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Literary House

Meet the 2017 Sophie Kerr Finalists!

Date: May 17, 2017
To help get to know the five Sophie Kerr Finalist of 2017, we asked them to answer four questions. Click on the links below each finalist’s answers to read samples from their portfolios!
  1. What was the book from your childhood that has influenced you the most?
  2. Of all the texts you have studied at Washington College, which has had the most powerful impact on you?
  3. Who are your literary or intellectual influences?
  4. What are your plans for after graduation?


Allison Billmire

Libba Bray’s A Great and Terrible Beauty made me realize I wanted to be a writer more than an oceanographer. I was thirteen, and drawn to the way Bray had crafted a story that incorporated history, mystery, magic, and a bit of romance. Most importantly, she made me care about her characters, and that’s something that I have been working toward since. 

The most important texts I read were for the class Images of Race, in which we identified historically racial stereotypes of black men. The novels Dr. Knight assigned made us aware of these stereotypes as well as helped us identify the representations of black men that perpetuate them today. It is incredibly important that we acknowledge these stereotypes, otherwise how else can they be avoided.

Attending the Dodge Poetry Festival this past fall opened me up to many amazing contemporary poets; Kaveh Akbar, sam sax, Angel Nafis. I just read Nickole Brown’s Fanny Says for the second time and am about to pick up Khadijah Queen next. 

I’m currently searching for employment in the editing and publishing field. I love reading the work of other people and helping them bring it to its full potential. I’d also love to go cage diving with great whites in South Africa, but that’s a long-term goal.

Allison’s Writing Sample


Ryan Manning

The book from my childhood I still go back to every once in a while is The Veil of Snows, by Mark Helprin. It’s a children’s book that my mom used to read to me as a kid and that I’ve read dozens and dozens of times as an adult. It’s a classic fairy-tale about a righteous Queen wrongfully overthrown by an evil Usurper. The story is told by an aging, nameless protagonist who recounts his time as a soldier in the Queen’s employ, the story of the city’s fall and being driven into exile by the forces of the Usurper. It has this archetypal, legend-like quality to it that I’ve always loved, and Helprin’s writing is some of the most poetic prose I’ve ever read. In a lot of ways The Veil of Snows was my first inspiration to style in creative writing, and it’s still a hugely significant book for me.

When I took Dr. Hall’s Living Writers course, we read Maggie Nelson’s Bluets, and that book became, and still is, an obsession for me. It’s a half-memoir, half-poetry lyric essay that is simultaneously unflinchingly academic (touching science, social theory, medicine) and deeply, revealingly personal. In the same way that The Veil of Snows was an inspiration to style, Bluets for me was an inspiration to form, and a revelation about what’s possible in autobiographical, personal creative writing. One of the larger pieces included in my portfolio was a lyric essay of my own that I wrote at the conclusion of that course in response to, and in the style of, Bluets, and Nelson’s capacity for making the academically complex into the emotionally visceral is an impulse that continues to define what I strive for in much of my own work. 

Nelson has been and continues to be a major literary influence for me—I recently read her more recent book The Argonauts, which is in many ways an evolution of the style and story of Bluets, and it had a major effect on my understanding of that work and on my view of my own work in the autobiographical and the personal. My other major influences are the people and professors I’ve met at Washington who have inspired me and challenged me to do more and to evolve my thinking and my writing. Dr. Jehanne Dubrow, who was the Director of the Literary House both years I was a summer intern there, and who was my professor for my Intro to Creative Writing course when I was a freshman, has had a major impact on me in terms of elevating the level of my work and continuing always to strive for excellence, for elegance, for precision and specificity. During those first two years I was also close with the college’s former senior graphic designer James Arnold, and he has been one of my most important mentors outside of the classroom—I learned a lot from him about honesty, about commitment, and I still try to carry myself in his image.

