Elizabeth T. Gray, Jr., of New York, New York, is the 2012 winner of the Beloit Poetry Journal’s 20th 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 Gray’s poem “Albania,” which appeared in the Winter 2011/2012 issue.
Gray is a world traveler and translator of Persian and Tibetan literature. Her translations of Iran’s major mystical poet, Hafiz, were published in 1995 by White Cloud Press as The Green Sea of Heaven: Fifty Ghazals from the Diwan-i Hafiz-i Shirazi. She has also performed Hafiz’s poetry in concert with Iranian musicians. Currently, she is translating with her colleague Siddiq Wahid a pre-Buddhist oral version of Tibet’s primary folk epic, King Kesar of Ling. She kept her own poetry to herself until 2005, when she entered the Master of Fine Arts program at Warren Wilson College and began submitting work to literary journals. Her poems have since appeared in The Cimarron Review, The Harvard Review, Kenyon Review Online, The New Orleans Review, Poetry International, Provincetown Arts, and other publications.
“Albania” makes very contemporary use of one element of the traditional ghazal, the repetition of a word at the end of each line— in this case the name of the country that, despite its location in southeastern Europe, was locked up for decades behind the Iron Curtain and completely inaccessible to Westerners. The speaker of the poem describes a day trip she made to post-Cold War Albania, only to discover how mundane the forbidden can be once it’s no longer out of bounds. The poem’s obsessive repetition of “Albania” stands in for all the obsessions of the Cold War and generates a deadpan humor that coexists in perfect tension with the insights the poem provokes:
When I came back everyone asked about Albania.
They said, “What did you see in Albania?”
I began to reply but that was enough of Albania.
Perhaps it was hard for them. The idea of Albania.
Maybe they never had an Albania.
The Walsh Prize, which this year carries a cash award of $4000, 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.
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," and Jenny Johnson for "Aria." All poems published in the BPJ in 2013 will be eligible for that year's prize.