Issue 106 |
Fall 2008

Postscripts: Cohen Award Winners Jennifer Grotz and Bret Anthony Johnston

by Staff

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 2008 Cohen Awards for work published in Ploughshares in 2007, Volume 33, go to Jennifer Grotz and Bret Anthony Johnston. (All of the works mentioned here are accessible on our website at www.pshares.org.)

Jennifer Grotz for her poem "The Life and Times of George Van den Heuvel" in Winter 2007–08, edited by Philip Levine.

Jennifer Grotz was born in Canyon, Texas (a small town just south of Amarillo) in 1971. Although her family moved around often, in part because of her father's job as an insurance salesman, she spent the first eighteen years of her life in Texas, and still considers the state her home. "I can't remember not writing," she says. "There weren't many books in our household, but my family was very religious and even before I could read, I had a children's illustrated version of the Bible. Some of my earliest memories are of adding my own lines and illustrations with a pencil to that copy of the Bible. A religious upbringing provided me with a strong connection to a key text—including memorization of many verses and passages—as well as an interest in close reading and a reverence for language—be it musical, poetic, or prayer-like."

Grotz graduated from Lubbock High School—the same school attended by Buddy Holly—and received a scholarship to attend Tulane University. At Tulane, she majored in English, French, and Art History and spent her junior year in France, studying literature and art history at the Sorbonne. "Utterly penniless, it was nonetheless one of the richest years of my life," she says. She began her study of poetry at Tulane, working with the poet Peter Cooley, then went on to receive her M.F.A. from Indiana University. After graduate school, Grotz spent several years working a variety of jobs, from arts administration to waitressing, before going back to obtain her Ph.D. from the University of Houston. There, she apprenticed with the poets Adam Zagajewski and Edward Hirsch, and at their invitation organized the Krakow Poetry Seminar, a weeklong celebration and exploration of the cross-pollination between American and Polish poetry.

Grotz's first book, Cusp, was chosen by Yusef Komunyakaa for the Bakeless Prize, and was published by Houghton Mifflin in 2003. Individual poems and translations from the French and Polish have appeared widely, and her work has been the recipient of awards and fellowships from the Texas Institute of Letters and the Fellowship of Southern Writers. She currently serves as the assistant director of the Bread Loaf Writers Conference, in addition to teaching in the M.F.A. Program at the University of North Carolina at Greensboro. This spring semester, thanks to grants from the Rona Jaffe and Camargo Foundations, Grotz was able to return to France, where she's been working on her second book of poems, as well as a book of translations of the "psalms" and other poems of Patrice de La Tour du Pin.

About "The Life and Times of George Van den Heuvel," Jennifer Grotz writes: "Like many of the poems in my book-in-progress, this poem is preoccupied with the past—both how time acts as an editor and how a poem might act as a vessel to contain and query memory. But mostly, 'The Life and Times of George Van den Heuvel' arose from an urge I had to write a poem that included humor of some kind, something my poems seem impoverished of by and large. Although I conflated a couple of the minimum wage jobs I worked in high school to save money for college, the content of the poem is unusually unadulterated autobiography."

Bret Anthony Johnston for his story "Republican" in Fall 2007, edited by Andrea Barrett.

Born in 1971, Bret Anthony Johnston was raised in Corpus Christi, Texas. His father was a supervisor at the Corpus Christi Army Depot and his mother worked as an accountant. He began writing seriously in high school, focusing more on poetry than fiction, but, he says, "After attending a reading by the novelist Robert Stone, I devoted myself exclusively to the prose forms." He attended Del Mar Community College before transferring to Texas A&M-Corpus Christi, where he earned a B.A. in English with Highest Honors. Two days after graduating, he began the graduate program at Miami University in Oxford, Ohio. After taking the M.A. in English at Miami, he was accepted to the Writers' Workshop at the University of Iowa, where he studied with Frank Conroy, Ethan Canin, Marilynne Robinson, James Alan McPherson and Chris Offutt. He received an M.F.A. in fiction in 2002.

Johnston is the editor of Naming the World: And Other Exercises for the Creative Writer, and the author of the internationally acclaimed Corpus Christi: Stories, both from Random House. His fiction has received numerous awards, including a fellowship from the National Endowment for the Arts and a National Book Award honor for writers under thirty-five. He is currently finishing a novel, which will also be published by Random House, and he is the Director of Creative Writing at Harvard University.

In addition to the Cohen Award, "Republican" was selected for inclusion in New Stories from the South: The Year's Best 2008. About the story, Johnston writes: "The story was ten years in the making, literally. I wrote a first draft in 1998, and although the draft failed in every conceivable way, I couldn't make myself throw out the (floppy) disk on which it was saved. Some years I thought about Carlos, some years I didn't, but I was always comforted by the fact that he was still with me. Writing is, I believe, an act of faith.

"Then, last year, I was frustrated by a difficult chapter in my novel, so I decided to take a break and work on something else. In the ten years since I'd started 'Republican' (which my friends and I call 'The Carlos Story'), I'd secreted away other ideas—a father shredding a ragtop, an expensive guitar, a mother who calls her son in the middle of the night—and, though I didn't anticipate them all fitting in the same story, I'm delighted that they seem to fit well enough here."