Friday, May 4, 2012

Finalists for 2012 Sophie Kerr Prize Announced

Congratulations to the 2012 Finalists: seated, Doug Carter, Maria  Queen, Katie Manion; standing,  Erica Walburg and Natalie Butz.

CHESTERTOWN, MD—Washington College has named five finalists for the famous Sophie Kerr Prize, the largest undergraduate literary prize in the nation, this year valued at more than $58,000.  They are:

Natalie Butz, an English major from Falls Church, Va., who minors in History, Psychology and Creative Writing.  In her four years in Chestertown, Butz has served as Editor-in-Chief of the student newspaper, The Elm, worked in the Writing Center, participated in drama productions, joined the Douglass Cater Society of Junior Fellows, and achieved distinction as a member of Phi Beta Kappa. She traveled to Tanzania as part of the College’s summer program there, spent a semester studying in Ireland and worked in New York as an intern at Folio Literary Management. Her writing portfolio includes excerpts from a historical novel-in-progress, short stories, and articles published in The Elm, the Chestertown Spy and Washington College Magazine. “Her creative work is distinctive for its commitment to research, and she tackles difficult topics such as race, class and gender with real honesty,” judges from the Sophie Kerr Committee said of her portfolio.

Douglas S. Carter, Jr., an English and Art History double major with a minor in Creative Writing who hails from Pasadena, Md. A member of Phi Beta Kappa, Carter has volunteered in New Zealand through Worldwide Opportunities on Organic Farms (WOOF) and, as a Douglass Cater Fellow, hiked the mountain ranges of Northern England and Southern Ireland on Professor Richard Gillin’s Kiplin Hall trip. His writing portfolio includes poems, short non-fiction, scholarly writing and a travel essay. “Doug’s portfolio is defined by a passionate interest in literature and the arts and an engagement with social issues, especially environmental stewardship,” said one judge. “He is optimistic and believes in the power of the arts to do good in the world. He establishes an intimacy with the readers, and his intellectually cordial personality shows through.” Local residents may know Doug through his work as a barista at Sam’s coffee shop and a server at the Chester River Yacht and Country Club. After graduation, he will intern for the new vineyard and winery at Crow Farm, a B & B and grass-fed beef farm in Kennedyville, Md.

Kathryn Manion, a resident of Clarksville, Md., who majors in English with minors in Creative Writing and Anthropology. Involved with many on-campus publications, Manion  has worked as a consultant at the Writing Center and served as head of the Writers’ Union for the past two years. She is a member of Phi Beta Kappa, the Douglass Cater Society of Junior Fellows, and the English and Anthropology honor societies. Her writing portfolio included short stories and an excerpt from her senior thesis on letter-writing in novels. The judging committee described Manion as a mature, focused student whose scholarship and fiction both display an intensity of purpose. “Her fiction shows flashes of brilliance through her ability to create voice keenly appropriate to the story in progress. Both on the page and as a member of this community, Katie has a quiet confidence in her ability to lead, write and edit,” they added. This summer, Manion will attend the University of Denver Publishing Institute’s prestigious program in writing and editing.

Maria Noelle Queen, a Humanities major and Creative Writing minor from Hagerstown, Md. Queen, a member of Phi Beta Kappa, submitted 18 pages of poetry to the Sophie Kerr Committee, much of it focused on the relationship between a daughter and her parents.  “Her poetry is at times very funny and at times very sad, and it manages to be both extremely personal and yet objective about how she sees herself in the world,” said one committee member. “She has a well defined voice for a young writer and manages that difficult balance between subjective and objective very well.” An avid gamer, Queen hopes to work as a writer for a video game production company such as Bethesda or Bioware, developing plot, characters and dialog.

Erica Walburg, a double major in English and Studio Art from Pewaukee, Wis., who minors in Creative Writing. Walburg is a member of the Douglass Cater Society of Junior Fellows and the Sigma Tau Delta English Honors Society and has been involved in myriad campus activities, including acting in drama productions, singing with the Vocal Consort, serving as Vice President of the Writers’ Union, and editing the Washington College Review, an annual liberal arts journal. She also interned for a summer at The American Scholar, the magazine published by Phi Beta Kappa. Walburg’s portfolio includes parts of a novel, poetry and her thesis on the history and evolution of the graphic novel, which incorporates her research on Aristotle and Pulitzer-Prize winning graphic novelist Art Spiegelman. “Erica’s work reflects her Midwestern roots and her interest in the marriage of the verbal and the visual,” the committee said of her writing. “As she says in the introduction to her portfolio, she wants to return words to their basic function as visual symbols.” 

The five finalists, all graduating seniors who submitted portfolios of their writing to be judged, will travel to New York City for a special program and reception on May 15. There, in a private club in midtown Manhattan, they will read selections from their portfolios and then hold their breath as internationally renowned novelist Colum McCann opens an envelope and announces the winner. The entire program will be livestreamed through the Washington College Web site ( beginning at 6:30 p.m.

The actual check, in the amount of $58,274.11, will be awarded during Washington College’s 229th commencement on Sunday morning, May 20.

A total of 35 seniors applied for the Prize, and they represented a mix of disciplines—not only the expected English majors and Creative Writing minors, but also 15 other majors that included Physics, Philosophy, Business Management, Art and International Relations. The finalists and the eventual winner were selected by members of the Sophie Kerr Committee — the 13 full-time members of the English faculty plus the College president. Committee chair Kathryn Moncrief, chair of the English Department, says this was a strong year for student writing. “This year’s portfolios were remarkable for the scope of their concerns and topics and the depth with which they handled them,” she elaborated. “We could easily have doubled the number of finalists we selected.”

This is only the second time in the 45-year history of the prize that the Sophie Kerr Committee has named finalists. In the past, the name of the single recipient was announced during Commencement, but the names of those who came close remained a secret the committee members vowed not to disclose.

This is also the second year that author McCann, whose novel Let the Great World Spin won the 2009 National Book Award and the 2011 International IMPAC Dublin Literary Award, will offer keynote remarks and announce the winner.

In holding the announcement ceremony in New York, the College acknowledges the importance of the city as the literary capital of the world and the personal journey of Prize benefactor Sophie Kerr.  A native of Denton, Md., Kerr moved to New York as a young woman and built a successful 40-year career as national magazine editor and writer. Her townhouse on East 38th Street became a literary salon for her friends in journalism and the arts. At her death, she bequeathed much of her estate to Washington College, with the stipulation that half its income would be awarded annually to the senior showing “the most ability and promise for future fulfillment in the field of literary endeavor.”

The other half of the endowment brings a steady stream of notable writers, authors and editors to campus for readings and workshops, provides scholarships for students who show literary promise, pays for library books, and supports various other literary activities.