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Young Poet, Big Prize: A Conversation With The Sophie Kerr Winner


This year's Pulitzer Prize for poetry carries with it a cash prize of $10,000. The National Book Award for poetry, same amount, $10,000. That's just a little context for the whopper of a prize that Alexander Stinton just won for his poetry. Stinton is a graduating senior at Washington College on the eastern shore of Maryland and the prize that he won last week is the Sophie Kerr Prize.

It's awarded every year by the college and this year, it paid $61,000. It's also, of course, a very great honor bestowed by the liberal arts college. Mr. Stinton, young and flush, joins us now. Welcome to the program and congratulations.

ANTHONY STINTON: Thank you so much, thank you.

SIEGEL: And tell us, first, about your submission for the Sophie Kerr prize.

STINTON: It was around probably close to 50 pages in length, about 14 or 15 poems or so.

SIEGEL: Well, several of your poems are about the eastern shore of Maryland where you've lived your life and gone to college. Perhaps you can read one of them for us. I like the one that's called "A Lore."

STINTON: All right. I'll read, "A Lore." "The old timers had river mouths, divining in oysters origins took only as much as tasting the thing. A thick smack of salt meant it was taken from the Tred Avon or was it the Miles or did the Miles have marshy musk, mud and something appetizing. Oh, damn it all, dead men, if I could eat your tongues, revive within me the unborn pallet...

SIEGEL: You grew up hearing the lore of the watermen on the eastern shore.

STINTON: I did, I did. My stepfather's a waterman and it seems like at least all the men in his family, the patriarchal structure, I guess, was all centered around the water, whether it was actually harvesting, you know, from oysters to crabs to rockfish, to, you know, captaining a skip jack. It's inescapable, really.

SIEGEL: In your introduction to your submission, you wrote this. "In the poems that follow, the intention is always to acknowledge grime and blemish while maintaining or even imposing the relative spotlessness of the imagination." I guess the grim and blemish is all over the scenes you've just described.

STINTON: Yeah. It's easy, I think, to romanticize, especially a place like the eastern shore 'cause I mean, it's gorgeous, but there is a reality that presides beyond the reality of tourism, say. So it's kind of tempering the two pressures. What I feel, I guess, within me and then what's going on around me and it's not always so romantic or it's seldom so romantic.

SIEGEL: You know, winners of past years, winners of the Sophie Kerr Prize, include several published poets and writers and teachers, but also a general surgeon in North Carolina, the human resources manager of a family ambulance company, a consultant to University magazines. Are you pretty confident that literature is going to be your life?

STINTON: For better or for worse, I would say I am very confident that literature will be the driving force in everything I do from I'd like to be a professor, but then I'd also like to continue to write, obviously.

SIEGEL: How about one other eastern shore poem? We especially liked "At High Tide."

STINTON: OK. "At High Tide." The creek broadens, sweeping shoreline into self. It reads barnacles lined on reeves like Braille, incanting the solidness with a saline tongue. High priestess, reader of scrolls, a blind mother searching for her litter of brilliancies. The shore, the stone, the reed, toothy otter rooted riverside, she is all womb, throat, a metastasizing medicine and the land cannot swallow but be swallowed.

Call it communion, revelation, what solidity will reply when her liquid larynx lets loose.

SIEGEL: Alexander Stinton, congratulations again on winning the...

STINTON: Thank you so much.

SIEGEL: ...$61,000 Sophie Kerr Prize awarded by your college, Washington College, and thanks for talking with us.

STINTON: Well, thank you. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

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