5 on short list for nation’s top literary prize for undergrads

CHESTERTOWN — Washington College on Monday named five finalists, all from Maryland, for its Sophie Kerr Prize.

This year’s prize is valued at just north of $77,000, and continues to be the nation’s largest literary award for a college student. Its cash value is more than the Pulitzer Prize and National Book Award combined.

The prize winner will be announced Friday night, May 17 as the culmination of a ceremony in the Hotchkiss Recital Hall of the Gibson Center for the Arts.

Each of the finalists will read from their work, following an address from 2003 Sophie Kerr Prize winner Laura Maylene Walter.

The event, which begins at 7:30 p.m, is open to the public. It also will be livestreamed on YouTube. See https://www.youtube.com/live/E_1aNvn4odE?si=tgz9TUed85DRz9fL

The prize is named for Eastern Shore native and college benefactor Sophie Kerr.

As stipulated by Kerr’s will, the prize check itself will be awarded Sunday as part of the college’s 241st commencement.

GRAMMY-winning musician and well-known radio host Christian McBride will address the graduates and receive an honorary Doctor of Fine Arts degree.

The Sophie Kerr Prize is awarded annually to the graduating senior demonstrating the best potential for future achievement in a literary endeavor.

Since its first year in 1968, the prize has been awarded for both creative and critical writing.

Students within all majors may submit portfolios.

A committee, comprised of full-time faculty in the English Department and the college president, reviews all submissions and makes the final decision.

According to Courtney Rydel, associate professor of English and chair of the department, the portfolios of this year’s finalists included an exhibition of the “provocative power” of the story across several forms including poetry, research and podcasts; a collection of short stories, flash, a novella and a personal essay on the indulgence of abject and ugly emotions; poetry on the natural world; sonnets focusing on the cyclical nature of human love and experience; and themes of community and queer love through film criticism, personal editorials and reporting.

The 2024 Sophie Kerr Award finalists are:

• Liv Barry, a communication and media studies major from Dundalk, who is minoring in journalism, editing, and publishing and theater.

• Dante Chavez, an English major from Baltimore, who is minoring in computer science and creative writing.

• Sophie Foster, an English major from Reisterstown, who is minoring in creative writing and journalism, editing and publishing.

• Vivienne “Vee” Sharp, an English and art history double major from Westminster, who is minoring in creative writing.

• Joshua Torrence, an English and psychology double major from Parkville, who is minoring in gender studies.

“Everyone who submits a portfolio for the Sophie Kerr Prize shows courage, in allowing others to scrutinize the work they hold so dear,” Rydel said in a news release. “It further takes incredible talent, persistence, and aesthetic insight to produce writing on the level that these finalists have created. We repeatedly were struck by the risk, ambition, lyricism, sonic texture, and insight in these finalists’ portfolios, and we look forward to hearing them share their exciting and original work in the reading in Friday’s prize ceremony.”

“It was particularly difficult to winnow the portfolios down to this group of five stellar writers, whose work showcases an impressive range of genres: from music journalism to innovatively lyrical sci-fi, to stories and poems that are as formal as they are experimental,” said James Hall, director of Washington College’s Rose O’Neill Literary House and associate professor of English and creative writing.

He said the five finalists have in common “a sonorous lyricism, a bravery to voice from the margins, and a love of both literary tradition and a daring to reinvent it.”

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In addition to the literary award, the support made possible by Sophie Kerr’s gift continues to fund experiences and offerings for Washington College students throughout the academic year. For more than 50 years the endowment has brought many of the nation’s top writers, editors and scholars to Washington’s campus including Toni Morrison, Joyce Carol Oates, Robert Pinsky, Edward Albee, Joseph Brodsky, Gwendolyn Brooks, Lucille Clifton, James McBride, Eamon Grennan, Charles Simic and Jane Smiley.

Funding scholarships and internships and enabling research in literature, writing and publishing round out the impact made possible by the Sophie Kerr legacy.

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