The Cat's Meow

The Sophie Kerr Prize, with its big check and bigger attention, caught young poet Luke Eston Owens of Washington College a bit off-guard. But his teachers have been purring for a while now.

May 25, 1999|By Chris Guy | Chris Guy,SUN STAFF

For the earnest poets, playwrights and fiction writers of Washington College, a quick glimpse of Edith Wharton sunning herself or meandering among the nooks and cubbyholes of the O'Neill Literary House is omen enough, a sure sign that today is a good day to put ink to paper.

For Luke Eston Owens, a self-effacing 22-year-old who just won the richest college writing prize in the country, Edith (the cat, not the novelist) is a poem -- and a worthy four-legged successor to feline mascots such as Odysseus and Chaucer who once occupied the rambling Victorian that is open around the clock and nurtures a thriving literary culture at the historic Chestertown campus.

The lanky, tousled Owens, described as "delightfully confused" by one of his professors, is still fidgeting in the unaccustomed glare that comes along with his $43,238 check -- this year's largess from the Sophie Kerr Prize.

The 32nd recipient of the no-strings prize -- named for the light-fiction writer of the 1930s and '40s whose $500,000 endowment annually rewards the student writer who shows the most promise -- Owens is considering his options.

Maybe he'll pay off some student loans, maybe travel in Europe and try to recapture the magic he says he found during a semester abroad a couple of years ago. Graduate school is an option, but not right away.

"It's all been such a whirlwind, I'm not sure what I'm going to do," Owens says. "It feels like I'm getting my 15 minutes of fame and maybe someone else's, too. Right after graduation, the college publicity people grabbed me and I found myself in front of TV cameras."

Owens spent most of the year cloistered in a tiny third-floor room overlooking the lush 112-acre campus, working on a slim volume of 18 poems that wowed his teachers and fellow writers. Now he struggles to categorize his work.

"People talk about contemporary American poetry, but most of it's from the '60s," Owens says. "Especially for someone who's just finished college and studied all the dead poets, it's hard to say where I fit."

His professors have no such difficulty, lauding his maturity and citing the warmth and humor of "to edith the cat" or the biting satire of another piece about Franz Kafka.

"The kid is one terrific poet," says Robert Day, a novelist-professor who started the college's writing program in 1972.

"There is a charm to his work that is irresistible," says Day. "On the one hand, he has very good control, but within that control is real exuberance. Luke always says he doesn't write sonnets, but he writes poems that may have dated sonnets."

The big check, which has grown proportionately with a booming economy and stock market in recent years, draws most of the attention. But it is the other half of Sophie Kerr's endowment that students and professors credit with creating a writing program that in many ways dominates the small college of 950 undergraduates.

Over the years, for instance, it's paid for an astonishing array of literary luminaries who've come to Chestertown as visiting writers. Posters announcing their arrivals and bearing their pictures, most printed on an antique hand press, line every available wall space in the O'Neill house.

Names like William Styron and Toni Morrison, Vaclav Havel and James Michener, Lawrence Ferlinghetti and Allen Ginsberg are framed testament to the success of the program.

Not always duly impressed, students occasionally turn the posters of the pompous or the unpopular upside-down.

"I think that without everything else at the college, handing out a check every year would just be a gimmick," says Robert Mooney, the professor who heads the writing program and who worked with Owens on his senior thesis. "The literary house is an invitation for kids to make whatever of it they want."

The Literary Union, 90 to 100 students strong, is the largest organization on campus and each year student-published "Broadsides" are plastered all over campus and, frequently, around downtown Chestertown.

It was in this protective environment surrounded by other writers that Owens says he began to feel at home after often feeling out of place in small-town Rising Sun, where he grew up as the youngest son of a Methodist minister. His parents say their boy was always a serious child and began writing early. His high school English teacher, Ray Sykes, says, "Luke was absolutely the best writer I've ever taught and still is."

With cap and gown barely put away, Owens is in the mood for a break from class and in no hurry to head off to graduate school, although he admits that college teaching eventually will be his choice. Meanwhile, the only thing he's sure of is that he'll keep writing.

"I'll just keep doing what I do and I want to start submitting poems to the poetry reviews, the literary magazines and see what reaction I get," Owens says. "It'll be tough, but I really want to get out there."

to edith the cat

oh edith fourpaws

why do we tremble

in our sleep?

you slumped like one

of your bronze egyptian

sisters tipped over

and i a sack of bones

stirred by snakes and

writhing things

oh nosy nuzzle fourpaws

i too have blithely torn

singing sparrows'sinews

and in my dreams i tremble, to hear them sing once more

--Luke Eston Owens

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