New Orleans Carpenter Turned Writer Receives Gift of Freedom

In 2004, at the age of forty-seven, Barb Johnson decided to take time away from her carpentry business and pursue an MFA in fiction at the University of New Orleans. Shortly thereafter, Hurricane Katrina wiped out Johnson's business and forced her to live on the balcony of her apartment in the evacuated city. She kept writing, and by the time she graduated, in 2008, she had a book deal for a story collection, More of This World or Maybe Another, forthcoming from HarperCollins in November. Last week, she won the fifty-thousand-dollar Gift of Freedom Award from the nonprofit A Room of Her Own Foundation.

In her application for the biennial award, which is given to a woman writer who has a specific two-year goal (winners are chosen on the basis of talent and motivation), Johnson wrote, “We write to say, You are not alone. We write the thing that can’t be said…the thing that will be a bright moment for a stranger, the way another’s writing was a bright moment for us.… We pass what we have to those who are hungry for it because we, ourselves, have been hungry.”

With financial help from the award, Johnson will spend the next two years completing a novel titled "St. Luis of Palmyra," which picks up where her forthcoming story collection leaves off. The finalists for this year's award are Bridget Birdsal, CM Burroughs, Nathalie Handal, Gail Kramer, and Rashaan Alexis Meneses.

Previous recipients of the award, which was created in 2002, are Jennifer Tseng, Jeannine Harkleroad, Meredith Hall, and Summer Wood.


Finalist One Year, Winner the Next

In what the Academy of American Poets calls an "unprecedented concurrence," the sole finalist for the 2008 Walt Whitman Award, J. Michael Martinez, was just named winner of the 2009 award. Judge Juan Felipe Herrera chose Martinez's collection, Heredities, from nearly a thousand anonymous entries. It will be published in the spring of 2010 by Louisiana State University Press. Martinez will receive five thousand dollars and a one-month residency at the Vermont Studio Center. The Whitman is given for a first book of poems.

Last year, judge Linda Bierds selected Martinez as the only finalist and named Jonathan Thirkfield the winner for The Waker's Corridor; whereas this year Herrera chose Martinez and named Keith Ekiss ("Pima Road Notebook") and Sarah Elaine Smith ("I Live in a Hut") finalists.

Which contest do you think Ekiss and Smith will be sending their manuscripts to next year?

Martinez, who was born and raised in Greeley, Colorado, received an MFA from George Mason University. His poems have appeared in New American Writing, Five Fingers Review, the Colorado Review, and Crab Orchard Review, among others. He lives in Boulder and teaches literature, critical theory, and cultural studies at the University of Northern Colorado.

Cormac McCarthy Adds PEN/Saul Bellow Award to List of Honors

Pulitzer Prize? Check. National Book Award? Check. Guggenheim and MacArthur fellowships? Check, check. Picture hanging in the Smithsonian's National Portrait Gallery? Check. Appearance on Oprah? Check. Popular movie adaptation? Check, with at least two more in the works. And now Cormac McCarthy can add the PEN/Saul Bellow Award to the list.

Yesterday the PEN American Center announced  that the author of the best-selling apocalyptic novel The Road (Knopf, 2006), has won the second biennial PEN/Saul Bellow Award for Achievement in American Fiction. He will receive forty thousand dollars. The 2007 winner was Philip Roth.

Joel and Ethan Cohen, whose adaptation of McCarthy's 2005 novel No Country for Old Men was a big hit last year, plan to release their adaptation of The Road in October. An adaptation of Blood Meridian (1985), written and directed by Todd Field and produced by Scott Rudin, is planned for a 2010 release.

And in case you missed it, below is a clip from the author's rare interview with Oprah, which aired last year.


The President As Novelist's Best Friend

by Staff

Near the end of a recent interview for the New York Times Magazine, president Barack Obama briefly mentioned that he was reading Joseph O’Neill’s PEN/Faulkner Award-winning novel Netherland (Pantheon, 2008). The interview made no mention of whether the president was enjoying the book, just that he was reading it. But from the mouth of the popular president, that was enough.

