The Literary Arts Department is proud of all its winners and applicants. Under each winner's name is the corresponding feedback from the judges.
2022 Literary Arts Prize Winners
Judge's comments: Here, a simple trip to Sonic for a strawberry shake becomes a paean to a beloved aunt—one whose memory, the memory of her touch, inspires a kind of hope, faith, and strength. This is a poem written/spoken/breathed in Diné bizaad with a supplementary allowance of American English (the language that grants me access to the source of its poetic brea[d]th). In so doing, the poet is both student and teacher, child and guardian. They are beholden to the grace and authority of their aunt, their family, their community—but the poet, living between languages and worlds, has also assumed the role of the teacher and translator as they bid farewell. The poet allows us access to the bittersweet beauty of both inhabited realms, of land and language. Within this carefully crafted (anti)-fugal polyphony is tenderness, profound generosity, and grace—a grace that comes from Father Sky, that exists in amáyázhí, that is traced through the wrist of poet and poem.
Judge's comments: There is a deep, haunted, music to the memories that inhabit the poem called “sister” – the trip and stagger of lines, insistent beats and repetitions that are “pooling sweat in two memories” attest to this. The shimmer and bend of the fluidities of memory shake loose at times, and hold you close at others – “growing animals in the heart/gentle folds /like bright sun” – this poem shines with an exuberant familial tenderness.
Judge's comments: These poems grapple with grief and find in poetry a way to give feeling structure, as if building a house in which feelings may dwell. “Inside my mouth, I’m holding a/light,” the poet writes, illuminating the dark. Here we find a young, promising poet taking shape, gathering image and sound for the future. Here we learn how to make a path with words: “Above doubt, there stood you like the stark of a star.”
Judge's comments: The understated but deeply elegant poem “Quilt” opens by speaking quietly from a moment of struggle: “wake to darkness/search for softness” – then proceeds to traverse, in simple, sure-footed lines – across landscapes of planet, dream, flora – to arrive at a thick relational web including children as well as all loved ones – “cover everyone you love in blankets/so they are held in your absence.” Holding the threat of distance and precarity at bay, the poem radiates warmth and connection – it is pulsating with life.
Judge's comments: These poems push up at the edges of other living, stretching out mycelial feelers into the dark gaps between words, and between word and image, between body and trace. They listen with eyes and palpate with nets rather than fingers, gorgeously testing the territories between (life) forms. Here is an asking about possession and about life, and the work itself is the answer.
Judge's comments: “Memoir of a Sun” is a gorgeous, heartfelt attempt to impute subjectivity not just to any sun, but rather to the one right nearby our own planet. It reads as much like a prose poem as it does like a story, and, as such, its emphasis is on affect, genealogy, language, not on incident. As with a poem, or, perhaps, like a scripture or a sutra, the result of this method is an incremental, slow-acting impact—of a lasting kind. This, then, is an improbable and lovely turn on a conventional speculative fiction, in the deepest direction, with a result that should perhaps be scratched out on a parchment or inscribed in stone for future visitors from galaxies distant.
Judge's comments: “Soapbox Antics” fuses the minimalist realist style of the eighties to a contemporary farce about theft and pizza delivery. The premise is terribly genuine, the characters are believable and funny, and the pile up of farcical tragedies is swift and irremediable. The brisk take-no-prisoners simplicity of the writing is reminiscent of screenwriting but feels wholly comfortable in the medium of the short story as well. The confidence of the piece is its most elementary and virtuoso aspect, in which ruthless observation is a must. This ruthlessness, in a time of historical complexities, feels refreshing and new.
Judge's comments: The visual poem "Upwelling" creates a sense of the page as a topography upon which a body of water pools and gathers. At the same time, through visual recurrence of shape this body of water becomes a metaphorical container for time and memory. Thus in the poem time itself is transformed into a kind of material reminder or residue - a set of bodily gestures and traces. This is expressed through images of the indexical traces of the body, such as hair bound in red thread. I appreciated the way that the poem navigated the space between materiality and metaphor.
