal rhyme, and to the ways that disparate voices and persistent questions are carried, in the performance of grief rituals and in acts of love.
Judge's comments: This lapidary suite of five poems revels in carnality and mortality, twinned, and loquacious. The poem "On Sequins" celebrates ecstatic union and the inevitable plummet into daily life, with its inescapable return of lovers into separate bodies, consciousness, siloed selves: "As if the difference between the second/of three and the third of four is the feeling/of being the zeroth of none, being the boy/still tinkering with bacchic flute in the mirror" The poems are jeweled objects, stirring thought, retrieving buried gems of language and thought.
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: In these poems, all things are kin; the stone inside the earth and the light the eye takes in. They don’t necessarily speak to each other but they inhabit co-existent gradients. Thus, things (made sometimes of other, impossible things) exist in both connection and breakage, and we learn that it is contact that “makes [them and us] radiant.” Entire non-human and human worlds appear here in all their complexities, in lives that are made visible in flashes, and continue unseen in the folds of the poem. The poet allows these worlds to both reveal and hold their mystery, so that they are simultaneously for us and for themselves in the most generous and stunning way.
Judge's comments: These poems astound in their capacity to create an entire world, to place humans and phones and stars in proximity and set them in motion. These are the episodic film-noir versions of 21st century poetry, and I am dying to find out what happens next in this existential mystery.
Judge's comments: Four simple poems in 14-15 line loosely syllabic blocks invoke moments of quiet attention to direct observation mapped by words material music treated here as part of the natural world. The music is threaded in syllables, and also by the use of rigorously scored punctuation, full rests, and line breaks–until quiet descends on the reader, and her pulse slows. Sounds enter the poems riding their nouns, birds, forest mammals, suggested through their "wings" and "tongues" merge with the speakers in this poem to trace feeling: "sees the swoop of joy. sees/the lift and drag. she ties yellow silk to the/certainty of wind. a child calls."
Judge's comments: You Are the Most Important In This Universe, by Sandra Moore, is a speculative fiction that plays with the multiverse theory in an exciting new way, one that maximizes the psychological and emotional effects of multiple selves and narrative proliferation. Moore has been working toward a novel-length narrative, with a particular interest in speculative aspect, for several years, and she assailed the task with persistence and ambition. The fruits of these efforts, at hand, is inspiring to behold. Where contemporary narratives of the multiverse concentrate merely on numerical piling, as though the multiverse is merely a sign of bounty, Sandra Moore’s version of the multiverse is about self-actualization, about the self as a series of critical encounters with psychological iterations alike and unalike. This is to think creatively about the novel as a form, too, by iterating a new idea of what a complex character might look like, likewise seeing story as a set of infinite possibilities, in any of which affect and psychology might thrive. Moore, by extension, seeks to enlarge discussions of form in creative writing beyond an iterative realism. She also means to use the speculative form, as in the work of N. K. Jemisin, to do revolutionary work, to represent the marginalized, to see oppression as genuine and context dependent, across a field of potential timelines. Moore has, therefore, made a new and very contemporary idea of the novel, one that is both highly original and warm, both innovative and gently funny.
Judge's comments: With an eye on the origins of our forms in comedy, it is incumbent on us to remember how powerful and insurrectionary comic writing can often be. Ben Doyle’s story collection is in this very way single-minded in its appreciation of, and commitment to, the comic examples of the last century, and in this way this collection reminds us of a literary inclination that we more rarely see in the classrooms of contemporary writing. You can feel in Doyle’s writing—hilarious, tender, anarchic—echoes of Thurber, Perlman, the Algonquin Round Table, several generations of writers for Saturday Night Live, McSweeney’s, as well as, e.g., the entire span of The Simpsons. No cow is sacred, no political bromide unworthy of being tweaked, no deeply held commitment to truth and beauty is unworthy of mockery, and everyone is suspect, including, above all, Ben Doyle himself. Doyle’s stories are memorable and scurrilous and accomplished, but perhaps nothing about them is more admirable than the simple fact of Doyle’s belief in the form, his refusal to apologize for comic writing, and his patient, decided, and sincere self-improvement on the road to what is self-evidently going to be a life in the arts as a comic writer. His work is a laugh-out-loud bravura selection of his best pieces from the last couple of years. Few if any recent collections by undergraduates have been as funny, and as shrewdly ambitious.
