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Home:  >News & Events   >News Archives   >2003

Visiting Ole Miss professor wins National Endowment of Arts award

Jan. 9, 2003

Poet Beth Ann Fennelly, left, a UM visiting assistant professor of English, talks with a fan about her latest work. (photo Robert Jordan)

By Deidra Jackson
University of Mississippi News Services

OXFORD, Miss. — In the space of only a few days, poet Beth Ann Fennelly has been kissed thrice by good fortune.

For the visiting assistant professor of English at the University of Mississippi, success came in a trio of rapid-fire kudos: a prestigious National Endowment for the Arts grant, a second poetry book offer from an elite New York publishing house and feature of her work in a renowned literary journal.

“I couldn't believe it—I just started crying right there,” said Fennelly, whose first book of poems, Open House (April 2002), won the 2001 Kenyon Review’s Prize in Poetry for a First Book, considered one of the nation’s most notable awards for new authors.

In December, she was among only 38 writers from the United States and seven foreign countries chosen to receive NEA’s notable Creative Writing Fellowships in Poetry, which attracted more than 1,600 applicants. Each fellow received $20,000.

“The judges were some of my favorite writers. Li-Young Lee, Albert Golbarth and former poet laureate Robert Pinsky are people I’ve really admired for a long time,” she said. “Just to take my place alongside them is a great honor.”

Joseph Urgo, chair of the UM Department of English, termed Fennelly “immensely talented.”

“She is emerging, among the poets of her generation, as one who is sure to outlast the moment’s literary chatter,” he said. “Her vision is expansive and her voice is strong; she is an original.”

Since 1990, 40 winners of NEA’s literature fellowship have become recipients of the National Book Award, National Book Critics Circle Award and Pulitzers in fiction and poetry.

But Fennelly’s story doesn't end there.

Still reeling from the surprise of her NEA award, she has struck a deal with New York independent publishing house W.W. Norton & Company to publish her second book of poetry, in spring 2004. Norton, which bills itself as the oldest and largest publishing house owned wholly by its employees, rarely accepts poetry by emerging writers, Fennelly said.

The writer said she hopes to use the NEA award to help her “put final finishing touches” on the forthcoming work Tender Hooks, a collection of 25 poems. It centers on Fennelly’s 18-month-old daughter, Claire, and explores her experience as a mother, as well as some of the changes that she, her daughter and husband have undergone since Claire’s birth.

“The book takes on the subject of motherhood from a lot of different angles,” said Fennelly. “The poems range informally from a Shakespearean sonnet to a 12-page experimental poem.”

In another fortuitous career boost, Fennelly’s lengthy poem “Telling the Gospel Truth” will appear in an upcoming issue of The Kenyon Review. Founded in 1939, the celebrated magazine publishes works by talented emerging writers alongside more established writers.

A native of Lake Forest, Ill., Fennelly taught at Knox College in Galesburg, Ill., for two years before coming to UM this past fall to teach poetry and literary studies. She earned a bachelor’s degree in English magna cum laude from the University of Notre Dame (Indiana) in 1993. After graduation, she taught English in a coal mining village on the Czech/Polish border.

In 1994, she returned to the United States to earn a master’s of fine arts in poetry from the University of Arkansas. She held the prestigious Diane Middlebrook Fellowship in Poetry at The University of Wisconsin from 1998-99.

Fennelly’s poems have been published in numerous literary reviews, including TriQuarterly, Michigan Quarterly Review, American Scholar, and Washington and Lee University’s Shenandoah. Her poetry has been anthologized in The Pushcart Prize 2001: Best of the Small Presses and Poets of the New Century.

From Open House (Zoo Press, April 2002) by Beth Ann Fennelly

Poem Not to Be Read at Your Wedding

You ask me for a poem about love

in place of a wedding present, trying to save me

money. For three nights I’ve lain

under glow-in-the-dark-stars I’ve stuck to the ceiling

over my bed. I’ve listened to the songs

of the galaxy. Well, Carmen, I would rather

give you your third set of steak knives

than tell you what I know. Let me find you

some other, store-bought present. Don’t

make me warn you of stars, how they see us

from that distance as miniature and breakable

from the bride who tops the wedding cake

to the Mary on Pinto dashboards

holding her ripe, red heart in her hands.

Fennelly’s work “Poem Not to Be Read at Your Wedding” was included in Best American Poetry 1996, Penguin’s Book of the Sonnet and the writing textbook 13 Ways of Looking for a Poem. It also was chosen by Poetry in Motion to be made into a poster to hang in the St. Louis transit system. The New York-based program, which displays poems in buses and subways, reaches more than 10 million Americans daily.

Fennelly’s husband, novelist Tom Franklin, authored the short story collection Poachers and was UM’s 2001-2002 John and Renee Grisham Writer-in-Residence. This fall he assumed a similar position at the University of the South in Sewanee, Tenn. The couple collaborated on the short story “Saint of Broken Objects,” which was published in the summer issue of The Southern Review. Franklin’s novel Hell at the Breech will be published by William Morrow in May.

Award-winning poet David Baker, poetry editor of The Kenyon Review, praised Fennelly’s first book. “Beth Ann Fennelly’s Open House stands out from the poetry of most younger American poets with their sober self-confessions or, conversely, their sarcastic throwaway wit.

“Here is sincere passion in great, mature portions, with a tenderness toward her characters both faraway and near, a historical aptitude and relevance, a strength of spirit and a wisdom at home in the substantial body of the work. I greet this book, this poet, with joy.”

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