Judge's comments: Work with traces of language in media other than print or sound – this is something that Mark would have looked for and welcomed, and so it is a pleasure to give this prize to a piece which is self-consciously and responsibly reflexive of what it is doing as it interweaves typography with videography. Plume plays with the liminal, with edges shared by things in a variety of dimensions (more than I can set out here). The videography is simple. A still camera shoots what appears to be a limpid, moving surface of water, one that reflects pleasing distorted images from its surrounds. These seem to be dockside silhouettes, and they cast a slight human pall on the image's lyrical naturalism. The water is a little grey and darkens. The lower edge of the frame is, perhaps, concrete dockside, almost romantic when read as "rocky shore" but definitely giving away that this surface of water is at the edge of human, functional manufacture. What remains a pleasingly composed watery image serves also as a smooth, well-designed surface for something else, an articulated spatial medium for inscription, where the lines of the piece's poetic text, in video-typography, fade in and out. The point is that the text is not, I think, merely "positioned" in relation the "light areas of a filmic image." Rather, this image, found in the maker's world, has been filmed precisely because this liquid surface is on the edge of being an attractive image of water on the one hand and, on the other, a videographically integrated surface of inscription, the medium on which its text is written. Then this language, thus inscribed, takes up all the ambiguities of the image: its situation, its artificial-romantic edginess, its risk of self-harm. With each successive, rhythmically-articulated line's "It begins ..." the language indicates another kind of "edge," one in time. Whatever "it" successively refers to is on the edge of an event – cutting, ecological, too often indicative of "catastrophe," of a sudden "turning down." The audio is just what's there when the film was made; there is no voiceover which might confuse us as to the medial site of inscription, mislocating it to the voice of an actor. Instead, we are able to feel that the language is inscribed on this actual watery, edgy surface, from which we may read the poetically evoked beginnings of many troubling events in our lives, at critical moments for their worlds.
Judge's comments: Interesting concept, engaging narrative world, strong narrative voice and structure. The piece reminds one of Charlotte Perkins Gilman’s “The Yellow Wallpaper” and Henrik Ibsen's “A Doll's House” in its reflections and interrogations of the social-moral complexes of being a “good' woman.” Power thematic imagery and character development.
Judge's comments: Well-crafted coming of age story. Strong narrative voice, sensory language, and character development. Story is paced well as it explores and evolves the experience of young human attraction. There is an element of ecstatic writing here that I think is very powerful as it reflects on the spirit or essence of feeling.
Judge's comments: “The Gust House” is a wonderful accomplishment, a carefully crafted story that is, in a way, about craft, about building, about how people and memories are inhabited by space and how space is inhabited by memory. The narrator has come to visit his old friends, Elaine and Devens, who live in a house that was designed and built by his parents. Though the narrator has never lived in the house, he remembers its spaces, intimately, from childhood, almost as if he has lived in it – and in a sense he has, even if not literally; the spaces of the Gust House have inhabited his mind. This skillful and carefully detailed text is itself an impressive architectural/structural/literary achievement, as it weaves carefully between past and present; repeating, circling, highlighting new angles, shedding new light. Language and images are sharp, precise, and beautiful. “He did not know a doorway could do this: change the body’s matter. The effect is enhanced when the body pauses in the opening or, even better, can be seen through the frame at some task, centered in the vertical portal like a priest at his domed altar. In that moment, the sky is present. The heavens blow indoors and hover, and linger, and he no longer knows where he is. It is a pale sky, pale and clear. Outside it is black.”
Judge's comments: These three stories about the symbiotic relationship of two sisters, one beautiful, one not, are simultaneously lyrical, surreal and witty. Languishing in their home in the midst of an apple orchard with their mother who becomes a child therapist “because of how much she learned from raising us. We were so psychological,” they develop various and opposing styles, share prescription Ativan and the pain of growing up. “When I think about this landscape of my life as a young girl, I remember being unhappy and consumptive, ahistorical. I felt my person was smudged and sticky. I was terrified of wrinkles.” One cultivates a Victorian aesthetic, the other posts her nude photos on the internet for money, nonetheless they are as inseparable as the pair of conjoined oysters they find one day at the beach (and later devour together). These stories present a smart, dreamlike conjuration of young womanhood.
Judge's comments: Charming and direct, Dibé Dóó Dibé Yazhí Baa Hane' provides young (and young-at-heart) readers with many delights. In celebrating the Dine Bizaad language, we are reminded that there are many languages deeply rooted to the American continent — and in this work, as we encounter one of these languages, we are find ourselves deeply connected to the land, to family and to everything that populates this world, this community. We are in a world of trust, kindness and happiness — and thus, one of hope for a better future.
