Fiona Chamness of Ann Arbor, Michigan, is the 2014 winner of the Beloit Poetry Journal’s 22nd annual Chad Walsh Poetry Prize. The editors of the BPJ select on the basis of its excellence a poem or group of poems they have published in the calendar year to receive the award. This year’s choice is Chamness’s poem “Choreography for Ensemble,” which appeared in the Fall 2014 issue. The prize carries a cash award this year of $4,000.
Although she completed her undergraduate studies at Oberlin College only two years ago, Chamness is already a presence in the Midwest performance poetry community, often participating as the featured poet in Chicago and Ann Arbor slam events. In addition to the Beloit Poetry Journal, her poetry has appeared in PANK, Blood Lotus, Radius Lit, Muzzle Magazine, the teaching workbook Underneath, and the anthologies Decibels and Uncommon Core: Contemporary Poems for Learning and Living. Feral Citizens, her split poetry collection with poet Aimée Lê, was published in 2011 by Red Beard Press. She sings and plays lead guitar for the feminist punk band Cutting Room Floor and released a solo album, Dispatches From The Well, in 2012. Chamness promotes literature at Nicola's Books and works with teen writers and poets at the Neutral Zone, Ann Arbor's teen center.
Chamness’s prize-winning poem is intricate and formally accomplished; it is a crown of sonnets, fifteen linked poems that cohere into a work that is at once an homage to famed dancer/ choreographers Bob Fosse, Pina Bausch, and Nina Simone, an elegy to a beloved dance instructor, and a story of the speaker’s developing sexual identity. These elements come together in language that is direct and sense-driven, as full of energy as it is of grief. In the tenth sonnet in “Choreography for Ensemble,” (titled “Kontakthof” after Pina Bausch’s dance-theater piece depicting an eternal battle of the sexes), Chamness writes,
Say what it was you had to say
for breath and growth, the heart as it expands
its catacombs and trailers (then balloons
to bursting? combusts above its basket?)
When the theater is empty, one light stays
for ghosts. . . .
The Walsh Prize was established in 1993 by Alison Walsh Sackett and her husband Paul in honor of Ms. Sackett’s father, the poet Chad Walsh (1914-1991), a co-founder in 1950 of the Beloit Poetry Journal. An author and scholar, Walsh published six volumes of poetry, including The End of Nature and Hang Me Up My Begging Bowl; several books on literary history, notably on C.S. Lewis; and edited textbooks and anthologies as well. He was professor and writer-in-residence at Beloit College, in Wisconsin, for thirty-two years, serving for many of those as chair of the English Department. He also taught as a Fulbright lecturer in Finland and Italy. This year's award is also supported by donations from several previous Walsh Prize winners.
Previous winners of the Chad Walsh award are Kurt Leland for "Remedies"
(1993), Albert Goldbarth for The Two Domains (1994), Sherman Alexie
for "Defending Walt Whitman"
and "At the Trial of Hamlet,
Chicago, 1994" (1995), Robert Chute for "Heat
Wave in Concord" (1996), Mary Leader for "For
the Love of Gerald Finzi" (1997), Lucia Perillo for "The
Oldest Map with the Name America" (1998), Janet Holmes for "Partch
Stations" (1999), Margaret Aho for four interrelated poems,
"I dream I'm leaving,"
"Between wand and welt,"
"When he emerged–,"
and "Eye-shaped, mouth-shaped"
(2000), Glori Simmons for "Graft"
(2001), Patricia Goedicke for "Hole"(2002),
Mary Molinary for “from
Eve’s Epistle to Lilith” and “Ashes
of burned manuscripts adrift in the wind, so" (2003), Jessica
Goodfellow for “A Pilgrim’s
Guide to Chaos in the Heartland” (2004), Karl Elder for a group of poems from Z Ain't Just for Zabecedarium (2005), Sam Reed for "from The Book of Zeros" (2006), Susan Tichy for "Stork" (2007), John Hodgen for .a set of four poems by Hodgen which appeared in the Summer 2008 issue, Onna Solomon for "Autism Suite" (2009), Charles Wyatt for “Thirteen Ways of Looking at Wallace Stevens," Jenny Johnson for "Aria," Elizabeth T. Gray, Jr. for "Albania," and Ocean Vuong for "Telemachus."
All poems published in the BPJ in 2014 will be eligible for that year's prize.