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December 8, 1994

Starrett Poetry Prize winner named

Countless times over the years poet Jan Beatty has fantasized about winning the Agnes Lynch Starrett Poetry Prize annually offered by the University Press to poets who have not published a full-length manuscript.

Instead of screaming and jumping for joy as she always imagined she would if she won, however, the Wilkinsburg poet opted for a more cautious approach. She double checked to make sure the University Press had not somehow made a mistake.

"I just wanted to make sure it was mine," she says with a laugh. "To tell you the truth, I thought it was over and I had already lost. So, it was a wonderful surprise. It has just been a lifelong dream. I couldn't be happier." Beatty's winning entry, "Mad River," was selected from over 900 manuscripts submitted to the 1994 competition and will be published by the University Press in fall 1995. The prize consists of a $2,500 cash award and publication in the Pitt Poetry Series.

The title for the book comes from a river in Ohio that Beatty once passed over on her way to a wedding in Dayton. She says she had been searching for a title for the manuscript for some time when the sign for the river appeared and she knew the name was what she wanted.

"It just seemed like the right name because I think the book has a lot of energy in it and I wanted to use something that was wild and on the edge," she says.

The poems in "Mad River" follow a narrative telling the story of people such as two little girls who are kept in a closet in "What We Can Count On;" a waitress who keeps feeding beers to "The Rolling Rock Man," and a chance encounter with a guy named Wild Bill on "Highway 99." While pointing out that the sound and the lyricism of the poems is important to her, Beatty says what she really wanted to do most in "Mad River" is "reflect some kind of real life. I don't think poetry is some isolated thing. It has got to have some connection to real life and the struggle to be alive." Dorianne Laux, the competition's final judge, in her report to the Press called "Mad River" raw, energetic, gritty, risky, sexy and real.

"Like a river, it rolls right through the middle of town, giving us brief glimpses of its inhabitants," Laux noted. "The power of these short narratives is often cumulative, building a vision of a world seen through the eyes of a wanderer, a woman, a waitress. It is the world of the oppressed, the imprisoned, the unborn and stillborn, the marginalized." As reflected in her poetry, Beatty has held dozens of jobs, including stints as a welfare caseworker, waitress and salesclerk. Currently, she is host of radio station WYEP-FM's literary show "Prosody" and a consultant to the quarterly magazine Street Beat.

"That [Street Beat] is a really cool thing," she says. "It is a publication that uses only poems and essays from homeless people in Pittsburgh. It tries to showcase their voices. It's housed downtown at Wood Street Commons, at a shelter down there." Beatty herself began writing poetry as child, but then "gave it up to go to college and get a job because that was how I was brought up." She returned to writing poetry about 10 years ago. Since then, in addition to the Agnes Lynch Starrett prize, she has received two fellowships for her work from the Pennsylvania Council on the Arts and the 1990 Pablo Neruda Prize for Poetry, an international competition named for the Nobel-Prize winning poet from Chile.

The Pitt Poetry Series, under which "Mad River" will be published, was founded in 1968 under the editorship of Paul Zimmer and has been edited since 1978 by Ed Ochester, a faculty member in the English department. In 1990, "American Bookseller" pronounced the series the best among five poetry series by university presses.

The Agnes Lynch Starrett Poetry Prize was first awarded in 1981. It is named in honor of a former director of the University Press and is open to any individual who has not published a full-length manuscript.

Writers interested in receiving a copy of the contest rules for 1995 should send a stamped, self-addressed envelope to Starrett Prize, University of Pittsburgh Press, 127 N. Bellefield Ave., Pittsburgh 15260.

–Mike Sajna

Filed under: Feature,Volume 27 Issue 8

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