Last summer I wrote about the Maureen Egen Writers Exchange Award, which each year honors a fiction writer and poet in a particular state. In 2007 Poets & Writers, which sponsors the prize, invited writers from D.C. to participate, and last month it announced the winners: Willett Thomas and Sandra Beasley.
Thomas, who lives in Brookland, has been writing fiction “in earnest” since 2003, when she graduated from John Hopkins’ writing program. A friend suggested she enter the competition, though she didn’t put in for the prize with high expectations. “I just said, ‘Oh, OK, sure,'” she says. “Until then I’d just been doing these little residency programs. But there was no entry fee, and a lot of these prizes do ask for money.” Her submission was the opening 25 pages of her first novel, Low Time in Arcadia, which she describes as similar in theme to To Kill a Mockingbird. Winning the Egen means she scores a trip to New York to meet with editors, agents, and writers to make contacts and shop the novel (which is now finished). Thomas is still working on her wish list of who she’d like to meet, though one person on the short list wouldn’t necessitate a trip across the District line. “Edward P. Jones,” she says. “You’re dreaming those dreams.”
Beasley, a Dupont Circle resident and editor at The American Scholar, heard that she won the award shortly after a disastrous experience last month promoting her debut collection of poems, Theories of Falling. She was driving back from a reading at Long Island University—where she had no books on hand, thanks to a problem at the printer. “So I ended up driving 10 hours roundtrip in one day, without the book,” she said. “They gave a nice honorarium, but after gas, tolls and hotel room, I broke exactly even.”
Beasley is still sorting out who she’d like to meet in New York, but she’s also heading north with the goal of bringing the news about D.C. as well. “I like to look at this as a two-way street,” she says. “Yeah, I get my chance to get my foot in the door in New York, but I also want to leave New York with some of those people having a better sense of what’s going on here.”
Beasley’s poem below, “Making the Crane,” was originally published in Diagram. It’s reprinted here with Beasley’s permission.
Preparation is the art of leaving lines in:
before you can make a crane you must
invert the valley, low right to high left.
Then you must base the bird, pulling
inside out, outside to middle, and up.
Flip. Repeat. Crease her legs.
Reverse the fold. Define her neck,
define the tail, run the bone knife flat.
Dip each wing down and pull them
apart, flattening her back. If she means
to stay by your dinner plate, press your
mouth to the belly and push the air in.
If she means to fly, grip her head and tail,
pull so she flaps in the sky of your palm.
If she’s good luck, thread a sharp needle
and hang her with her thousand sisters.
When she laughs it is only a crab scuttling
the length of her gullet. When she cries
it is only the weeping of rice against stone.