Kerr prize caps writer's graduation

Poet receives $43,238 for `Victorious Dust'

May 24, 1999|By Jay Apperson | Jay Apperson,SUN STAFF

CHESTERTOWN -- Luke Eston Owens, a 22-year-old poet, ambled onto the stage at Washington College yesterday to receive the country's largest undergraduate literary award.

All $43,238 worth.

Owens, winner of this year's Sophie Kerr Prize at Washington College, has a mature approach that demands watching, thinking and, only then, writing -- a style that Professor Robert Mooney calls "the silence of confidence."

"He doesn't presuppose things," Mooney said. "He doesn't get on a kind of poetic soapbox and tell us what he knows. He explores. He wants to find things out through language."

Owens, a 1995 graduate of Rising Sun High School in Cecil County, won this year's award for a collection of 18 poems called "Victorious Dust." He said he wrote many of the poems while sequestered in a third-floor room in the college's O'Neill Literary House.

The poems include references to artist Jackson Pollack, composer John Cage -- and Little Richard.

The prize money in the Kerr contest has risen dramatically, from $9,000 when it was first awarded in 1968, to $29,000 two years ago to this year's amount. Washington College officials say they are bound by the terms of the will left by Kerr, a popular writer of light fiction in the 1930s and 1940s. Earnings on her $500,000 endowment fund the prize for the student showing the most potential for literary achievement. Recent gains in the stock market have brought a sharp increase in the endowment's value.

Owens, who won two other awards at graduation ceremonies yesterday, said he's not sure what he'll do with the money. Maybe he'll pay off student loans.

And he's not sure what he's going to do next. He said he'll take a few years off from school, find a job, and then maybe work as a college professor.

He said: "I'll keep writing no matter what."

Some say the prize carries "Sophie's Curse." Many of its winners have had productive writing careers, but none has become famous.

To that, Owens says, "I suppose this is my chance to prove it wrong."

Mooney, who is director of O'Neill Literary House, said, "If it exists at all, I don't see Luke as susceptible to catching whatever virus there is. He's got a true kind of humbleness that even all that money can't dent. He's got the confidence, too."

Pub Date: 5/24/99

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