SARAH VEST – STAFF WRITER
Literary arts contests have been an annual event at Chautauqua for over 90 years and, even in the face of fully online programming and a pandemic, continued this year last Sunday via Zoom.
According to Bethanne Snodgrass, the event coordinator for the Literary Arts Contest, the contests first began as a part of the Chautauqua Women’s Club but are now being run by the Friends of the Chautauqua Writers’ Center. The contests have always been sponsored and administered by volunteer groups.
There are two first place prizes in this contest, one for prose and one for poetry. The prizes are endowed through the Department of Education and are named in honor of two people who have had important roles in the history of the Writers’ Center.
The first prize is the Mary Jean Irion Poetry Prize for Adult Poetry that is awarded to the first place winner. Irion was a poet, prose writer, essayist and teacher who published four books over the course of her life. In 1988, Irion founded and served as the first director of the Writers’ Center. She and her husband, Paul, were known to house the writers-in-residence in their home and worked to secure funding for the Writers’ Center.
The judge for the Mary Jean Irion Poetry Prize was the Week Six poet-in-residence George Bilgere. His poems have appeared in Poetry magazine, Kenyon Review, The Best American Poetry and The Georgia Review. He has received the Midland Authors prize, the May Swenson Poetry Award, a Pushcart Prize, a Witter Bynner Fellowship through the Library of Congress, a Fulbright Fellowship, a National Endowment for the Arts Grant and the Cleveland Arts Prize. He is the 2020 winner of the Editors’ Choice Award in Poetry from New Ohio Review. He teaches at John Carroll University in Cleveland.
The second prize is the Charles McCorkle Hauser Prose Prize, which goes to the best adult story, essay, memoir or other example of strong, creative prose. Hauser was a foreign correspondent for United Press International and later was the editor of The Providence Journal, which is the oldest continuously published daily newspaper in the United States. He joined the Writers’ Center Board in the early 2000s.
The judge for the Charles McCorkle Hauser Prose Prize was Susannah Felts, the Week Six prose writer-in-residence. Felts is the co-founder and co-director of The Porch, a literary arts organization based in Nashville, Tennessee. She has been awarded the Tennessee Arts Commission’s Individual Artist Fellowship in Fiction and the Tennessee Williams Scholarship to the Sewanee Writers’ Conference, as well as residencies at the Ragdale Foundation, the Virginia Center for the Creative Arts and the Hambidge Center for Creative Arts and Sciences. Her work has appeared in publications like The Best American Science and Nature Writing 2018, Guernica, Catapult, and The Oxford American. Her first book is This Will Go Down on Your Permanent Record.
This year, Snodgrass said, there were more submissions in both the prose and poetry categories than there had been in previous years.
In the prose category there were three honorable mentions: Tracy McKee for “Captain,” Kennetha Bigham-Tsai for “The House” and Catherine Stratton for “Childhood is a Verb.” Erica Frederick was awarded second place for her work titled “This Is What I Know of You.” Frederick is currently a master of fine arts degree candidate in fiction at Syracuse University and was the 2019 VIDA Fellow for the Chautauqua Writers’ Festival, as well as communications consultant for Chautauqua’s African American Heritage House. Felts described her piece as “taut and surprising, with a beautiful turn toward the surreal.”
The winning piece was “The Importance of Running,” by Jody McClure. She is a recent graduate of the Essay Incubator at GrubStreet. In her writing she focuses on themes of grief, aging, queer life, nature and teaching. Felts said that she enjoyed the “sharp details” and how the “thoughtful reflection” draws the reader in more.
For the poetry contest there were two honorable mentions: Kennetha Bigham-Tsai for “Earth” and Tracy McKee for “On Selling the House after Twenty Years.”Bigham-Tsai also wrote the second place poem titled “How to Walk in Stilettos,” which was described by Bilgere as “irresistible” due to its “swagger, rhythm and humor.”
The Mary Jean Irion Poetry Prize went to Faye Snider, for her poem “Cousin Lewie.” Snider is a retired therapist and has been writing poetry since her adolescence. She has completed a master of fine arts degree at the Solstice Creative Writing Program in creative nonfiction and has been at Chautauqua as a participant in the Road Scholar program for the past six seasons. Bilgere said he admired the poem’s “detailed and powerful imagery and the skillful way in which the poet places a powerful individual story against the sweeping backdrop of history.”
The awards ceremony concluded with the poetry honorable mentions, second place winner and first place winner all reading their works. This was followed by McClure reading her winning prose piece. All honorable mentions and winning works in both the prose and poetry categories will be available to read in the Smith Memorial Library.