2016 Undergraduate Creative Writing Award Winners

“resonates beyond the page”
“blown away by the taut restraint of the language”
“harrowing emotional journey”
“unsettled, unsettling, raw. And yet, the complexity of the thinking shines through”
These are few sound bites from the judges’ comments on this year’s creative award winners. Thirty-eight students submitted stories; fifty-seven students submitted poems. Although only nine prizes were awarded, the nature of creative writing is such that we in the English department can all take pride in these achievements. People fDepartmentOfEnglish_graphic_vertical (2)rom a wide range of disciplines at the U of I choose to hone their writing talents in our workshop
classes, where students routinely transcend the role of “learner” to become audience, critic, and artist all at once, and where the deeply personal act of writing becomes a collaborative endeavor. 



Bayo Ojikutu, this year’s judge, is a Chicago-based author. His critically acclaimed first novel, 47th Street Black (2003), received both the Washington Prize for Fiction and the Great American Book Award. His second novel, Free Burning (2006), has been called “the most foreboding love letter the city has ever received” (Timeout Chicago) and “a searing portrayal of one of the shameful realities within an oft unjust society” (Black Issues Book Review). Ojikutu’s short work has appeared in various anthologies, journals, and magazines, both traditional print and web-based. His short fiction was nominated for a Pushcart Prize. He has taught creative writing, literature, and film adaptation at DePaul University and the University of Chicago. He is currently at work on his third novel.

Below are the winners and the judge’s comments.

John L. Rainey Prize, $1,000 (sponsored by Alpha Delta Phi Fraternity): Brandon Steppan, “Staring at a Dead Cat.”

This winning piece reads as inundated by tenor and mood and the stuff of musical psalms as it riffs from the trope identified (less than advisably) by its title. That notwithstanding, the writer’s language captures feeling without anything in the way of mawkishness nor overwrought navigation through narration. Temper is a difficult quality to convey in the language of story (particularly so for a young writer early in his/her development). But this entry convincingly suggests that its author gets it: gets something. “Staring at a Dead Cat” suggests as much and then indicates that its author is capable of wielding this know-how in most capable, compelling, even lyrical fashion — such that story resonates beyond the page.

Josephine M. Bresee Memorial, $400: Kara Lane, “Humanity.”

An inventive take on an exhausted narrative milieu. The writer takes up the existential quandary of a sentient high tech security apparatus, cleverly put to use here as narrator of this “Humanity”. The entry reads like the full-on interior monologue of Clarke’s HAL 9000. in its final throes. Albeit this is a fully weaponized machine narrator, pondering its purpose a century beyond 2001 in a 9 /11-informed, post-Kubrickian late(r) time.

Leah Trelease Prize, $300: Brittany Peterson, “Fear the Femme Sole.”

A ribald bit of farce, lampooning the group identity-driven culture of contemporary campus environs. There is social commentary read here, there is a bit of hilarity, and a well-managed romp through the politics of the absurd and vice-versa. The writer manages to balance the piece’s prevailing sensibilities without cruelty – a certain strength, if not a readily observed bit of comity in these times – while sending up the ways and means of both defining oneself and determining one’s social doings, as per group id.

Honorable Mention: Darwin Rodgers, “Cherished.”

A harrowing emotional journey taken across a sea. The tale ponders past loss and losses to come, as its narrator waxes elegiac on the place and meanings of love — both of its necessity and its unrequited manifestations. In chronicling the emotional journey of a child, this work is most profound in capturing the sense of desperate separation.



Wade Bentley, judge of this year’s contest, lives, teaches, and writes in Salt Lake City.  For a good time, he enjoys wandering the Wasatch Mountains and playing with his grandchildren. His poems have appeared or are forthcoming in Green Mountains Review, Cimarron Review, Best New Poets, New Ohio Review, Western Humanities Review, Rattle, Chicago Quarterly Review, Raleigh Review, Reunion: The Dallas Review, Pembroke Magazine, and New Orleans Review, among others. A full-length collection of his poems, What Is Mine, was published by Aldrich Press in January of 2015.

Below are the winners and the judge’s comments.

Folger Adam, Jr. Prize, $1,000 (sponsored by Alpha Delta Phi Fraternity): Jessica Sung, “Armistice.”

This is a poem in which what is not said is as powerful as what is said. I am blown away by the taut restraint of the language and form. The poet captures a single moment as, and just after, ceramic bowls fall or are thrown to the floor, and readers are caught in “air that grows thick with clay,” and in the palpable tension of that moment. What has happened? Was this violent moment preceded by anger? Carelessness? And what will happen next? Is this the beginning or end of the violence? Will the words soon become less “hushed”? What will be the next move of the humans assembled on the periphery of the poem? The poem does not impress with lavishness but with sparseness; every word is in its quiet place. And yet the poet still manages to dazzle me with phrases like, “pieces sway/on their curved faces,” and, especially, “the phantom/weight of their better halves.” A skillful poet is at work here.

Charles and Susan Shattuck Prize, $500: Tymmarah Anderson, “Terrorist.”

Appropriate for its subject matter, this is a poem still rough around the edges—unsettled, unsettling, raw. And yet, the complexity of the thinking shines through. Just when I thought I knew the full compass of the poem, I was surprised by a new perspective, delighted to see how the poet has refused easy answers, one-dimensional anger. This is not just a screed against injustice, racism, and corruption—though certainly it is that. At its heart, the poem is about relativism, about how every perspective is skewed, and it asks, “how much longer before we can’t tell the difference” between the good guys and the bad guys. But this is also poetry, make no mistake: “They send officers to shake villages like maracas”; “the stench of terrorism humming under their breath”; “Tall black boy, black shirt, black pants, looks like short black boy, skinny, hoodie. Looks like/black boy with clothes, looks like black boy. Looks like all black boys. Looks about right.”

American Academy of Poets Prize, $100: Siggi Schroth, “Almost Every Single Thing I Remember from My Childhood.”

The power of this poem begins in its title. Why is the poet only telling us almost every single thing? What is being withheld or repressed? From the start, then, this is a poem about secrets, and about one central secret the young speaker names simply, It. There is power, too, in the form of the poem: a list—and a pretty paltry list at that. Only seven items, and none of them happy. And yet, despite the skill of the poet in capturing a childlike feel—sliding around, fidgeting in a chair made for grownups; wanting his/her face on a cereal box—there is no childish whining or crying, here. The painful secrets off-stage are never confronted directly, in the poem, which only makes them loom larger. Each item in the list is both a fragment of memory and a clue that helps readers begin to fill in the gaps, and the poet shows great skill and restraint in allowing us to do so. There is power in the way the secrets of the poem are never looked at directly, always askance: “The/prosecutor said What word do you like the best/to refer to male genitalia?/I didn’t like any word best.” Wow.

Honorable Mentions: Ariel Jones and Meghedi Tamazian.

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