PSA Announces Annual Award Winners—for the 99th Time

The Poetry Society of America on Friday announced the complete list of winners of the 99th annual PSA Awards—a baker's dozen of prizes ranging from the $250 Louise Louis/Emily F. Bourne Student Poetry Award, given to a student in grades nine through twelve, to the prestigious Frost Medal, given for distinguished lifetime service to American poetry. Sixteen-year-old Grace Dunham won the former; seventy-nine-year-old X. J. Kennedy received the latter. 

Among the other winners are Ron Padgett and Gary Young, who two months ago split the Shelley Memorial Award, a prize established way back in 1929 by the will of the late Mary P. Sears. John Koethe, the UWM philosophy professor whose eighth book of poems, Ninety-fifth Street, is forthcoming from Harper Perennial in September, and Christopher Buckley were the judges.

Padgett and Young are actually the twelfth pair to share the annual prize. The first was Herbert Bruncken and Winfield T. Scott in 1939. Some other, perhaps more widely known Shelley Award-winning pairs are John Ashbery and Richard Wilbur in 1972 and Denise Levertov and Robert Duncan in 1983.  

In addition to all the poetry collections that Padgett has published with great indie presses over the years, he's written and/or edited books about writing as well as two books about other poets—Ted: A Personal Memoir of Ted Berrigan (The Figures, 1993) and Joe: A Memoir of Joe Brainard (Coffee House Press, 2004). Young, a prose poet who teaches at the University of California, Santa Cruz, is the author of several poetry collections, including Pleasure (2006) and No Other Life (2005), both published by Heyday Books.

Search Continues for Poet Missing in Japan

by Staff

Japanese authorities will continue the search for poet Craig Arnold, missing since April 26 on the Japanese island of Kuchino-erabu, for two additional days, according to the Facebook page administered by the poet's family.

Who Should Have Won? A Writer's Spectator Sport

Last month, Dave Davies, senior editor of the Philadelphia Daily News, interviewed author Bruce Weber about the finer points of being a baseball umpire for NPR's Fresh Air. Weber, a New York Times reporter, trained to be a professional umpire for three years in order to write As They See 'Em: A Fan's Travels in the Land of Umpires (Scribner, 2009). One of the interesting things they discussed is what happens when an umpire is confronted by an angry player or coach who doesn't agree with a call. The bottom line: Any amount of complaining isn't going to make the ump change his mind.

The same can be said for the much more private spectacle of a judge naming the winner of a literary prize. Certainly not everyone can agree with the decision, but the judge is the final arbiter—and therefore the call stands.

Can you think of a recent call in "the ball park of writing contests" that made you want to explode out of the dugout, get in the umpire's face, and plead your case?

Perhaps it was last year's Nobel Prize in Literature selection. Even before French novelist Jean-Marie Gustave Le Clézio was named winner, the former secretary of the Swedish Academy, Horace Engdahl, started a firestorm of controversy when he criticized American writers in an interview with the Associated Press, noting that U.S. authors are "too sensitive to trends in their own mass culture," and that the quality of their work suffers as a result.

New Yorker editor David Remnick, for one, kicked some dirt on the umpire for that one: “You would think that the permanent secretary of an academy that pretends to wisdom but has historically overlooked Proust, Joyce, and Nabokov, to name just a few non-Nobelists, would spare us the categorical lectures," he said.

Without going all Lou Pinella here (obviously great respect and admiration is due the winners as well as the judges of writing contests—after all, they do what they do for the love of literature) have there been recent contests you'd like to have seen go a different way? Who should have won (besides yourself, of course) the Pulitzer, the National Book Award, or the National Book Critics Circle Award?

Making the Case for National Short Story Month

by Staff

With National Poetry Month officially wrapped up, Dan Wickett of the Emerging Writers Network has declared May “Short Story Month.” He plans to select three stories—one from a published collection, one from a print periodical, and one from an online journal—to read and blog about each day. If all goes well, Wickett will have covered just shy of one hundred pieces by month’s end.

From Page to Pixels: The Evolution of Online Journals

Sandra Beasley

Creative writers stand at the edge of a digital divide. On one side: the traditions of paper. On the other: the lure of the Internet. As glossy magazines die by the dozen and blogs become increasingly influential, we face the reality that print venues are rapidly ceding ground to Web-based publishing. Yet many of us still hesitate to make the leap.


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