Judge's comments: "One More Walk Around the Block" is a mixed-media illustration of a nameless, faceless protagonist's...walk around the block. With its disarming, BMO-esque narration and stunning use of color and negative space, this particular piece won my heart and reminded me of the warmth and unpretentious beauty of Mark Baumer himself. In choosing a winner for this award, meant to honor and remember his legacy, I considered both Mark's aesthetic/creative practice, as well as his way in the world (his personality, ethos, etc). As a poet and multifarious maker, Mark was genius for his capacity to use deceptively simple (direct) language to convey complex truths. In that sense, his work was broadly accessible without sacrificing intellectual rigor or aesthetic integrity. And as a person, Mark was much the same. He was kind, patient, a true listener. He was also courageous, (com)passionate, and willing to fight for causes he believed in. I'll never forget sitting with Mark at "Tealuxe" eating through a bag of string beans—I left that conversation feeling truly seen. And it breaks my heart that someone so beautiful could have gone so soon. But the fullness of his life and legacy remain with us in profound ways.
Perhaps it bears repeating for those of you who never knew Mark: he loved walking. He REALLY loved walking. So this year's winner "One More Walk Around The Block," is an homage to Mark in more ways than one. It is a celebration of the mundane, of the subtly weird, of finding beauty in the everyday things that give our world color and meaning. And while I adore the humility and humor of this cute comic, more important is its treatment of the common as sacred—that nothing, not even a rock, or an ornamented tree, or a barbed-wire fence, is without purpose and beauty. There is an almost Buddhistic/animistic appreciation here for life in all corners, expressing finally that we each exist in continuities that extend well beyond what can be obviously perceived with our senses. In conversation with a great disembodied voice and the objects that make our flaneur's life meaningful, we readers are simultaneously able to let go and insist... "goodbye, turquoise fence. if i cannot find a turquoise fence as beautiful as you, i will hope that time is cyclical, and wait until i see you again." We are able to love transcendently. Though we may inhabit these bodies, these earthly objects, for only a moment, our souls carry on in very real, very palpable ways.
Judge's comments: Reeling under pandemic and within portal we may come away from Patricia Locksmith's glib/not-glib version of Mark Baumer's final personal story to judge a prize in his honor. Impossible. The writing in the graduate category was all so good, strikingly good. Yet none of it was ‘Mark.’ Consultation with other powers becomes necessary and a solution is found after brief appreciation of two entries.
‘Dear[ ]’ deconstructs the epistolary form in way that is brilliant and unfamiliar. The intimacy of a high-literary love letter to an eminent stranger, although one known to the narrator/letter-writer’s friend is interrupted by footnotes that are expressive, yes, of extra knowledge but also of interior thought and affect that is absent from the text of the letter and its revisions. The footnote conceit is well-known in experimental prose and often comes across as over-weening or knowing. Here, it highlights and punctuates an expressive poetics of thoughtful, aesthetically implicated desire.
‘Black Sheep’ is a miniature tour de force. The formal conceit – recreating the ‘same’ piece with second and third persons swapped – is powerful but is almost unnecessary because the piece itself has been crafted with such care and deliberate ambiguity. There are, amongst others, gendered and sexualized ambiguities which, when combined with the way this narrative episode is sharply situated – in a roadside ‘America’ that we recognize instantly from both life and film – generates the menace underlying disturbing or perhaps merely venal relationships, while the second person, often problematic, renders the reader complicit and possibly at risk in the way that they/she/he needs to be. The formal conceit rubs this in, touches us with its careful composition of abstraction that implicates and situation that menaces. It touched me. I didn’t. You did.
Judge's comments: “How to Be in a Coma: an autobiographical instruction comic" explodes our conception of what it means to be in a coma—and to wake from it. Right from the start, the author sets up a dissonance between the bright and even comical “how to” illustrations and the increasingly grim and specific story of a comatose child in a pediatrics ward with the "scrunched figure of your father trying to sleep next to you" on a little bed. We learn of the many indignities a comatose person may suffer, as well as the tiny moments of hope, such as when "[a] cheap chocolate becomes a prayer flowering upon the tongue." In the end, though, as this brave and original work illustrates, when you are in a coma, "you have no option but to accept it."
