Pittsburgh Poet Wins 2015 Whiting Award | Blogh

Pittsburgh Poet Wins 2015 Whiting Award

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Jenny Johnson is as surprised as anyone that she was named one of 10 winners of the 2015 Whiting Award, one of the most prestigious in literature.

Jenny Johnson
  • Jenny Johnson
Johnson, who teaches at Pitt, was one of four Whiting winners in poetry. She received the news by phone a few weeks ago and had to keep it secret until last night’s ceremony at the New-York Historical Society.

“The news was surreal,” she told CP today by phone. “It feels like an affirmation to keep writing.”

The Whiting comes with a cash prize of $50,000 for each writer. Past winners have included such future luminaries in poetry, fiction, nonfiction and drama as Jonathan Franzen, Mona Simpson, David Foster Wallace, Susan-Lori Parks, Jeffrey Eugenides, Tony Kushner and Tracy K. Smith.

Past winners with Pittsburgh connections include Terrance Hayes, the poet and Pitt professor who’s also won a National Book Award and a Guggenheim “genius” grant. Another was August Wilson.

The Whiting is awarded “based on early accomplishment and the promise of great work to come,” according to a statement from The Whiting Foundation. Writers are nominated anonymously and chosen in secret, by an anonymous panel of judges.

Yet Johnson, a native of Winchester, Va., who’s lived in Pittsburgh for five years, seems an especially under-the-radar candidate. Among the four poets to win this year, for instance, she’s the only one without a published poetry collection.

Still, her individual poems have been published in The Best American Poetry 2012, Troubling the Line: Trans & Genderqueer Poetry & Poetics, New England Review, Los Angeles Review of Books Quarterly and Waxwing. Somewhat unusual among contemporary poets, some of her work is in sonnet form.

And Johnson says she has completed her first collection, titled In Full Velvet. Maybe the Whiting will help her find a publisher.

Johnson, 35, lectures in Pitt’s writing program. She has also taught high school English in San Francisco’s public school system and was a staffer on the University of Virginia’s Young Writer’s Workshop.

What’s her plan for the cash prize? “I’m planning to do something practical and something playful,” she says. “I’m not sure.”

Other Whiting winners this year include former Pittsburgher Elena Passarello, for nonfiction. Passarello, who studied at Pitt and in these parts was also known as a stage performer, is now an assistant professor of English at Oregon State University. (Back in the day, dare we say, she was also an occasional CP contributor.) Her critically acclaimed first book was Let Me Clear My Throat.

For a complete list of winners, see here.

If you can make it up to Brooklyn by 7 p.m. tonight, you can catch Johnson and the other winners in a reading tonight at BookCourt.

Here's Johnson's poem "Late Bloom," which originally appeared in Troubling the Line: Trans and Genderqueer Poetry and Poetic, edited by TC Tolbert and Trace Peterson.


Late Bloom

The name of the spotted apple
on the leafy floor in the woods

outside the white-walled bedroom
where the FM stereo was always

tuned to the same country
station my girl crush loved

was gall, name for an outgrowth,
a shell withering under leaf rot

near a spot where the surprise lilies
sometimes remember, sometimes

forget to bloom. Touch a weevil
and it will fall, legs and antennae tucked.

Blink and the artic fox becomes snow.
The gecko, toes spread wide

on a tree trunk, passes for lichen.
Of all the ways a creature can conceal itself,

I must have relied on denial.
There were the Confederate bumper stickers,

pressures from seniors to tail gate,
the spindly legs of a freshman

scissoring out of a trash can,
how just the smell of Old Spice

could make my muscles contract
like a moth wings folded,

the color of a dead leaf in October.
So that she might hear her favorite song

my voice would drop, and if the DJ answered
I would be Tim, Charlie, Luke, Jason

every name but my own.
Truer than gold.

Wasn’t I the stripe in a tiger’s eye?
The dapple in the flanks of an Appaloosa?

In daylight, how could I possibly explain:
A heart hunting after a body?


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