Getting to Know the Finalists …

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May 05, 2014
To help get to know the five Sophie Kerr Finalist of 2014, we asked them to answer five questions and here is what they wrote.

1) What do you like to write?

2) What do you like to read?

3) What was the first book you loved to read growing up?

4) What is your favorite word and why?

5) What is your favorite memory from your time at Washington College?


Grace Arenas

1) I primarily write poetry, and I’ve been on a kick lately of experimenting with different forms, just to see whether I can create something that works well within their conventions. This has led to some embarrassingly bad pieces, but also some that I really like and will definitely be spending more time with. I also genuinely enjoy writing more academic things; my English thesis on Milton was one of the most fun projects I’ve ever worked on, and I’m really happy with how that turned out.

2) As far as reading goes, Jill Alexander Essbaum and Natasha Trethewey are two of my favorite contemporary poets. And, though substantially less contemporary, I do love Milton. “Paradise Lost” is one of those rare works that I feel I’ll be able to go back to over and over and still learn something new from it with every reading. Also, even though I don’t really write fiction, I do read quite a bit of it. Dawn Powell’s novels with their interlocking timelines and characters are favorites of mine.

3) When my brother was learning to read, he read “The Trumpet of the Swan” out loud to me, and that definitely became a favorite when I went on to be able to read it on my own.

4) “Gobsmacked” is the greatest word ever. There’s something wonderfully onomatopoeic about it, and it’s so much more visceral than “surprised” or “shocked.” Although I don’t use it often. I think I hoard that word so I only use it when I truly am “gobsmacked” by something – it helps it retain, for me anyway, some of its specialness. I think it’s safe to say I was gobsmacked when I heard about being a Sophie Kerr finalist!

5) I have so many favorite WAC memories. I guess meeting everyone freshman year was a highlight; I couldn’t have guessed what close friendships I’d form with people, and how much fun I’d have with them over my time here


Peter Fortenbaugh

1) Pretty much anything. I’m never happier than when I’m scratching paper with a pen. Much of my focus in someway ties back to my fictional island of Johnsontown. I like to explore the ways in which place and home shape who we are as people. My grandfather liked to say that the Eastern Shore is where God is going to go when He decides to retire. I still believe that to be a fact and I can’t help but see the wet landscapes and salty people of the Eastern Shore as irrefutable evidence.  In a way Johnsontown is all about  honoring  this place before the rising water and the inescapable cultural homogenization wipe it out completely. 

2) I’ve been reading Faulkner lately. He does a lot of similar exploration of place and community with Yoknapatawpha County. Another book that was huge in forming me was Beyond the Bedroom Wall by Larry Woiwode. He turns short stories into a novel, which is something that fascinates me. Sometimes a Great Notion by Ken Kesey is another. I remember finishing that book (it’s long as hell) and flipping back to page one and starting it over just because I didn’t want it to end. García Márquez is another writer that I love dearly. Steinbeck and Hemingway are two more. I think it was the two of them that made me think I could write a short story. 

3) Go Dog, Go. I can still stare at those pictures for hours. And the writing? WOW.

4) Moss.

Show me a person who doesn’t love some damp effervescent-green moss in the depths of some shadowy woods and I’ll show you a cold-hearted SOB. 

5) Besides hearing that I was a finalist for the Sophie Kerr? Probably the writing workshops that I was in. There is always this sense of community that grows over a semester of workshopping. You come to love your peer writers’ voices and characters and quirks. Any of the stereotypes or images that you viewed your classmates with on the first day all fall away and by the end of the semester each of them represent a beloved mound of words. It’s something special. 


Alex Stinton

1) I like writing poetry.  When it comes to prose – or at least fiction – I just can’t do it.  I’d like to think I know what makes for good fiction, good storytelling, but it’s felt unnatural whenever I’ve attempted anything.  With poetry, I feel more of a command, a poise.  I know where my feet are planted, and hopefully where to step next.  (Whether that is evident in the work itself is another matter.) 

2) I like reading all sorts of things.  Poetry mostly (a few heroes: Yeats, Frost, Stevens, Larkin, Plath, Heaney) but I try to read a good novel once a month or so, even if it’s a reread.  The last novel I read was Slaughterhouse Five (for about the fifth time).  With a great writer like Vonnegut, one finds new textures even in a well-worn tapestry.

3) Oh, man.  This is embarrassing.  The first book I remember loving is The Wizard of Oz, which I believe I read in the fifth grade or so.  I distinctly remember the descriptions being just as vivid and striking as the Technicolor in the film.  

A more literary and pseudo-impressive-sounding response would have to be Wordsworth’s Prelude, from which I (i.e. the entire seventh grade lit class) read the “stolen boat” episode.  I didn’t necessarily have a damned clue what he was really saying, but I remember completely going in for the language.  For the longest time, I thought to be a poet was to write like Wordsworth, with inverted syntax and all that.  “Nor perchance, / If I were not thus taught … .”    (Dig up my Sophie Kerr Scholarship manuscript for some pretty atrocious examples.)

