Visiting Ole Miss professor wins National Endowment of Arts award
Jan. 9, 2003
By Deidra Jackson
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 Reviews Prize in Poetry for a First Book, considered one of the nations 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 NEAs 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 Ive 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 moments literary chatter,” he said. “Her vision is expansive and her voice is strong; she is an original.”
Since 1990, 40 winners of NEAs literature fellowship have become recipients of the National Book Award, National Book Critics Circle Award and Pulitzers in fiction and poetry.
But Fennellys 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 Fennellys 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 Claires 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, Fennellys 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 bachelors 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 masters 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.
Fennellys poems have been published in numerous literary reviews, including TriQuarterly, Michigan Quarterly Review, American Scholar, and Washington and Lee Universitys Shenandoah. Her poetry has been anthologized in The Pushcart Prize 2001: Best of the Small Presses and Poets of the New Century.
Fennellys work “Poem Not to Be Read at Your Wedding” was included in Best American Poetry 1996, Penguins 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.
Fennellys husband, novelist Tom Franklin, authored the short story collection Poachers and was UMs 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. Franklins 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 Fennellys first book. “Beth Ann Fennellys 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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