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We Have A Winner!
Reilly D. Cox, whose curiosity, intellectual fearlessness, and “lyric temperament” provoked writing described as daring, lively, and passionate, has won the 2016 Sophie Kerr Prize. The 22-year-old from Westminster, Maryland, who began his Washington College career as a chemistry major, then shifted his focus to double major in English and theatre with a minor in creative writing, has won $65,770. It’s the largest undergraduate literary award in the country.
The winner was announced at a ceremony Friday evening in Decker Theatre in the Gibson Center for the Arts. Novelist Roy Kesey ’91 presented the award to Cox.
“Reilly Cox is a writer who combines formal innovation with lush musicality, tempering both with narrative situation and analytical impulse,” says James Allen Hall, associate professor of English and interim director of the College’s Rose O’Neill Literary House. “Cox’s work draws a chalk outline around a mysterious absence (usually, a father figure) in order not to fill in that lack, but to gesture toward the psychological implications of grief, sorrow, and consolation. His is a lyric temperament that has been fine-tuned so precisely, so uniquely, as to engender awe.”
Cox, who served as poetry editor for The Collegian and a scenic shop assistant for the Gibson Center for the Arts, consistently pushed literary boundaries and created award-winning work as an undergraduate. He won the 2016 William W. Warner Prize for Creative Writing on Nature and the Environment, and the 2013 and 2016 Jude and Miriam Pfister Poetry Prizes, as well as a Jacoby Endowment Grant and a Sophie Kerr scholarship. His portfolio for the Sophie Kerr Prize included lyric essays, familial poems, his playwriting thesis, and his English thesis on erasure poetry. After graduation, he will attend the Bucknell Seminar for Younger Poets, after which he will continue several writing and travel projects. He hopes eventually to go to graduate school for poetry and/or book arts.
In his acceptance speech, Cox said the first person he ever told about the Sophie Kerr gift was his father, who died last year.
“I wish I could tell him,” he said. “The first play I ever wrote was for a friend who is no longer with us, but he keeps me writing. It is very easy to forget to be kind and to forget to tell the people you love how much they mean to you. So please, tonight, remember.”
He also spoke about a letter he had written to himself as a freshman at Washington College, when he earned a Sophie Kerr Scholarship, and told himself that whether or not he won “the big one,” he should be proud as long as he became a better writer at Washington College.
“And I have become a better writer—because of these finalists up here, because of my professors… because of my teachers at Winters Mill High School, because of my friends and because of my family.”
Kathryn Moncrief, professor and chair of the Department of English and chair of the Sophie Kerr Committee, says Cox “has immersed himself in the opportunities and possibilities of the liberal arts at Washington College. He has been extremely engaged in the literary life and usually was the first with his hand up at a reading to ask insightful, thought-provoking questions of the visiting writer.” Committee members described him as “daring and lively,” “passionate about his work,” “not afraid to go out on a limb,” and “bubbling with talent.”
The best-known component of the extraordinary legacy of Sophie Kerr, a prolific and popular writer of the early 20th century, the Sophie Kerr Prize goes to the senior who shows the greatest promise for a future in literary endeavor. Each student submits a portfolio of work in any genre, which is critiqued by members of the Department of English faculty. This year, 20 students submitted portfolios of poetry, essays, short stories, academic writing, and scripts that explored topics from dogs and God to gender and relationships. Cox was among five finalists.
“The prize committee was especially impressed by the range and boldness, as well as the high quality, of this year’s group of finalists,” Moncrief says. “These students were pushing the boundaries. There was a breadth of genres, visual images, book-arts projects—a great deal of significant experimentation and daring with form and genre.”
To see samples of the students’ work, go to https://www.washcoll.edu/live/news/9054-meet-the-2016-sophie-kerr-finalists .
About the Sophie Kerr Legacy: Eastern Shore native Sophie Kerr published 23 novels, hundreds of short stories, and even a cookbook. When she died at 85 years old, she bequeathed the College a half-million-dollar trust fund, requiring that half of it annually go to a graduating senior who shows promise in the realm of literature and writing. The other half was to be used for scholarships, visiting writers and scholars, books, and literary publications. Through this remarkable gift, Washington College has awarded more than $1.65 million in prize money through the years, has been able to host some of the nation’s most gifted writers, and has provided its students with extraordinary opportunities to explore their creative potential in writing and literature.