Judge's comments: The translation of past to present, of obligation or affection into compassion and action are the terrain of “The Translator.” The piece’s narrator, living in Tokyo, is trying to complete a translation of a Shusaku Endo novel, the work strangely stalled, when a friend from the past (from her university days) arrives for a visit. Certain things are intuited: the narrator has formed the idea that her friend is ill, though the nature of the illness is unknown, the illness itself unspoken; she intuits that Tokyo is just a waystation on a longer journey that her friend won’t talk about. At the same time the reader is informed that the narrator herself has a surgical scar that the visiting friend notices – but the friend doesn’t ask about it. As the story opens, the narrator is watching the Brazilian family that lives in the apartment downstairs move away. The family has twin boys. There is a quote from Endo: “I felt something stir inside me. If my boy was alive, he would be that big. Without thinking, I reached out my hand to the boy. ‘Please don’t touch him.’” Thus from the outset a sense of undefined loss and of illness hangs over the friend’s visit. The friend speaks of former colleagues and classmates whom the narrator cannot remember; the conversations are like translations from past to present that somehow fail. Despite a strong sense of obligation and of connection to the friend, somehow the visit is not a success, and ends early. “…to be honest, I was beginning to tire of dragging her around, all over the place, as if she was a child,” and “I wanted to help but it seemed obvious then that she was far more ill than I had previously assumed… I let her vanish, I let her escape the city; to be honest, I was glad to be rid of her.” Written in brief sections, with frequent quotes from the Endo translation that refuses to be completed, this is a graceful piece about the pull of obligation, and about relationships that misfire.
Judge's comments: "Padre Pio’s Other Miracle" is a subtle, funny, and—yes—miraculous story about a young American who joins an Italian monastery—only to find his stay disrupted by cultural tussles and the sudden onset of Covid-19 restrictions. But to describe the story this way reduces it to its mere plot elements, when "Padre Pio" in fact unfurls gradually, with close attention to the power structures of the monastery: how the "abbot always spoke in absolutes, and abused the word 'never'"; how the other monks suspect (correctly) that their American postulant is sneaking pastries at the local cafe. As a depiction of the rigors and pettiness of religious life, the story is flawless. The author’s prose is calm, beautiful, and ironic. One hopes to see more from this writer in the future.
Judge's comments: This is a beautifully written story about a narrator and family deeply rooted in the desert land, and of a journey both literal and emotional. We are immersed in the desert, the horses, the magic of a temazcal prayer ceremony for a sick mother that is unsuccessful, despite the family’s deep belief (“We wanted too much. We believed. I believed. We waited under the stars and we sweated in the dark and we prayed and none of it was enough.”). The death of the mother is the catalyst for a journey that takes the narrator out of the family home, into a school run by Spanish-speaking nuns; then into the desert, where the narrator is taken up by a man on a grullo horse and borne away into a cold northern city. There, watching the neighbors’ daughters, both of whom are named María (“The elder is Eva María, her first name in honor of the mother of all men; the younger is María Luz, her second name in honor of the undying light”), the narrator falls in love. I was struck by the story’s deliberate pacing, its detail, its well-calibrated tone, and its wonderfully poetic language. “Sometimes I take the shapes of their name into my mouth, and think perhaps it is a prayer, perhaps I could turn it into one, perhaps the desire to be lost inside any dark thing is a prayer, perhaps I have not been abandoned by God after all, perhaps the room in which I now wait is a penance, and I can one day open the door, and walk out into the blue-gold evening, and she will be waiting for me.”
Judge's comments: “Sasha & the City of Whispers” is a paean to the creative impulse. If a foolish consistency is the hobgoblin of little minds, then a world in which wonder is suppressed is the hobgoblin of unutterable dullness. Our title character, Sasha, pursues the unexpected in the face of a community’s dogged insistence on control and conformity, which leads to the discovery of a cave. The cave becomes a workshop, where Sasha constructs from discarded objects something strange that somehow comes alive and grows into a thing of magic. The whispers, we learn, can help us find our way toward and into the unknown, where we just might encounter that which is unexpectedly beautiful. With a completed text and one illustration included (with the suggestion of more illustrations to come), the reader can imagine the scope of visual treats that will enrich and complement a text that already figuratively and, in the end, literally takes flight.