 4) I’m a big fan of “aesthetic” as a noun and as an adjective.  “Aesthetic” has an aesthetic pleasure – its “ae” rumoring the archaic ligature, the Greek exoticness and sophistication.  It is clean and suave and comes in handy quite frequently.  Also, as a young writer, I’m trying to feel out my own aesthetic, build it, break it, alter it.  Good times. 

5) I assume you mean an experience more in line with the educational rather than the social.

As part of Dr. Mooney’s poetry exam for Intro to Creative Writing, each member of the class had to recite at least fourteen lines.  I forget what prompted it, but during one of the scheduled recitation days, Mooney himself summoned Seamus Heaney’s “St Kevin and the Blackbird,” kneeling on the carpet in that classroom in Daly, emphasizing the words as if he were both Heaney and Kevin, God and Adam:  “The saint is kneeling, arms stretched out, inside / His cell … .”

This is one of my favorite memories because it (a.) turned me on to Heaney’s work and (b.) validated in a very real way the power of good poetry, as well as my choice to study English at WAC.


Kimberly Uslin

1) What a hard question! I suppose I could say I like to write a little bit of everything fiction, nonfiction, poetry, academic papers. Right now, I’m favoring creative nonfiction because it’s a new genre for me and I’ve found I like the space it gives for both narrative and, to an extent, self-exploration.  Generally speaking, though, I get stuck on an image and have to write about it. It can be anything – an offhand phrase I hear someone say or something I see downtown – but if it captures my attention, I write it down and then see what it becomes. 

2) I’m obsessed with new writing. For a long time, I was making my way through the classics, and I was all about Jane Eyre and Wuthering Heights and all of those stories. Naturally, I still love everything from Shakespeare to Salinger (the latter especially!), but in the past two to three years I’ve been scouring Barnes and Noble for new books by both well-known and up-and-coming authors. Junot Diaz, comedian-writers like Mindy Kaling and Chris Gethard, Nick Hornby…I could go on and on. One of my favorite books I’ve read in a long time, though, is a collection of essays by Davy Rothbart called My Heart is An Idiot. It’s funny and so touching. I’d recommend it to anyone. 

3) That’s tough, since my mom read to my siblings and me constantly when we were young. I loved Love You Forever, Is Your Mama a Llama?, the Dr. Seuss books, and too many others to name. The first books that I remember laughing out loud about and just taking so much pleasure in reading independently, though, were the books in the Junie B. Jones series. 

4) This is going to sound stupid, but my favorite word is “glitter.” There’s something so great about the way it feels to say it, and I think it’s one of those words that conjures a distinct, beautiful image immediately. I love that type of word – sparkle, gleam, shine, all of them. I just think they’re beautiful. 

5) That’s impossible! I couldn’t possibly name one, so I’ll say one that was both one of my earliest and most representative memories. During my very first class at WAC, English 101, Dr. Gillin asked us to draw a coin. We all drew a pretty typical (if poorly rendered) version of a penny or a quarter, circle-shaped and featuring a silhouette. Dr. Gillin, however, went up to the chalkboard and drew a sort of rounded rectangle with vertical lines on it- a side view of a coin. And then he said something that has stuck with me: “Don’t forget to consider the other side of the coin.”  That idea of considering other perspectives, of questioning the obvious, has influenced me majorly both as a person and as a writer in my time at WC. 


Kay Wicker

1) I really like to write fiction. Since coming to college I’ve become attached to the short story. Creative nonfiction was a pleasant surprise for me and I’m really glad I gave it try. It’s definitely the genre I plan to spend a lot more time working with. 

2) I’m a big fan of Toni Morrison. She presents the plight of the African American in a way that’s so beautiful. I also love poetry, even though it’s not a genre I feel all that secure in, I find some of my biggest inspiration comes from poets. Especially the romantics! I, of course, really like reading about perfume and fashion in general. Lifestyle writing can be so much fun.

3) Ooh it would have to be a tie between Miss Spider’s Tea Party and The Cat in the Hat. Little me would just marvel at this crazy tall cat that created such havoc. 

4) Revel! I love the sound as much as the meaning. Unto itself it’s a mantra. 

5) Sophomore year I found myself in the middle of a dance party in a crowded suite. In that moment I had some of the best people I’ve ever met here around me. Great music was playing and everyone was just having a great time. It was then that I knew I was having one of those nights I had dreamed about, you know.


For more information on these finalists, visit this story, and don’t miss the Sophie Kerr Prize Event, Tuesday, May 13th at the Enoch Pratt Library in Baltimore. Beginning at 7:30 p.m., this event is free and open to the public.

Last modified on Jul. 15th, 2014 at 10:21am by Owen Bailey.