The Academy of American Poets announced today that Sjohnna McCray has won the 2015 Walt Whitman Award for his debut poetry collection, Rapture. McCray will receive $5,000, publication by Graywolf Press in 2016, a six-week paid residency in Umbria, Italy, and distribution of his book to all Academy members. He will also be featured on the Academy of American Poets website as well as in its print publication, American Poets.
Pulitzer Prize–winning poet Tracy K. Smith selected McCray as this year’s winner. Of McCray’s manuscript, Smith writes, “These poems are so beautifully crafted, so courageous in their truth-telling, and so full of what I like to think of as lyrical wisdom—the visceral revelations that only music, gesture and image, working together, can impart—that not only did they stop me in my tracks as a judge, but they changed me as a person. Sjohnna McCray’s is an ecstatic and original voice, and he lends it to family, history, race and desire in ways that are healing and enlarging. Rapture announces a prodigious talent and a huge human heart.”
McCray, forty-three, grew up in Cincinnati, Ohio. He holds an MFA from the University of Virginia as well as a master’s in English education from Columbia University’s Teacher College. McCray received AWP’s Intro Journal Award and Ohio University’s Emerson Poetry Prize, and his poems have appeared in numerous publications including the Southern Review and Shenandoah. McCray currently lives and teaches in Savannah, Georgia.
Now in its fortieth year, the Walt Whitman Award is given annually for a first book of poetry. The prize was expanded last year to include the new partnerships with Graywolf Press and the Civatelli Ranieri Center. Earlier this month, the Academy also expanded eligibility criteria for all of its prizes to include non-citizens living in the United States. Previous winners of the Walt Whitman Award include Nicole Cooley, Suji Knock Kim, Eric Pankey, and J. Michael Martinez.
The Academy of American Poets was founded in 1934 and is the “largest member-supported nonprofit organization fostering an appreciation for contemporary poetry and supporting American poets.” The Academy distributed over $200,000 in prize money to poets in 2014.
Photo: Sjohnna McCray (credit Aaron Mervin)