Judge's comments: “My sense of the line lacks stability, constantly moving away from and returning to its central concerns of shape and length. As with the bounds of myself, an ebb and flow erratically faint with rhythm…”
Watching this narrative as it gathers, surfaces, changes shape, continues, “Flag” is a deeply satisfying, intelligent and sustained meditation on the mystery and melancholy of the world –of water and language and self. Precious, provisional, but insistent as well, and engaged with that which morphs and moves and survives it uses ambitiously and to great effect the fluvial as its compositional directive.
“This morning, I watched water, speed toward the shore, gather surface, rise, break on itself. I lived off a wave, my own.”
Such is what moves move through “Flag” as it touches on the remembered, the historical, the familial, the emotional, the geological—rising and breaking, falling and eddying. Its keenly observed internal and external states, laced with sorrow and tenderness and wonder.
A searching and complex piece, both meandering and contemplative as well as at times irresistibly and startlingly lyrical, FLAG is a work of quiet power and beauty. It lingers in the mind long after it is put down:
“To tide the stream’s address, to bring, to flex the weave, to long the frame and float, to rose to bee, and having been go out, with sun, to song, wrung, out to push, and land, coast, leave, after then its’ gone. It will continue to break, and soon sing, elated by time, after the fact, and failure. The thing will falling shine. Stoned flaw, and so green, greyn. Blue, and as with and such—we fall off.”
Judge's comments: With what care and rich luminosity does the work gathered in “domesticity” make the journey into its lucky reader’s mind. Whether in short, formally inventive pieces that explore the ordinary and extraordinary intricacies of the everyday — repeat power outages, piano lessons, weird encounters with Santa Claus, or walks “home under the blooming sky” — or in gorgeously drawn and poignantly told graphic tales, this manuscript looks at the world with the chiseled intensity of a Grace Paley, the narrative resourcefulness of an Alison Bechdel and the visual inventiveness of a Shaun Tan.
Judge's comments: In this powerful revisioning of motifs from Russian folklore, Baba Yaga gets fresh life breathed into her old, old bones as deep past collides with near past and intricately textured present. Blending prose poems, recipes for cooking mushrooms, and a fresh presentation of the classic “Death of Koschei the Deathless.” “Matryoshka” is a work of great verve, real elegance and, quite often, considerable tenderness. Ludmilla Petrushevskaya, Angela Carter, Anne Carson and, curiously, provocatively, Kathy Acker are all writers that may come to mind as this rewarding landscape of text and image unfurls itself.
Judge's comments: “Judith and Judith” suggests the Northern and Eastern European lineage of the novel. There is in its sudden relationship angst and unexplained medical travails, in its cultural mix of painting and theater, something of Dostoevsky, Tulli, Schulz, Cusk, and Calvino. The voice is urbane, wonderfully understated, and witty; the story is anti-causal (characters appear and disappear, conflicts go unresolved); the writing is always sharp, and the existentialism is always acute. We can see into the surface of “Judith and Judith,” even if down below there is a more unruly dream work. This is a fiction of beguiling double exposures.
Judge's comments: “On Translating Rilke’s Elegies” is a fascinating work of hybrid form, mixing lexical investigations of the German of Rilke’s poems with free interpolations of memoir, the novel, and poetry itself. One can feel echoes of the Barthes of A Lover’s Discourse, the Carson of If Not, Winter, the intellectual engagement of Lydia Davis’s essays and stories, and emanations of Rilke himself. The anguish of translation, the ache of the translator when faced with the original, and especially these as they collide with the history of German metaphysics, and the specter of wartime Germany, are the matter of this slippery, mutable, and rangy work. It feels new, refreshing, and unpredictable.
Judge's comments: There's something utterly charming and captivating about these tributes to the modest pea family. On the one hand, they honor this ancient staple of human nutrition, stretching the reader's imagination back for millennia, and on the other, they play with an exotic vocabulary in very contemporary and whimsical ways. They're internally tight, tied together with interlocking sound structures that keep the reader constantly present while the hugeness of history echoes around them. Ambiguous and yet precise, they ring with a sure and timeless knowledge as well as an affection for not only the pea, but, by extension, all the other humble things that support our daily lives and are rarely, if ever, acknowledged.
