21-year-old poet wins $56,169 Kerr award

Biggest U.S. literary prize for undergraduates goes to longtime lover of books

May 17, 2004|By Rona Kobell | Rona Kobell,SUN STAFF

CHESTERTOWN - Ever since Angela Haley learned to walk, she has rarely taken a step without her nose buried in a book.

But Haley's feet seemed to struggle yesterday as Washington College officials announced she had won the Sophie Kerr Prize - the nation's largest undergraduate literary award - at the school's graduation ceremony. She could barely stand straight, wobbling as she approached the stage. College President John S. Toll had to hold her up as she collected the $56,169 check.

The crowd cheered for the 21-year-old poet, who graduated in 2000 from North Harford High School and grew up in Baltimore and Jarrettsville. Family members shrieked and hugged each other. Her boyfriend, Jay Harrison, picked up his cell phone even as Toll continued to announce the college's other prestigious prizes.

"She won!" Harrison said into the phone. "Oh, my God!"

Harrison, who works with Haley at the Feast of Reason cafe in Chestertown and also graduated yesterday, was the only one of Haley's friends yesterday to say he had been sure that she would win. "I knew. I had a feeling," he said. "I could see it happening."

Haley, on the other hand, wasn't even sure she would be graduating with honors until a few days ago. As for the prize, she said, she tried not to focus on it. She went so far as to avoid eye contact with Robert Mooney, who directs the college's creative writing program, when she saw him in the supermarket before the graduation ceremony.

"I still haven't taken a deep breath yet," said Haley, who plans to use the prize to pay for graduate school, which she hopes to enter in the fall of next year.

It has been more than three decades since Kerr, an Eastern Shore novelist and short-story writer, bequeathed $510,000 to the Chestertown college that granted her an honorary degree. According to Kerr's wishes, half of the purse - funded through what is now a $2.3 million endowment - goes each year to a senior who shows the most promise for literary achievement. The other half funds student publications, scholarships and a visiting writers series.

No splurging planned

Unlike a previous recipient who used the Kerr money to hire a famous blues singer to play at his wedding reception, Haley has no immediate plans to indulge in luxuries. As she applies to programs for a master's in fine arts, she will remain in her Chestertown apartment and keep her job at Feast of Reason.

In contrast with past years, when tensions flared at the college's bucolic O'Neill Literary House, Haley said this year's competition among the 36 entrants was collegial and supportive. She dedicated her manuscript to Kerr competitors Lou DiBenedetto and Heidi Atwood, who joined her in sleepless nights and long days critiquing and editing.

DiBenedetto was with her at the campus computing center moments before the Kerr submission deadline, helping to decide at the last minute which of the poems and writings would make the cut.

"We really came together as a writing community," said Atwood, who will begin working toward her doctorate in English at the University of Alabama this fall.

Mooney, who presided over the Sophie Kerr Prize Committee's secret deliberations, said Haley's strong literary voice and her diverse portfolio - which included critical essays on Renaissance literature as well as her original poetry and fiction - stood out among the submissions. But it was her poetry that clinched the prize.

"A heart of a true poet beats within these poems, there's no question about it," Mooney said. "Poems seem to be the way she really converses with the world."

Always with a book

Haley's parents said they always knew their daughter could write. Eldridge Haley, an accountant who lives in Towson, remembers when young Angie shared her poems with him and he cried hearing her words. Her mother, Sharron Illiano of Owings Mills, remembers her daughter devouring books as soon as she was old enough to read. "I knew she had it in her since she was probably in kindergarten," said Illiano, who co-owns the Vito's chain of restaurants in Owings Mills. "As soon as she could walk, she had a book in her hand. She ate reading the book. She walked reading the book."

Haley is reading Joseph Heller's Catch-22 and is recommending Milan Kundera's The Unbearable Lightness of Being and Gabriel Garcia Marquez' One Hundred Years of Solitude, which she recently finished. She plans to continue reading the poets that have inspired her, among them Louise Gluck and Denise Levertov.

But the prize might nudge her in another direction: toward the less colorful prose that fills money management brochures and tax booklets. "I think I'm going to have to hire a tax attorney or something," Haley said as she fumbled for her Kerr check. "I make $7,000 a year now. This is insane!"

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