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Poet's 'Big-Eyed Afraid' Draws Big Praise – and Anthony Hecht Prize

First-year PhD student and Elliston Fellow Erica Dawson is garnering solid acclaim for "Big-Eyed Afraid," a recently published collection of bold, witty poetry that's been called "polished but unvarnished, exquisitely alive" and "humorous but heart-wrenching."

Date: 12/1/2007 12:00:00 AM
By: Britt Kennerly
Phone: (513) 556-8577

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It's an exciting time for Erica Dawson, whose first collection of poetry, "Big-Eyed Afraid," is getting big-league attention.

"Big-Eyed Afraid," which grew out of Dawson's master's thesis, "Under An Assumed Name," captured the 2006 Anthony Hecht Poetry Prize – an honor which included publication of the collection in fall 2007.

Erica Dawson
Elliston Fellow Erica Dawson

Poet Alan Shapiro describes Dawson's "dazzling rhymes, her perfect pitch for an array of idioms ranging from the smutty to the sacred, and her extraordinary combination of metrical control and jazz-like syntactical elaboration make her work feel at one and the same time chiseled and improvised, traditional and utterly distinct."

The push to pursue writing what Dawson describes as "the things swirling in my head" started at Johns Hopkins University, where she earned an undergraduate degree majoring in the writing seminars. She completed her master of fine arts at The Ohio State University before heading to UC to pursue a PhD in English and Comparative Literature as the Elliston Fellow in Poetry.

After graduating from Hopkins in 2001, Dawson took a few years off from school to experience the "working world."

Book cover

"I did not like it," she says. "I worked at a small non-profit company for almost two years and soon realized I was ready for grad school, and, apparently, life as a Midwesterner."

On life as a poet:

Q) When did you start writing poetry – and was there a defining moment when you knew you were destined to be a poet?

A) I was interested in creative writing even as a little kid. I always enjoyed writing stories. I actually studied mostly fiction while at Hopkins, thinking I'd someday write a novel. Then I took a class that required writing 25 pages of fiction for the semester and learned that dream was not a good idea. I did take poetry classes as an undergrad, though, and it was sometime in my senior year when I wrote a poem for class about a difficult time ("Exam Room Three" from the book) that I began to think I could actually be a poet. 

Q) What were some of the factors that made UC stand out when it came time to choose where you would pursue your PhD? What sort of appeal does the Elliston Fellowship have for young poets and how is the experience working out for you?

A) I visited UC in the spring of 2006 and the English department seemed like such a good environment for both students and faculty, I couldn't say no to Jon Kamholtz. And I was extremely flattered to be offered the Elliston Fellowship. The award means a great deal to me given the legacy of George Elliston as a Cincinnati poet and the contributions of the Elliston Poetry Foundation here at this university through the Poet-in-Residence program, the lecture series and the library collection.   

Q) How did "Big-Eyed Afraid” morph from master’s thesis into published manuscript?
It’s your first collection, yet it topped hundreds of other manuscripts in taking the 2006 Anthony Hecht Poetry Prize. How valuable is this exposure – and the $3,000 cash prize?

A) When I left OSU with the thesis manuscript on my hard drive, I was pretty determined to keep working on it until I could call it a "book." I had all of the foundations of the manuscript, if you will, but needed a bit more time to flesh out the four sections. I didn't end up adding that many more new poems, but I did extensive revisions on what was there. When I submitted to the Hecht Prize, I had no delusions of winning. I just entered because that's what you're supposed to do when you finish a manuscript.  I still can't believe it. Like the Elliston Fellowship, to be honored with this prize, given my respect for Anthony Hecht, is a dream. The exposure (and cash – I'm still a grad student!) has been great and a bit surreal. I'm still just hoping I don't wake up.

Q) Were you present for the book's launch? What do you remember about that event?
A) Early in November, Waywiser put together a weekend of parties and readings in Baltimore/DC. It was probably the most amazing three days of my life. My family was there (immediate and extended), friends too and a bunch of incredible writers. And talking with Helen Hecht about her late husband is something I don't think I'll ever forget.

Q) Alan Shapiro calls "Big-Eyed Afraid" "a fast-paced, breathlessly witty and illuminating riff on the multiple effects of race, sex, biology and social pressure on who we are and how we see ourselves." What does it mean to you personally and professionally to hear that kind of praise from another poet?

A) It means a huge deal. I know Alan and to have him say those things about my book is an unbelievable compliment. I respect him immensely as a person and poet, and knowing he appreciates the book is something like a trophy and a big hug rolled up into one.

Q) Who are some of the poets who made a difference in how you looked at writing?

A) Greg Williamson, my teacher at Hopkins, made a big difference.  He's the person who encouraged me to write down the things swirling in my head and write them in the traditional forms I've always loved. That gave me the courage to write the kinds of poems I wanted to write. The other poets I've already mentioned, Alan Shapiro and Anthony Hecht, as well as James Merrill, Elizabeth Bishop, Emily Dickinson, and my old favorites Master Shakespeare and John Donne, were also extremely instrumental to my development as a young writer and reader.

Q) Who and what are on your must-read or would-read-if-I-had time lists?

A) That list is way too long to get into. I've been in school for what seems like a lifetime, and in that lifetime there's little time for anything that's not on a reading list or syllabus.  Someday I'll catch up and read that "Da Vinci Code" or those Harry Potter books everyone has talked about. For now, though, I'm pretty happy with the reading lists and syllabi. When you've been in school this long, one of the rewards is being able to study the things that really fascinate you.

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