Last Monday evening, seven student writers – the winners of this year’s Bullock Poetry Prize of the American Academy of Poets (for best poem or group of poems) and Benjamin B. Wainwright Prize (for best short fiction) – read selections from their honored work at the English department’s annual student poetry and fiction reading in Griffin Hall. Lysander Jaffe ’14, winner for poetry, and co-winners for fiction Chelli Riddiough ’14 and Alyssa Northrop ’14 were joined by honorable mention winners Alex Paseltiner ’16 (poetry), Abigail Rampone ’17 (poetry), Nick Maziarka ’14 (fiction) and Maddie Gilmore ’15 (poetry). Lecturer in English Karen Shepard introduced the fiction writers, and Harry C. Payne Professor of Poetry Lawrence Raab introduced the poets.
28 students submitted 93 poems to the poetry contest judged by Jeffrey Levine, a poet who did a reading of his own at the College earlier this year. Fiona Maazel, author of the novels Last Last Chance and Woke Up Lonely, judged the fiction contest. Both judges explained their selections in the reading’s program.
Of Jaffe, Levine wrote, “…Jaffe subtly threads layers of memory into something wholly brave, contemporary and compelling. The more closely observed the associative leaps, the more deeply the narrative plunges into surprising and effective images.” Jaffe won the poetry contest with his poem “This Can Be Our Thing,” about two children whose “parents went to Paris,” leaving them home alone to play Oregon Trail and scrounge for dinner. The juxtaposition of Oregon Trail with Parisian imagery was particularly compelling. Jaffe also read “Practice Rooms” about a violist commitment to his craft, and three of his other short poems.
For Northrop’s story “Thanksgiving,” Maazel asserted, “Northrop writes with real brio and a wonderful sense of how to wrest tension and pathos from what is discrepant between how we see ourselves in the moment and years later, once time intervenes to refine and dilate feelings aroused in that moment.” Northrop read just the beginning of her story, which begins to explicate the lives of a newly single mother and her two children in an Upper West Side brownstone and the interaction of their father with his new girlfriend a few blocks away. Even within the space of Northrop’s truncated reading, characters are developed and their inner perspectives and struggles begin to take shape. Northrop ended her reading on the precipice of change for the separated characters as they witness the smoking twin towers on 9/11.
Maazel describes co-winner for fiction Riddiough’s “Your Left Hand” as a story “fearless and sad and paced to suggest the presence of a writer with a terrific sensibility.” “Your Left Hand” traces the entire of life of a man born with epilepsy. Riddiough’s description of the boy’s first seizure – “blue clouds blossom in your vision…you taste pennies” – is one of many poignant moments coloring her story. At age 28, the man receives an operation that cures his epilepsy. For a brief moment “everything is peaches and cream,” until the man finds himself picking up the wrong colored loafer and discovers the procedure left him with Alien Hand Syndrome. Trying to adapt to his new life, the man names his uncontrollable appendage “Al,” but eventually loses his hold on life. When his parents kick him out of their house for pulling a knife on his father, he is introduced to his future wife, with whom he reclaims his life and ultimately shares his last experiences.
Gilmore, who received honorable mention for her poetry, read “View,” “Please,” and the honored “Knowing What I Know Now.” Gilmore’s compact poems contain rich images and statements, like “dead light” and the man who carries peaches to the front door in “View” as well as an admiration for werewolves who “master the art of losing your mind” in “Please.” Levine praised Gilmore for “deftly tuck[ing] the outer observed world into the inner intimations of inchoate loss” in “Knowing What I Know Now.”
Pasteltiner’s “sly personal poem [“With Achates as Napatree”] projects the Aeneid onto the sand bars of Watch Hill, Rhode Island, where things disappear,” according to Levine, who also praised Rampone’s “hopped-up diction” in “Canticle.” Rampone has a knack for blending the real with the fantastical, and Levine further describes the success of “Canticle,” “in launching Genesis forward into the darker regions of a contemporary credo, and, from there, into shattering loss.”
The only honorable mention winner for the fiction contest, Maziarka read a portion of his “Living Things.” Maziarka provides a compelling exploration of the psychology of grief, as his protagonist Mike at first admires the seemingly secure Curt from his support group. Max begins to follow Curt’s advice to get rid of and dissociate himself from all the things his dead girlfriend left behind, but when Curt gets drunk at Max’s house, Curt’s veneer of stability begins to erode.
The readings, which lasted just under an hour, publicized the impressive talents of these seven Williams students to the students and faculty who filled Griffin 3 nearly to capacity.