Sunday, May 18, 2008

Maryland College Awards Nation's Largest Undergraduate Literary Prize at 225th Commencement

22-Year-Old Senior from Baltimore Wins $67,481

Chestertown, MD — Most college seniors will look back on their graduation ceremony as a day of pomp and circumstance culminating in a handshake and a diploma. For Emma Sovich, 22, a Washington College English major from Baltimore, the ceremony brought another reward: a check for $67,481.

Sovich's prizewinning portfolio—a collection of poems, critical essays and essays from her blog—earned her the largest literary award in the country exclusively for undergraduates—the Sophie Kerr Prize—presented Sunday, May 18, 2008, during the College's 225th Commencement ceremonies.

The awarding of the Sophie Kerr Prize, given annually to the graduating senior who demonstrates the greatest "ability and promise for future fulfillment in the field of literary endeavor," has in recent decades been a highlight of the commencement ceremony at the 225-year-old liberal arts college. The Prize, worth $67,481 this year, is among the largest literary awards in the world.

Sovich was one of 17 to submit a portfolio for consideration this year, a relatively small pool due to a smaller senior class than in previous years, but according to English Professor Kathryn Moncrief, a competitive group nonetheless. "This was an exceptionally talented group of writers," Moncrief said. "representing a healthy diversity of genres and considerable experimentation with those genres." Moncrief chairs both the English Department at Washington College and the Sophie Kerr Committee, which awards the Prize.

A self-described printer, pot-thrower, writer, sketcher and poet, Sovich herself seems to embody a diversity of interests. In addition to crafting her poems, Sovich was a "printer's devil" in the printshop of the College's Rose O'Neill Literary House, hand-setting type and printing books on antique letterpress equipment. Her blog, "The Composing Stick" explores the nuances and gritty realities of old fashioned printing in a modern world.

"Emma has a passion for process that equals her passion for the beautiful finished product," Moncrief said. "She is an outstanding citizen of the literary community and a lover of the literary arts in all their forms."

Professor Peter Campion, a poet himself, and also the adviser who worked with Sovich on her poetry cited Sovich's "facility for condensed, vivacious language, sympathy for her subjects, and dynamic connection to the literary tradition," in applauding her selection.

Sovich and two classmates created handmade volumes of their work using antique presses and hand binding tools. At the same time she was working on the English Department's website and maintaining her own blog, which grew out of her experiences at the printshop of the Rose O'Neill Literary House, a center for literature and creative life at Washington College.

"On top of Emma's poetry," said Joshua Wolf Shenk, the director of the Rose O'Neill Literary House, "she has really established herself as a serious designer and printer, wrestling not only with the aesthetics of language, but of arranging those words in a form to reach into the minds of readers. This has taken her all the way back to the time of Gutenberg and also to the vanguard technology of the 21st century."

Sovich writes in the introduction to her portfolio: "Upon graduation, I face a new challenge: to balance my artistic nature with the demands of the professional world." She hopes to apply to Poetry M.F.A. programs next year, with plans to pursue a Ph.D in an interdisciplinary program combining English, Art and Mass Communications afterwards.

Sovich is a 2004 graduate of Towson Senior High School in Baltimore, Maryland.

The Sophie Kerr Prize is the namesake of an Eastern Shore woman who made her fortune in New York writing women's fiction during the 1930s and 1940s. In accordance with the terms of her will, one-half of the annual income from her bequest to the College is awarded each year to the graduating senior demonstrating the best potential for literary achievement. The other half funds scholarships, student publications and the purchase of books, and brings an array of visiting writers, editors and publishers to campus to read, visit classes, and discuss student work. Her gift has provided the nucleus for a thriving community of writers on the bucolic Eastern Shore campus.

Washington College is a private, independent college of liberal arts and sciences located in historic Chestertown on Maryland's Eastern Shore. Founded in 1782 under the patronage of George Washington, it is the first college chartered in the new nation.

May 18, 2008

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