Photography courtesy of Washington College
Fear, hope, anxiety, racing heart, shuddering bouts of inadequacy, sudden serenity in acceptance of the Fates’ apportioning whatever the outcome might be…these are a few of the feelings coursing through the minds of finalists hoping to snag the largest undergraduate literary award in the world: the Sophie Kerr Prize, given each year to a graduating student at Washington College in Chestertown.
Forty years ago, popular Denton-born writer Sophie Kerr—author of 23 novels, 500 short stories, and innumerable magazine articles—left a small fortune to Washington College, along with a carefully worded will requiring a monetary award to be given to a graduating student exhibiting the most “promise for future fulfillment in the field of literary endeavor.”
Last year, the award was a staggering $61,000, one facet of a bequest that also funds a visiting writer’s series—which has featured over 200 prominent writers so far—along with scholarships and books for the library.
Boldly changing the award-ceremony venue in 2011 from the rolling summer lawns of Chestertown to New York City, the Sophie Kerr Committee at Washington College is finding a wider audience and more recognition for its talented writers.
Dr. Kathryn Moncrief, chair of the English department and the Kerr committee, sees her part in the selection process as a gift.
“In my experience, the process of choosing a winner is not a divisive one. Sure, it’s intense, but when we walk out of the final selection meeting, we feel good about being a part of it. It’s an honor bestowed upon us as much as the finalists. Someone wins, and the others do not—welcome to the literary life!”
Emma Sovich, 2008 recipient of the prize and now editor of the long-established Black Warrior Review at the University of Alabama, recalls the crazy trajectory of submitting a portfolio.
“Even after I spent more than a year identifying my core interests and where I wanted to go as a writer, I spent 10 hours the night before the submission deadline editing my portfolio. I made my poor roommate read through the ordering of items and check for typos. I was an utter wreck. I think it was delivered barely in time.”
But it’s not all about frenzy, fear, and anticipation. Many applicants discover something that will last longer than even the payout from a substantial check.
Insley Smullen, a 2011 finalist for the award, describes the process as having given her a “voice.” A poet and photographer now living and writing in Savannah, Georgia, she continues to feel the effect of crafting her portfolio.
“For me, the whole point of the Sophie Kerr Prize process was to get one’s act together. I floundered for a couple of years trying to find my voice, my vantage point as a writer, but when I decided to submit a portfolio, things began to happen. I was forced to focus, having made the commitment to create a collection of work. The pressure energized my search, and I’m still running with the momentum it gave me.”
And after the glam-shock of winning a literary prize monetarily larger than the Pulitzer Prize and the National Book Award? Many recipients search for perspective.
“Every once in awhile, I have a pang of ‘am I fulfilling the promise they saw in me?’” Sovich says. “But mostly, it was a boon from Aunt Sophie, who seemed to be saying, ‘Here, I hope this helps you get on your feet.’”
Writer James Dissette was awarded the Sophie Kerr Prize in 1971.