Jane Mead and Rebecca Soppe, Cohen Awards
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 2004 Cohen Awards for work published in Ploughshares in 2003, Volume 29, go to Jane Mead and Rebecca Soppe. (All of the works mentioned here are accessible on our website at pshares.org.)
Jane Mead for her poem "Was Light,—" in Spring 2003, edited by Carl Phillips.
Jane Mead was born in Baltimore in 1958 and lived in Cambridge, Massachusetts, until she was twelve. Her father taught ichthyology at Harvard and directed the Museum of Comparative Zoology there. Some of Mead's earliest memories are associated with the basement of the museum—"the smell of formaldehyde," she says, "and wandering through the aisles between shelves and shelves of pickled creatures in all phases of development. It was endlessly captivating." After Cambridge, she moved around a great deal with her mother and stepfather, who was a journalist, living in New Mexico, London, and Cambridge, England.
Her early schooling was, she admits, less than stellar—she flunked first grade, and never graduated from high school, but finally earned degrees in economics from Vassar College and in English and creative writing from Syracuse University and the University of Iowa. "The generosity of my writing teachers came to me as an immense gift after a very difficult decade between college and graduate school—Philip Booth and Tess Gallagher at Syracuse, and later Ira Sadoff, Jerry Stern, Jim Galvin, Jorie Graham, and Alan Williamson. Since then, my friends, a great many of whom are poets, have been my community—far-flung as it is."
She has taught writing at a number of schools, including Wake Forest University, where she was Poet-in-Residence for many years. Following the death of her father in 2003, she began managing the family ranch in Northern California and teaching in the low-residency M.F.A. program at New England College.
Philip Levine chose her first book, The Lord and the General Din of the World, for publication by Sarabande Books in 1996, and in 2001 the University of Illinois published her second book, House of Poured-Out Waters. She has been the recipient of awards from the Guggenheim, Lannan, and Whiting foundations.
About "Was Light," Mead writes: "The poem came to me through images remembered, imagined, and present. The statements in the poem—the declarations—came out of the mixing of those images, in that mysterious way poems have of transforming 'material' into an at least momentary 'truth.' For example, the 'glassy / branches of the apple tree' and the burrowing insects are images from Iowa in different seasons; 'Blades / of grass mixed with snow' is imagined, as is the mountain, while the 'future' garden is the real garden in which I was working when the poem began; the deodar tree is in California and North Carolina—thus the sense of overlap which eventually leads to the beams of light, which are imagined, as opposed to thought up. It occurs to me now that most of the images that are presented as real are imagined, and vice versa, and that while I was not aware of this at the time of writing the poem, that certainly led to the end, when the boundary between the inner and outer worlds is at issue. Sometimes a moment comes along when such disparate elements seem to search each other out and combine in ways that enable them to coexist."
Rebecca Soppe was born in 1976 in Two Rivers, Wisconsin, and grew up in Illinois. Her mother was a schoolteacher before becoming a full-time homemaker, and her father is a district manager for Sears, Roebuck & Company. Soppe earned her B.A. in English from Southern Illinois University Edwardsville, where she focused her studies on medieval literature, and she put herself through school by working as a hotel front-desk clerk for five years.
In 2003, she received her M.F.A. from the University of Florida, where she worked with Catherine Bush, Jill Ciment, David Leavitt, and Padgett Powell. Enchanted by the sunshine and the Spanish moss, she stayed in the area after finishing her degree, moving first to Jacksonville, where she taught composition for a year at the University of North Florida, and then to Tallahassee, where she will begin a Ph.D. in creative writing this fall at Florida State. She is currently working on a collection of short fiction that includes "The Pantyhose Man," which was her first published story. Her work has since been featured in the Berkeley Fiction Review and is forthcoming in the Bellingham Review.
About her story "The Pantyhose Man," Soppe writes: "I started this while taking a workshop with David Leavitt, where we spent the semester reading 'hotel novels,' a series of books set in European residence hotels during the early part of the twentieth century that feature the polite adventures of an upper class that was perpetually on holiday—books like Christina Stead's The Little Hotel and Willem Elsschot's Villa des Roses. They were wonderful, often hilarious novels, but the world they presented was so far removed from my own experience of hotel life that I thought it would be fun to write something less polite, something from the perspective of the wary, contemporary front-desk clerk. I like to call it my 'no-tell motel' story."