Dylan Thomas Prize 2010
Elyse Fenton is a 29-year-old American poet. Her debut collection of war poetry Clamor sees a woman reflect on her lover fighting in Afghanistan. The personal collection charts Fenton’s experiences of her husband serving as a medic in the War on Iraq, the long stretches of distance between the couple, and the contrast between the harsh realities of his day-to-day and her life writing and working on organic farms on the homefront. The accomplished collection impressed a panel of judges chaired by Hay Festival Guru Peter Florence and went on to scoop the £30,000 Dylan Thomas Prize 2010 following in the footsteps of short story writers Nam Le (2008) and Rachel Trezise (2006).
Commenting on the announcement, Peter Florence said: ‘It’s a great winner. It’s an astonishing, fully accomplished book of huge ambition and spectacular delivery. For this Prize of all prizes it’s great to have a poet.’ Gwyneth Lewis, poet and member of the judging panel, added: ‘This is poetry of a very high order. The book’s vision of the relationship between love and war is more than worthy to be considered in the tradition of Dylan Thomas’ work.’
It was a win not just for the poet, but also for the small presses. Clamor is published by Cleveland State University Poetry Center, 2010 and has already been selected by D.A. Powell as winner of the 2009 Cleveland State University Poetry Center First Book Prize. Winner of the 2008 Pablo Neruda Award from Nimrod International Literary Journal, Fenton’s poetry and nonfiction have also appeared in such journals as Bat City Review, The Iowa Review, The Massachusetts Review, and The New York Times.
Fenton received her M.F.A. from the University of Oregon and currently lives in Philadelphia. In person she is elfin-featured and healthily handsome. You can see that she likes life outdoors. Her eyes belie a tomboy twinkle, and yet she is girlishly giggly with the sleep-deprivation of new motherhood and jet lag. She tells me that she knew she wanted to be a poet from a relatively young age. From high school she had the goal of getting a collection published, and the progression has been quite natural. What she has bristled against and resisted writing is the subject matter of the war, the personal, the confessional. ‘It took a year to get to poems in the manuscript, and confront the subject matter. I was not in the habit of writing autobiographical pieces. I resisted, I wasn’t used to writing out of that kind of immediate experience, and so it took me about six months of perhaps writing indirectly and subconsiously about it, but really trying not to write about it, it felt untouchable. Dangerous. I wanted to keep it at arm’s length.’
The dedication inside the book, addressed to P, her husband explains this disquietude:
I want to gather you up/into a book whose pages clink//like bone cockles graveled smooth/in the blood-wash of unimagined shore
Fenton found a way in to translating her feelings and experiences through the intricacies of language. Newscaster terms like ‘corkscrew landings’ that the couple used to mask what the war was about, the harsher realities behind the terminology: ‘the language was my window in, to begin writing but it still wasn’t for another couple of months that I could actually begin write in the first person and enter that.’ The collection that she created began with his arrival in Baghdad, it was the use of the words ‘corkscrew landing’ in their regular early phonecalls that enabled her to find a way to turn the lens towards them and write, that took the surfaces of language and deftly dived deeper:
a plane corkscrewing// down into the verdant green/ neck of Baghdad’s bottle-glass night/ so I don’t yet register the casual solemnity/ of newcaster banter//falling like spent shells/from both our mouths, [‘Word from the Front’]
Since completing Clamor Fenton has had a baby, which places demands on most of her time. She has also begun new writing projects to get her away from the intense surveillance of her first collection to something less personal: ‘I’ve been working in collaboration with a friend of mine; we’re writing sonnets in the voices of trees.’ It is a very different project, more formal and rule-based. The personal has not been cut out completely though, as life as a new mother has brought another focus, and new terminology, new language to spark Fenton’s linguistic interest. A series of poems examining the language of labour, both in terms of giving birth and hard graft.
Before finding out that she was the prize winner, Fenton told me she was resisting the transition to ebooks – ‘if only for financial reasons.’ However she admits that she happily composes her own work on the screen rather than the pages these days: ‘I wish that I could write by hand but I can’t anymore. It is probably down to when I started grad school and was thinking that sitting down and writing needed to become a habit that I did everyday and having that white space, opening up a white doc and having to manually go to it, to see the text and the white space, the clamor: the silence and the noise.’