Keene Prize for Literature Winner and Finalists
Posted: May 10, 2013
Karan Mahajan, Jenn Shapland, Katherine Noble, and Corey Miller
The Department of English congratulates English Honors student Katherine Noble on winning the Keene Prize for Literature, as well as finalists Karan Mahajan and Corey Miller from the Michener Center for Writers, and finalist Jenn Shapland, English graduate student. Noble is the first undergraduate student to win or even place in the Keene competition. The Department of English applauds this incredible achievement!
The Keene Prize for Literature, judged by the Scholarship Commitee of the College of Liberal Arts, is one of the world's largest student literary prizes. Each year, the commitee awards $50,000 to an undergraduate or graduate student who demonstrates "the greatest artistic merit and narrative mastery of the English language and…show[s] the greatest promise of becoming a professional writer." Another $50,000 is divided between three finalists of similar promise.
Winner of the Keene Prize for Literature
A graduating senior who studied English Honors with a minor in Philosophy, Katherine Noble won the Keene Prize for her collection of poems, “Like Electrical Fire Across the Silence.” As Noble described in an e-mail, the collection explores “themes of intimacy and mythology-- both classical and religious” through the voice of narrators that “often wrestle to understand how God interacts with the physical world.”
These themes continue to interest Noble who is just beginning work on a group of poems “loosely about the Via Dolorosa or the Stations of the Cross.” Unable to shake her interest in “religiously-inspired poems,” Noble said that she loved "that in the South, Christianity is the cultural vernacular.” For her, “subverting this vernacular into art that is original, affecting, and dare I say heretical, is a tireless challenge.”
Less than a week from graduation, Noble says she is appreciative of her time at UT. She cited her poetry classes with Pete LaSalle and David Wevill as instrumental to her passion for writing, and expressed gratitude for the mentorship and support of both Michael Adams and Coleman Hutchison during her thesis work on poet Frank Stanford. As she put it, “it has truly been an honor to attend a research university that still champions and recognizes its artists as much as it recognizes its engineers and scientists -- I am very proud to be a longhorn.”
From “In the Empire of Flesh”
Keats loved watching Fanny Brawne unlace her braid before bed. Her
needle fingers lost in the dark rope like the exposed spines of
nightingales buried into sky. Passion welling up in his small, red
frame. He wrote her once, saying, My love is selfish. I cannot breathe
without you. They opened Keats' chest three days after he died, and
saw his lungs were completely gone. We sit on the porch as the red sun
contracts and falls away like a miscarriage. I do not believe in
tragedy in the classic sense, he tells me as I read a collection of
Euripides’ plays. Herakles, bound to a pillar and silenced by the
death-soft body of Megara, says that the gods, if immortal, have no
desires. Herakles’ only desire was first to be brave, and now to die.
You just have a catastrophic imagination, he adds. You cannot help but
anticipate tragic endings. If the gods desire nothing, what could they
know of this underworld of our shame?
Finalists for the Keene Prize for Literature
Corey Miller, a second-time finalist for the prize, is a student of the Michener Center for Writers with a Bachelor’s degree from Southern Illinois University Carbondale. This year, he won the prize for his collection of poems, “The New Concentration,” a series of elegies centered around family life in rural America. For the collection, Miller pulled from the stories of his father, a coalmine inspector who “frequently deal[s] with fatalities in mines.” Describing his concerns about “Wal-mart-ification” and the loss of distinctive, local cultures, Miller explained that his work focuses on his home as “an elegy for someone that's not dead but dying.”
Currently, Miller is working on a longer poem modeled after underworld mythology—particularly Dante’s Inferno. Interested in exploring the connections between Greek and Roman mythology and coal mining, he considers each miner to be like Persephone, condemned to the underworld. For these miners, “every single day is a winter and a spring” from which they must “they go and return more often than she does.”
“Willow Creek Mine”
Tender the pink
inside my lungs, tender the snow
wreathed round my voice, tender
the nails of death when my father
found the miner pinned by his own machine
against a wall of coal and expected him to look embarrassed or ashamed,
but he didn’t. He looked like a caryatid supporting nothing,
not even himself, and then they buried him in a suit
instead of his obsidian-kissed coveralls
as though he’d died at a business meeting
or been killed by one,
which he had
Jenn Shapland, who earned her Bachelor’s degree in Literary Studies and Italian at Middlebury College in Vermont, is a fourth year graduate student in the English department whose scholarship focuses on contemporary literature and place. Her prize-winning essays, “Finders, Keepers” and “Too Much Life: Cataloguing The Pale King,” come from a collection in progress titled The Library of Indelible Things, inspired by her experience working with archival materials.
A Public Services intern at the Harry Ransom Center, Shapland has “spent a lot of time thinking about the nature and function of archives, from the inside out.” She sees her writing as a place to express “how surreal it is to handle and itemize famous entities' personal belongings--cigarette lighters, handkerchiefs, socks.” At present, she is working on a series of letters written to objects from the Personal Effects collections she has worked to catalogue—“Gertrude Stein's half-moon eyeglasses, for example.” In addition to these projects, Shapland is beginning to prepare for her dissertation, hoping to focus on contemporary literature, place, and environment.
From “Finders, Keepers”
“I vaguely recall my tour of the vault, at the end of several long orientation days during which I first encountered all the nuanced strangenesses of this cavernous building. Earlier in the tour I had stopped my supervisor midsentence to ask if it was really true that, in case of fire, a high-powered ventilation system simply sucked the oxygen right out of the building, preserving invaluable paper items and instantly killing anyone inside. My eyes fixed on some suspicious tubing overhead. He laughed and replied no—they got rid of that years ago.”
Karan Mahajan is a student of the Michener Center for Writers at UT. He entered the creative writing program after earning his Bachelor’s degree in English and Economics at Stanford University. He won the prize for an excerpt from his novel in progress, titled “Notes on a Small Bombing.” The excerpt focuses on a couple that lose their children in a marketplace bombing.
The novel is set in New Delhi, but Mahajan declined to give any more information about it: “Talking about a work in progress can jinx the project.” A writer who takes interest in “the way shame and embarrassment shape the private lives of people,” Mahajan uses his work to explore “how we often perform for others even when they aren't around.” For the moment, he is dreaming ahead to the novel’s completion. When asked about what excites him, he said, “What excites me the most is reaching the finish line!”
About the Keene Prize
The Keene Prize for Literature was founded by E. L. Keene, a 1942 graduate of the College of Liberal Arts at the University of Texas at Austin who envisioned a prize that would honor and support the pursuit of great American writing. Keene hoped "to encourage the writing and publishing of good American Literature, to lend financial support to the creators of such literature, and to enhance the prestige and reputation in the world market of American writers both now and in the future." According to Keene's wishes, the prize is awarded to students who create "the most vivid and vital portrayal of the American experience in microcosm."