Winners of 2020 undergraduate writing prizes announced at Senior Reading

By Erica Quinones

News Editor

The Rose O’Neill Literary House announced the winners of its three undergraduate writing prizes on April 21 after the virtual Senior Reading, bringing together Washington College’s writing community.

“I do not think community means prizes, but it is important to honor achievement and excellence and bring some kind of attention to the hard work that people put into their craft. I do not know which comes first and which comes second,” Director of the Rose O’Neill Literary House and Associate Professor of English Dr. James Hall said. “But at WC we say we value artistic excellence, and we do it not just by saying it, but by awarding these prizes.”

The Rose O’Neill Literary House facilitates three undergraduate literary prizes annually: The William Warner Prize for Creative Writing on Nature and the Environment, The Literary House Genre Fiction Prize, and the Jude and Miriam Pfister Poetry Prize.

Each prize holds a cash reward and both the William Warner and Genre Fiction prizes are judged by in-house representatives while the Pfister Poetry Prize was judged by poet Aaron Smith, according to Dr. Hall.

The Prizes not only feature winners but also Honorable Mentions.

“I hope that by offering honorable mentions we also understand that it is not just about the winner, there really is a real community of people striving to make beautiful words put together in a beautiful order. I hope that people see the community as beyond winning prizes,” Dr. Hall said.

The William Warner Prize for Creative Writing on Nature and the Environment was named for and endowed in the honor of William W. Warner. His legacy as author of the Pulitzer Prize-winning book “Beautiful Swimmers: Watermen, Crabs and the Chesapeake Bay” appears in the prize as it recognizes WC undergraduates “who show the greatest aptitude for writing about nature and the environment.”

Junior Justin Nash was named as an Honorable Mention for his essay, “Leaving and What’s Left Behind.” Senior Kailani Clarke was awarded the Warner Prize for her piece, “Desperate Times Call for Communion with Dirt.” This is her third time winning the prize.

The essay is about gardening during the coronavirus pandemic and was inspired by a landscaping project at her off-campus college house. When the housemates and a friend finished making a gravel path, Clarke planted both a pollinator garden and food plants.

The garden became a symbol of “trying to make something good and helpful when everything has gone to shit,” according to Clarke.

Gardening particularly stood out to her as an environmental studies major because it deals with something most people consider useless — dirt.

Some may see dirt as an empty source, but really it is filled with nutrients, bacteria, and other sources of life. Clarke wanted to capture that aspect as dirt, humus, manure, and “stinky weirdness give rise to insane productivity.”

Especially in times of stress, Clarke turns towards nature for solace, listening to its voice and embracing nature as a teacher.

“Things are really hard and it is going to be ok. Go outside if you are able,” Clarke said. “No matter how bad it gets; the wind, the birds, and the trees will all still be there.”

Clarke’s essay is available on the WC website at

The Literary House Genre Fiction Prize is also awarded to a WC undergraduate for the best work in either the science fiction, fantasy, mystery, or horror genres.

According to Dr. Hall, genre fiction needed a place in the college environment. While students enjoy writing genre fiction, it is also subject to a level of snobbery by the literary community.

Nash also received an Honorable Mention for his story “Getting Over It,” and senior Heber Guerra-Recinos was awarded the prize for his two flash fiction stories, “Hamsters and their Socks” and “Your Brother is No Longer Here.”

According to Guerra-Recinos, the latter story was specified as the winning piece in an email he received.

Like Clarke, Guerra-Recinos took inspiration from the world around him for “Your Brother is No Longer Here.”

His story takes place in a world where the souls of deceased people are uploaded to The Cloud, so they can be resurrected with modified bodies or attitudes. When a man’s brother passes away, he then struggles with the morality of changing that brother without his knowledge or consent.

The story was inspired by two events. Guerra-Recinos cited backing up his laptop before it undergoing a factory reset as an inspiration. When he was reinstalling the data, he found himself picking and choosing the information that was relevant. The second inspiration is just as mundane as Guerra-Recinos reflected on his relationship with his own brother, which is alright but occasionally made tense by nerve-grinding behaviors.

Guerra-Recinos’ writing became an outlet to explore his own familial relationship, as well as broader ideas of consent, redemption through what characteristics are determined as undesirable, and who that redemption affects.

“Redemption is a second chance to try again and be a better person, but who has the say to decide what those changes are?” Guerra-Recinos said.

The Jude and Miriam Pfister Poetry Prize differs from the others not only in its external judging but its awards.

The prize was created through a donation by Jude and Miriam Pfister, partnered with the Academic of American Poets. The winner receives both a cash award as well as consideration for publication in the Academy’s journal, “American Poets.”

This year’s Honorable Mention was junior Iskandar Haggarty for his poem, “of loving a boy in a place where you could be killed for it.” Sophomore Teddy Friedline won the prize with their poem, “Gender of The Poet, as Evaluated Through First & Second Derivative Tests.”

At the end of the awards process, none of the writers interviewed saw this as the end of their journey.

For Clarke — who began writing when she was three years old — being able to look back on her past writings, including those for the Warner Prize, is like seeing footprints in the sand. They show her how far both her writing and her person have come.

Guerra-Recinos shared similar sentiments, saying that the prize was a nice reminder of how far he has come on his writing journey, and that he can write what he wants, have fun creating, and maybe get noticed while doing what he loves.

“You are never done doubting yourself [as a writer]. You take the comma in, you take the comma out, put the comma in, put the comma out; you do that all day on one sentence. I mean, who does that and thinks that is a sane life. But it is also the most important thing you can do with your day,” Dr. Hall said. “It is hard to know how to defeat those voices in your head that tell you, ‘you are never going to be anything’…But your name will be called, you just have to wait your turn.”

Guerra-Recinos echoed these sentiments of perseverance.  “Keep writing and keep making art. There is something magic, satisfying, and fulfilling about it. Keep going,” Guerra-Recinos said.

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