I’m currently searching for a job post-graduation in technical writing, editing, or publications design. The work that I did as an intern at the Literary House has inspired me to pursue a career in these fields, and I’ve done a series of freelance jobs over the course of the past year or so that have only further solidified my passion for this kind of work.  

Ryan’s Writing Sample                                     


James Mitchell

At an early age, I immersed myself in the world of gastronomy. I taught myself how to cook. By the end of elementary school, I had cooked my way through much of Jacques Pépin’s Complete Techniques. At the same time, I began reading autobiographies written by giants of the food world. Ruth Reichl’s Tender at the Bone—the first in a series of memoirs—stands out. In many ways, I see these adventures in my writing. Learning to cook—like writing—requires a foundation of techniques but becomes an endeavor of creative expression. And from those autobiographies, I learned how to incorporate narrative and flavor into my writing. 

While at Washington College, I read a great deal but also interacted with many writers who visited campus. In Dr. Deckman’s course Religion and Politics, we read American Grace by David E. Campbell and Robert D. Putnam. The book cemented my interest in studies relating to the intersection of religion and politics—the two subjects society tells us to avoid in dinner conversation! I had the great pleasure of meeting several winners of the George Washington Book Prize and other renowned authors hosted by the Goldstein Program and the Institute for Religion, Politics, and Culture. These opportunities to engage with writers also had a notable impact on my development as a student. 

It is difficult to say who has had the most measurable impact on my intellectual activity. I have always enjoyed reading pieces written by authors with whom I most disagree. Engaging with writing with what could be characterized as antagonism pushed me to truly understand what I believe. On the surface, I enjoy reading The New Yorker, but I often disagree with elements of, say, Jeffrey Toobin’s work. At the New York Times, I regularly read many of the columns with fondness for—but not strict endorsement of—David Brooks and Frank Bruni. Charles Krauthammer of the Washington Post routinely constructs arguments in a way I hope to emulate—with my own ornamentation, of course. I really could go on and on in answering this question.

My next stop is the University of Chicago, where I will be a candidate in the Master of Arts Program in the Social Sciences with a concentration in political science. To complete the program, I will continue writing and will complete another thesis—which I very much look forward to. 

James’ Writing Sample


Catalina Righter

I read and re-read “Psyche in a Dress” and anything else by Francesca Lia Block.

I can’t pick one, but Autobiography of Red by Anne Carson completely cracked open my idea of how to craft poetry when I read it in Living Writers.

Some of my favorite novelists are Toni Morrison, Karen Russell, Tana French, Phillip Pullman. Poets I love or an influenced by are Louise Gluck, Patricia Lockwood, Timothy Donnelly, Sylvia Plath. I wrote my thesis on William Wordsworth and the Romantic school of thought is influential to me, though I would not necessarily classify my work as Romantic.

I will be moving home for a while to save up some money. I have some freelancing projects to work on and I am hoping to find a job in journalism, editing, or PR. 

Catalina’s Writing Sample


Lillian Starr

I wouldn’t say there was a particular children’s book, but I definitely remember reading A Wrinkle in Time and it having a significant effect on me. I’ve reread it recently and I thought to myself ‘oh, maybe this is why there are so many weird things in your poems.’ 

I took a poetry workshop with Jehanne Dubrow while she was still teaching here, and all of the books she selected for that class were pretty incredible. She had us read a poetry collection by Cathy Linh Che called Split, and then later I ended up being able to talk to the poet when she was visiting here. Kind of cool to think about how it came full circle. 

I think anyone who reads sort of naturally has a number of influences. My dad is definitely one of them, he’s always encouraged me to read things that are out of my normal range from a young age, which has been really valuable to me. Of course there are a lot of contemporary poets that I keep up with and that influence my writing, but mostly what influences my poems is the book that I’m currently reading, so it changes pretty frequently. 

I’m planning to pursue my MFA in Poetry from Florida International University in Miami. 

Lillian’s Writing Sample


Last modified on May. 22nd, 2017 at 5:09pm by Lindsay Lusby.