Judge's comments: This cycle of poems carries on a sophisticated dialogue with the work of Rita Dove with quiet confidence and a remarkable awareness of the space between the ineffable and concrete. Filmic in their beauty and narrative intent, these poems — a sequence of detailed visuals — turn our attention to qualities of the numinous in ordinary lives. Praise the “wash too thick with sunlight …” and “the wood sap to waterproof the sails.”
Judge's comments: Shelby Nicholas’ thesis screenplay, We Unravel Like String, is for an animated feature. Its young heroine, Vivian, is stitched together with visible seams, which, unbeknownst to her, makes her different from other children. Her mother, a violinist, keeps her home to protect her from unraveling, and tells her she will only be ready for the outside world once she is able to play all the music in their library on her own violin.
By age thirteen, Vivian is a consummate musician and is increasingly desperate to break out of the confines of their home. Her mother insists she isn’t good enough, but Vivian notices that by tightening the strings on her own body, she can play even better. At first, Vivian sees this as a miraculous secret solution. But soon her strings fray and weaken, and when her mother discovers what she has been doing, she takes away Vivian’s violin. At the same time, a mysterious letter-writer lures Vivian out of the house and into the city’s underworld with promises of information about, and solutions for, her fragile health.
This screenplay is a major undertaking of imaginative, gothic world-building, and Shelby has been developing and refining it through multiple drafts. She has also been working on stunning character design and other aspects of the project’s development. Thematically, Shelby created a parallel between Vivian’s manipulation of her strings and an eating disorder, which gives Vivian’s journey to understand her body profound urgency.
Shelby is a supremely thoughtful, passionate and dedicated artist.
Judge's comments: Creating one’s first short film, approximately a half-hour in length, with a deadline in three months, during a pandemic, is not something I would normally recommend to anyone. But this was my fourth semester working with Kitri Sundaram, and with each one, she grew immensely as a screenwriter, and repeatedly impressed me with how creative, versatile and skillful she is. So I was curious… How would she pull this off?
Answer: Extremely well – no surprise! She hit the ground running, quickly choosing a topic for a documentary, and then diving into research and production. She watched personal/essay documentaries by Alan Berliner and Nina Davenport, and absorbed aspects of each that would help guide her. The result of her intensive production and post-production process is her thesis film Oma & Ammu, a portrait of her remarkable grandmothers.
Kitri’s “Oma” grew up in a Bronx housing project with her three siblings and widowed mother. She met her husband in college, and between having their fourth and fifth child, decided to attend law school – flouting almost everyone’s idea of what she could be. Kitri’s “Ammu” grew up in India and defied her parents’ wishes by secretly applying to medical school. Rather than marrying the man her parents had chosen for her, she fell in love with a fellow student, married him, and moved to the United States.
Both grandmothers disregarded limits others placed on them, persevered through sexism and, in Ammu’s case, racism, and thrived in their professions. Kitri interweaves telling details and entertaining stories from both women’s lives, and deftly uses photos, home movies and archival footage to help depict their worlds.
Not only did I get to see how Kitri would handle her first film under challenging circumstances, but the film itself also provides great insight into why she is so fearless and capable.
Judge's comments: This is a remarkable text using translation, mainly, but also etymology and analysis of prefixes, to talk about family history.
The heart of the work, both graphically and thematically, is exploring the gaps in knowing /understanding /empathy that are so central to our lives. But which on closer examination prove to be "doors opening onto doors opening onto doors...." (A most poignant moment occurs with the speaker's (originally German) mother on the phone: "if you ever want to chat, give me a hollow.")
The transitions between—and fusion of—the modes of analysis, association, narrative, and poetry are breathtaking—and emotionally powerful. For the gap, the hole is also a wound, made explicit toward the end:
"...for me, the process often feels like flaying:
stripping away to reveal something that had been verdeckt, covered over, just out of reach.
As I work, the unknown word punctures through the paper’s surface and a milky fog floods from that point—— "
Judge's comments: The poems in “Poems of Time and Distance” transform exclamation into percussive invocation, and glide quietly through ephemeral spaces: “When you pedal your bicycle alone at dawn, I’m certain you can see your own breath as you ride, elated, into it: a cloud born and immediately dashed behind you.” Physical presence – of humans, vessels, flora – is attenuated and dangled from the “fishhook of history” in these poems of acute observation, restraint, and quiet searching.