Each fall semester, a group of University of Indianapolis students enrolled in ENGL 479: Etchings Press are tasked with reading poetry collections and novels and awarding one author from each category the Whirling Prize. In 2016, four students, with the help of Assistant Professor of English Elizabeth Whiteacre, read 83 works of literature about women or by women to choose the winners, according to sophomore finance and professional writing major Kara Wagoner. The books ranged from poetry, to memoirs, to creative non-fiction and research-based works and were sent in by different authors and publicists.
At the end of the fall semester, the current Etchings Press class chose the theme for the upcoming year’s class and competition. Letters and postings were sent out, announcing the theme and calling for submissions. Authors or publishers sent in $20, their contact information and a copy of their book in order to be considered. Prize winners received $500, the opportunity to do a reading and sell their books at UIndy and a press kit written and sent out by members of the class. In the past, the number of submissions has averaged about 20, but the theme was so broad this time that it brought in many submissions, and the reading load was heavier than in past years, Wagoner said.
Wagoner said she only read about 10 books cover to cover but gave each one a “fair shot.” She would read the first two chapters of a novel but would read more if the chapter were shorter or less if they were longer. If there were parts with different writing styles or points of view, she would read some of those as well. When it came to poetry collections, Wagoner said she would read several poems from different places in the collection, if not all of them, before moving on to the next book. After getting a feel for the works, Wagoner and her classmates were tasked with giving each a rating from one to five based on their own criteria.
For most of the semester, Wagoner and her classmates took home 10 books, read and rated them, brought them back to class and then took 10 new books home for the next week. If a book received three scores under three, Whiteacre would eliminate it from consideration and the fourth person would not have to read it. Over the course of the last three to four class meetings, the members debated their top five prose and poetry works until they came to a consensus.
“The selection process was hard because a lot of us had different opinions,” Wagoner said. “…. We had the same top five, but then within that five, there was a lot of debate about which ones were actually the best. I think everyone was pleased with the choices at the end, but not everyone got their first choice.”
The winner of the Whirling Prize in Prose was “What Was Mine,” by Helen Klein Ross, an author from New York. Ross wrote the book over the course of six years and published it in 2016.
“It is about a childless woman who comes across a baby momentarily unattended in a shopping cart and means to take the cart to the front of the store but takes her out the exit door and raises her for 21 years as her adopted daughter,” Ross said. “The book opens when the secret is out.”
According to Wagoner, Ross’ novel was chosen as the winner for multiple reasons.
“Just the whole overall packaging of the book was really well done, the cover, the intro, the different style of writing,” Wagoner said. “She wrote from multiple points of view, so we were getting all sides of the story. While motherhood wasn’t the theme necessarily, a lot of our books centered on the theme of motherhood, and I thought that out of all the books about motherhood, that one kind of brought up the most challenging questions.”
Ross said that the idea for the novel came from her own fears as a mother, despite some thinking her writing was based on a true story.
“Well, some people—while I was writing—would send me links to stories in real life, and they would say, ‘Oh, we know what you’re writing about.’ But it really wasn’t from a real story. It was really from my own obsession and neurosis,” she said. “I raised two daughters in New York City, and I was always terrified that they would be kidnapped. So that’s really where the story came from. I think many of the best stories come from your own obsessions.”
Ross also is currently working on another novel that transcends multiple centuries. A family homestead erected in the 19th century is being renovated for a wedding in 2016 when a connection to a crime committed in 1926, a family secret, is revealed. Ross said she has enjoyed researching the different decades and centuries while working on the novel.
The winner of the Whirling Prize in Poetry was “The Open Mouth of the Vase,” by Amy Ash, an assistant professor of English at Indiana State University. The collection was 10 years in the making, Ash said. She began writing the poems during her undergraduate program and continued writing through her M.F.A. program, up until just before the book was published about three years ago.
“It’s a book that contains many coming-of-age poems, and it focuses on speakers who are trying to find their place in the world as daughters, as mothers and as women,” Ash said. “It deals a lot with desire and want and kind of inhabits the space of unfulfilled need, often vacillating between the impulse to escape and the impulse to remain rooted in a place. Also, I lived for about 10 years in New Mexico, so many of the poems are kind of infused with the southwestern landscape, which still works its way into my poems.”
Wagoner said that “The Open Mouth of the Vase” was chosen after she read a few of the poems aloud in class.
“That was the hardest one to debate because there’s so many different alleys you can go with poetry,” she said. “This one, I think the author was pretty vulnerable in her emotions, [and] the word choice was really good. We looked for a variety of styles among the poems. She just kind of did every element that we looked for really well.”
Ash said she has been writing since she was a kid. In fifth grade, she wrote a 60-page novel but turned to poetry in middle school and continued writing and working with her teachers to improve. In college, she took a workshop with poet Tony Hoagland during her freshman year and realized that it was something she could do with her life. Ash started working at ISU in the fall of 2015 and stumbled across the Whirling Prize competition while looking into the teachers and writers in Indiana’s writing community.
“It [the Whirling Prize competition] seemed like a fantastic opportunity,” she said. “I think it’s a really wonderful project. I was excited to see that students have the opportunity to judge, and I think that’s a wonderful experience for them. I wanted to be as involved as possible in the writing community in Indiana, and it just seemed like a good fit, a good opportunity for that.”
In addition to “The Open Mouth of the Vase,” Ash published a chapbook of poetry in 2014 titled “Acme Book of Love.” The chapbook contains many of the poems found in the prizewinning collection, but “The Open Mouth of the Vase” has a darker tone and a more fleshed out narrative, Ash said.
Ash is currently working on a new collection of poetry called “Malady.” She chose the title because it sounds like melody, she said, and the poems deal with sickness, including her father’s battle with brain cancer.
“It’s about illness, disease, and I’m really drawn to the names of illness, [like] the Zika virus, which sounds so lovely but causes so much devastation,” Ash said. “I’m also interested in how beautiful viruses are under microscopes, and so that kind of fine line between beauty and destruction is something I’m playing around with.”
When she learned that she had won the 2016 Whirling Prize in Poetry, Ash said she felt surprised and honored. She is looking forward to reading her poems at UIndy and hearing Ross’ work as well.
“I was thrilled and honored,” she said. “I’m really grateful to Spencer Martin and Gabbie Brown, who wrote so eloquently about my work. I was just floored.”
Ross was pleased to have won as well and, like Ash, is looking forward to visiting UIndy to share her work.
“Oh, it made me very happy,” Ross said. “I was very surprised and very happy. I’m really glad to have written a novel that appeals to younger people.”
The theme for the 2017 Whirling Prize Competition, according to Wagoner, is issues related to social justice, especially works with a focus on urban life, environmentalism and historical movements. Students interested in judging works for the Whirling Prize Competition, or interested in book editing and publishing, should enroll in ENGL 479 for the upcoming fall semester.
Ash and Ross will be at UIndy to read excerpts from their works on Feb. 27. The reading will take place in UIndy Hall C at 7:30 p.m., and copies of their books will be available for purchase.