Ansel Elkins wins Yale Series of Younger Poets competition

(Courtesy Yale University Press)
(Courtesy Yale University Press)

Ansel Elkins has won the Yale Series of Younger Poets competition for 2014. Her winning collection, “Blue Yodel,” will be published by Yale University Press in 2015, and Elkins will receive a writing fellowship at the James Merrill House in Stonington, Conn.

When she heard today’s news, she said, “I did a crazy dance barefooted in my living room. And then I listened to Nina Simone’s ‘Feeling Good,’ because that’s pretty much how I feel—complete jubilation! As a woman of Puerto Rican descent and as a Southerner, I know what it’s like to feel marginal, and I’m honored to represent these voices.”

Elkins, 32, lives in Greensboro, N.C., where she has been working on “Blue Yodel” and a memoir. She grew up in Talladega County, Ala. Her father was a photojournalist and her mother, who is half Puerto Rican, taught at Talladega College. “Some of my earliest memories,” Elkins says, “were of those incredible Amistad murals by Hale Woodruff in the Talladega College library.”

Elkins’s poetry is deeply informed by the isolation and loneliness she felt as an adolescent in rural Alabama. “I tend to naturally inhabit the voices of outsiders and those living on the peripheries of society,” she says. “Much of my work explores the Deep South as a complex place of racial violence, poverty, familial love and personal isolation. There’s a great tradition of storytelling where I come from, and I have learned just by being a listener. I believe storytelling is essential to our lives, and brings compassion. Compassion is the most central thing to my work.”

Her poem “Reverse: A Lynching,” published in the Boston Review in 2011, begins:

Return the tree, the moon, the naked man

Hanging from the indifferent branch

Return blood to his brain, breath to his heart

Reunite the neck with the bridge of his body

Untie the knot, undo the noose

Return the kicking feet to ground

Carl Phillips, the celebrated poet who served as the judge for this year’s competition, said in a statement released Monday: “Ansel Elkins reminds us of the pivotal role of compassion in understanding others and — more deeply and often more disturbingly — our various inner selves. Razor-edged in their intelligence, southern gothic in their sensibility, these poems enter the strangenesses of others and return us to a world at once charged, changed, brutal, and luminous.” (Phillips was the most recent guest in The Life of a Poet series, sponsored by the Hill Center, the Washington Post and the Library of Congress.) 

Founded in 1919, the Yale Series of Younger Poets prize is the longest-running poetry prize in America. Previous winners have included some of the country’s most famous poets, such as Adrienne Rich, John Ashbery, Jack Gilbert and Robert Hass.

Ron Charles is the editor of The Washington Post's Book World. For a dozen years, he enjoyed teaching American literature and critical theory in the Midwest, but finally switched to journalism when he realized that if he graded one more paper, he'd go crazy.
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