Department of English

Four Michener Center students recognized with the 2009 Keene Prize for Literature

Wed, October 7, 2009

Frances Ya-Chu Cowhig, a graduate of the James A. Michener Center for Writers at The University of Texas at Austin, has won the 2009 Keene Prize for Literature for her play titled "Lidless," a poetic treatment of the issue of torture at the detention center at Guantanamo Bay, Cuba.

The Keene Prize is one of the world's largest student literary prizes. Cowhig will receive $50,000 and an additional $50,000 will be divided among three finalists.

Cowhig's play was chosen out of 58 submissions in drama, poetry and fiction. In the play, a former Guantanamo detainee dying of liver disease journeys to the home of his female interrogator to demand reparation for the damage she wreaked on his body and soul. It recreates the traumatic experience of interrogation and moves toward reconciliation between its protagonists.

"Political without being propagandistic, moving without being sentimental, 'Lidless' uses theatrical space, physical bodies and talismanic objects to create a bold imaginative intervention into the debate about torture," said Elizabeth Butler Cullingford, chair of the Department of English and chair of the award selection committee.

In addition to the Keene Prize "Lidless" has been selected by playwright Sir David Hare as the winner of the 2009 Yale Emerging Playwrights Prize. The play was produced at the university's Lab Theatre last spring and will be given staged readings at Houston's Alley Theatre, Ojai Playwrights Conference and Yale Repertory Theatre/It will be published by Yale University Press.

In addition to Cowhig, the three finalists are:

Malachi Black, master's of fine arts candidate at the Michener Center, for a collection of sonnets, "Cantos from Insomnia." The committee admired this poet's technical ambition, his free but respectful modernization of the sonnet form, his witty internal and external rhymes ("vodka/sonata"), and his attention to rhythm and cadence. They appreciated his delightfully original conceits, such as "anxious as a phone / About to ring" or "turn the doorknob of a corner."

Sarah Cornwell, master's of fine arts candidate at the Michener Center, for her short stories "Mr. Legs," "Champlain," and "Other Wolves on Other Mountains." The committee was impressed with the range and variety of Cornwell's subject matter, her emotional and psychological insights, her intimate characterization of a boy with dyspraxia, her vivid evocation of the contagion spread by an accusation of sexual abuse, and her taut, often poetic use of language and metaphor—for example, the image of the lost wolf that opens and closes the last story.

Sarah Smith, master's of fine arts candidate at the Michener Center, for a collection of poetry: "Enormous Sleeping Women." These witty, clever, and often surreal poems captivated the judges with their juxtapositions between the exotic and the mundane. Debating the value of rarity and impermanence, "Sturgeon" ranges from caviar through quails eggs, from Russia to the Ohio River; while the title poem modulates from the vivid description of country life to sudden menace, and ends with an apparently inconsequential freckle. "Quirky, original, and linguistically rich, 'Enormous Sleeping Women' is  a pleasure to read," noted the committee.

Members of the 2009 selection committee included: Cullingford; Randy Diehl, dean of the College of Liberal Arts; Robert Schmidt, chair of the Department of Theatre and Dance; Joanna Hitchcock, director of The University of Texas Press; and resident author Tom Zigal, speechwriter for President William Powers Jr.

Established in 2006 in the College of Liberal Arts, the Keene Prize is named after E.L. Keene, a 1942 graduate of the university, who envisioned an award that would enhance and enrich the university's prestige and reputation in the international market of American writers. The competition is open to all university undergraduate and graduate students, and the prize is awarded annually to the student who creates the most vivid and vital portrayal of the American experience in microcosm. Students submit poetry, plays and fiction or non-fiction prose.

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