Judge's comments: This marvelous collection, “The Other Gardens,” crackles with energy and mystery as characters set off on journeys and borders between worlds prove themselves invitingly permeable. Love, grief, wonder and duty are just some of the vehicles of transport in an ever morphing text in which suns shrink into moons and swimming pools prove to be small lakes spilling out of caves and the houses we thought we were standing in vanish without fuss. Meditations on dreams and states of dreaming are undergirded throughout by an astonishing attention to detail, which provides elegant, concrete counterpoint to a presiding matrix of flow and fluidity. The author’s play with form, which grows organically out of the material it serves, offers in places intriguing echoes of Guillaume Apollinaire’s Calligrammes, while its work with grainy images evokes a generative fusion of W.G. Sebald, Teju Cole and Theresa Hak Kyung Cha. Each of the tales here is its own particular world, with its own particular exigencies, but in the accumulation a truly stunning vision — one built of “echoes and rhymes, parallel structures, improbable shapes” — accrues.
Judge's comments: A raw and lively imagination drives these poems; sharp observation paired with exacting reflection keep the language feeling always on the verge of overflowing its own meanings. A strong momentum is maintained by concrete specifics that keep the reader rooted on the page, surprised by foxes, shipwrecks, lingerie, and so many other details of the real world whose reality is made ever-more intricate through the rich atmosphere that builds into a weave of melancholy and optimism, nostalgia and radical hope. The blend is enchanting, and the hope is contagious.
Judge's comments: Irresistibly readable, “Black Cat” is a meditation on the inexplicable grief of human existence. It is inflected with wonder and sorrow and explores the uneasy accommodations one makes to a world at once unnervingly present, and impossibly remote.
The story’s slippery negotiations between the real and the imagined are done with great ease, unerring instinct, and a confidence that only comes with a deeply committed vision.
Disarmingly funny, sprung from the narrator’s sorrow and isolation, the story resides in a bleakly hopeful liminal space. Shortly after her husband’s death a black cat makes its appearance, as if “she were able to swim through the world, and she was almost hard to see in the black night.”
“He was dead. He was found in his car, which was found in the lake. I said I thought that was so strange, and she said it happens all the time.”
“I held the phone in my hand, suddenly aware of how light it was, how really it wasn’t anything at all, it hardly existed, and neither did the woman’s voice in my ear.”
“I pulled the curtain aside and looked at my reflection. It was doubled slightly on the windowpane. There were three me’s, one here, one holding the phone, and two just next to one another…
…It was that same night the cat came and made it true.”
One is reminded of the poet Paul Eluard who wrote, “Inside this world is another.”
A meditation on the shadow world and the psychic requirements necessary to stay alive “Black Cat” is an impressive, deeply haunted and heartbreaking work.
Judge's comments: “What I Want to Show You Is Impossibility,” is a beautifully immersive, hypnotic and finely calibrated piece of work. With skill and quietude, it beckons us to follow its various slow acts of departure, and we do, finding ourselves on a mesmerizing journey of a continually emptying and replenishing self. It is as if we are being pulled by an invisible tether, without knowing how invested and entranced we have become--such is the natural and effortless storytelling at work here.
Elegantly, “Impossibility” negotiates an internal and external landscape, often obliquely perceived, with grace, attentive to sensation and meticulously attuned to the motions and rhythms of the world and the workings of time.
The writer creates a kind of linguistic paradise and there is not one sentence that does not afford pleasure: “The birds are a black winging between the water and sky. The day is still in their wings. The night is already collecting in the darkening pools, in the rocks’ newly wet darkness.”
“I remember the shape of her in the wind, the way the wind shaped itself around her. The swing of her hips, the slant of her shoulders as she unloaded feed bags from the truck bed.”
The visionary novelist John Hawkes for whom this prize is named wrote deliriously of horses, his totem animal one might say; the “Impossibility” carries its gorgeous equine spell into a realm all its own.
Judge's comments: With verve, resourcefulness and a cool ease, “Wrestling Spirits” follows a narrator into a vertiginous, bewildering world. The narrative, like its winsome protagonist flies and floats and lands with an astonishing grace. It is a work of gravity and gravity defying strategies, imaginative leaps, energy and irreverence. A series of vignettes and fragments at once fleeting and passing, but also hovering, hanging in the air in a kind of breathtaking and poignant suspension. Wounded but beautiful.
