Postscripts: Cohen Award Winners, Victoria Chang and Joan Wickersham

by Don Lee

Cohen Awards Each year, we honor the best poem and short story published in Ploughshares with the Cohen Awards, which are wholly sponsored by our longtime patrons Denise and Mel Cohen. Finalists are nominated by staff editors, and the winners—each of whom receives a cash prize of $600—are selected by our advisory editors. The 2007 Cohen Awards for work published in Ploughshares in 2006, Volume 32, go to Victoria Chang and Joan Wickersham. (All of the works mentioned here are accessible on our website at www.pshares.org.)

Victoria Chang for her poem " Proof" in Spring 2006, edited by Kevin Young.

Victoria Chang was born in Detroit, Michigan, in 1970 and raised in the suburb of West Bloomfield. Her parents were immigrants from Taiwan, her father an engineer at Ford Motor Company and her mother a mathematics teacher in the Detroit school system. Although Chang dabbled in writing as a child, she didn't become serious about it until college. "I started writing because I was conflicted—as a lot of young people can be—about career choices, life in general, gender issues, ethnicity, identity, etc.," she says. At the University of Michigan, she studied Asian history and politics and took a couple of poetry writing workshops on the side. She received an M.A. from Harvard in Asian Studies and then went to work in investment banking and management consulting, later getting an M.B.A. from Stanford. She didn't write any poetry for nearly ten years, but after she left the corporate world to focus on business writing, she returned to get an M.F.A. from Warren Wilson. "My business background has allowed me to be gainfully employed, which is important to me as a woman and as the child of immigrants. Interestingly, not working directly in poetry has allowed me always to have perspective about poetry-related happenings. I don't feel rushed or desperate. I'm a turtle—I develop slowly and just live my life, work hard at my poems, and hope for the best."

Chang's first book, Circle, won the Crab Orchard Review Series in Poetry award, and was published by Southern Illinois University Press in 2005. The book also won the Association of Asian American Studies Book Award. Her poems have appeared in or are forthcoming in The Paris Review, The Nation, Poetry, The New Republic, The Threepenny Review, The Kenyon Review, The Virginia Quarterly Review, Slate, Pleiades, Ploughshares, TriQuarterly, and Best American Poetry 2005. She is the editor of the anthology Asian American Poetry: The Next Generation, published by the University of Illinois Press in 2004. She resides in Irvine, California, and makes her living as a business writer. Currently, she is working on a new manuscript and raising a new baby girl.

About "Proof," Chang writes: "The poem was inspired by little snippets of information from my parents about relatives that I have in Mainland China and what happened to them. My grandmother had left to go to Taiwan during the war, while her sister had stayed in Mainland China, and thus started two entirely different lives that unfolded in very different ways. I often think about how random events like that have led to my being born and my fruitful life in the United States. My great-uncle was killed for being a landowner and an intellectual, like so many people during the Cultural Revolution. Our relatives have contacted us, but I've never met them. Their history and state of poverty is truly overwhelming, and I believe it frightens my parents. For this poem, I thought a straight narrative would be uninteresting, so I wanted to create something different, and thus I used a 'structure,' or the math nomenclature, to help me write the poem."

Joan Wickersham for her story " The Woodwork" in Fall 2006, edited by Ron Carlson.

Joan Wickersham was born in 1957 in New York City and grew up there and in Connecticut. She graduated with a degree in art history from Yale, where she also studied writing with John Hersey. "He emphasized patience, revision, and the need to be steadily and fully dedicated to writing. I wasn't ready for a lot of what he taught, but I remember things he said, and I've understood them better over the years." After college she moved with her husband to the Boston area and worked in advertising. Her first short story appeared in The Hudson Review and The Best American Short Stories and grew into a novel, The Paper Anniversary, published by Viking in 1993. Her work has appeared in publications including Agni, Glimmer Train, Story, and The Boston Globe, and she has contributed on-air essays to the NPR shows On Point and Morning Edition. She also writes frequently about architecture, including a regular column, "The Lurker," that she created for Architecture Boston magazine.

About "The Woodwork," which concerns suicide, Wickersham writes: "My father committed suicide in 1991. When I got the news, I didn't believe it, but at the same time I thought, 'Of course.' It seemed at once impossible and inevitable; and that was the paradox I started trying to write about. Figuring out how to tell the story took years of false starts. Eventually I completed a numb, lyrical, chronological, third-person novel which didn't really work, and which I finally set aside. A year later, I was awarded a fellowship at the MacDowell Colony. The first day there, I looked at the draft of the novel, which I had hoped to revise, and saw clearly that what I really needed to do was junk it. Only a couple of pieces survived. Very scary, but necessary. The next day I started writing again, a lot of the same material I'd covered before, but mostly in first-person, and in a way that straddled the line between fiction and memoir. Not in the fudging-the-truth way that has been so controversial in the past few years—I had always been writing about true events that happened around my father's death. The genre questions I struggled with had to do with how to tell the story. Create a fictional character and say, 'Her father killed himself'? Or be a little more naked, and say, 'My father killed himself'—but at the same time employ some of the techniques of fiction: dialogue, dramatized scenes, and a less-than-omniscient authorial voice, which seemed particularly important in the case of suicide, where not knowing, and never knowing, is such an integral part of the story. The day after I finished another section of the book, I went into the studio expecting to drink tea, listen to music, and putter. But I started thinking about all the people I knew and had met since my father's death who'd had suicide in their families. And about the weird bond that seems to form between people who have experienced this terribly lonely event—how the common experience sort of unites you, but ultimately leaves you alone. Once it got started, 'The Woodwork' poured out in a couple of hours."

Wickersham's book, The Suicide Index, will be published by Harcourt next year.

MORE AWARDS Our congratulations to the following writers, whose work has been selected for these anthologies:

BEST STORIES Mary Gordon's "Eleanor's Music," from the Spring 2006 issue edited by Kevin Young, Aryn Kyle's "Allegiance," from the Fall 2006 issue edited by Ron Carlson, and Kate Walbert's "Do Something," from the Winter 2006–07 issue edited by Rosanna Warren, will be included in The Best American Short Stories 2007—the most selections from any magazine. The anthology is due out this October from Houghton Mifflin, with Stephen King as the guest editor and Heidi Pitlor as the series editor.

PUSHCARTS Lauren Groff's story "Lucky Chow Fun," from the Fall 2006 issue, and Edward Hirsch's poem "Soustine: A Show of Still Lifes," from the Winter 2005–06 issue edited by David St. John, have been selected for The Pushcart Prize XXXII: Best of the Small Presses, which will be published by Bill Henderson's Pushcart Press this November.

DEPARTURES With the production of this issue, Don Lee and David Daniel ended their long time tenurenineteen and fifteen years respectivelyat Ploughshares. Don Lee is now teaching creative writing at Macalester College in St. Paul, and David Daniel is the director of undergraduate creative writing at Fairleigh Dickinson University, where he is also a poetry editor for The Literary Review. They are indebted to all the staff editors, volunteer readers, interns, and of course guest editors and writers they had the privilege of working with over the years.

Copyright © Don Lee


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Guest-edited by:
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Andrea Barrett