Of the seventeen year old dog Summer, the narrator observes: “Summer’s neck is crooked. She walks in zigzags and circles. She can’t walk backwards. She has to pivot to change directions…Summer doesn’t know how to do anything but live.” On every page Wrestling Spirits suggest ways, in spite of everything, it might be possible to survive. And an enormous aliveness infuses the pages.
In Part 2 we watch the writer wrestle with ways to further set himself free, and these pared down, distilled, syncopated experiments are full of daring and fun, motion and stillness, humor and sadness. A work of great intelligence, heart and soul. A stupendous performance.
Judge's comments: “Strong Like Juniper Branches” is a series of poems that toggles storytelling with the rhythms and patterns of poetic art. In these poems, objects and their names are inseparable from the relationships with the people who brought them into the speaker's world. The first poem makes beautiful use of Dine words communicating an elided translation and as a rhythmic element. By the end, the poem has taught the reader how to read the poem’s traces in language and community. Other poems in the sequence suggest that our bodies are an archive of family memory, and kinship finds its inscription in our gestures. A beautiful and, at times, moving sequence that folds memory into the present time and invites the reader to consider a nuanced, poetic ontology.
Judge's comments: What happens when sonic nuance arrives casually with torqued intellectual force? One answer is this selection of poems. Here, the possibilities of received forms find the sort of individual expression that reminds us that every instance of writing is an experiment, for good poems are not easy-made things. These poems, like trellised vines, are trained to the vatic while remaining rooted in the loam and clay of human soil. They draw sustenance from the aquifers of many traditions—old and new ones. They bloom.
Judge's comments: Composed of energetic pivoting sentence units, the poem “Small Orange” keeps the reader on their toes, alert to nimble jump cuts in consciousness. Hypotactic agitation drives along the narrative groove of the speaker’s panic attack, and even in the poem's most jazzed up linguistic moves — “I produce my wallet//to pay and produce a letter of longing” — the poem's open brackets collect pools of feeling in an uncanny correspondence with the real.
Judge's comments: In her feature-length thesis screenplay GOOD FRIENDS, Skye perfectly captures her story’s coastal New England setting and its down-to-earth, straight-shooting characters. You can practically smell the sea breeze and crab cakes. Her protagonist Ari, a wise-cracking, athletic, and independent-minded 16-year-old, jumps off of the page early on. She feels both unique and familiar, and you want to spend time with her.
Skye’s story explores how teenage friends influence one another’s perceptions, tolerance and treatment of others outside their friend group. Ari’s best friend Quinn leads a campaign against a clique of popular boys, which is complicated when one of them (Jamie) moves next door to Ari. To Ari’s horror, her widowed father becomes swiftly and deeply romantically involved with Jamie’s divorced mother. Jamie vigorously courts Ari’s friendship, while Quinn equally fervently pressures Ari to reject him. On one hand, he is a sudden, unwelcome invader of Ari’s life: her friendships, her family, her workplace, and even the shoreline they share. On the other hand, Ari doesn’t like being told how to think, by him or by Quinn. She chooses to navigate the complexity of Jamie’s presence on her own terms and at her own pace.
This story seemed to flow out of Skye with exceptional ease, written entirely this semester. She wanted to write about a friendship between a female teen and a male teen that had nothing to do with romance, and succeeded admirably in creating an unusual and thought-provoking story about group thinking, friendship and loyalty that will resonate with people of all ages.
Judge's comments: This author celebrates and complicates the joys of bilingual poetry -- the beauty foregrounded of juxtaposition, and then combined with pieces that also take apart and reconnect what is both linear and circular. There's a lot of maturity in these simple gestures, and a nice control of form, without being fussy. There is both a world here we are invited into as readers, but also a way of perceiving home that uses writing to distance us even as we understand. A pleasure to have come across this -- it's a bit indelible now.
Judge's comments: Like a complex set of crystals, "The Lake" sparkles exquisitely, exhibiting a variety of poetic facets -- each section opening up a new structural approach, complexifying the work's overall structure but deepening its central theme. The melancholy at the core of the work is most particularly made evident in the ironically titled final section: "Joyousness." The restless combinatory mode of this section -- perhaps a bit in the tradition of Beckett (in Watt) or Taggart (in Loop), the language dance within the tight framework comes in the end, "to add a body/to the/lake/and to/add/another" -- and from there, we enter the abyss.