Keene Prize, Kudos to George Brant

Since those halcyon days of deep-pocketed patrons are long gone, struggling writers typically have to make do with the occasional grant or free lit mag subscriptions. But for the lucky few – three so far – there's the pinch-me-I'm-dreaming Keene Prize for Literature, a not-uncontroversial $50,000 jackpot delivered annually to one University of Texas student or recent graduate.

(In its two previous years of existence, the award amounted to $90,000, the world's largest student prize; this year, the top dog gets $50,000, while another $50,000 is divided between three finalists.)

The 2008 Keene Prize for Literature goes to playwright George Brant, who was previously a finalist in 2006 and is a recent graduate of UT's Michener Center for Writers. In fact, all of this year's finalists are either current Michener students or recent grads, and all the Keene Prize winners since its inception in 2006 have been culled from the Michener Center ranks.

I got nothing but love for the Michener Center (MCW '06, holla), but I do understand others' frustration at the mighty Michener's absolute dominance – one expressed by Seth Harp, a former economics major and the lone undergraduate finalist in 2006, in an impassioned 2007 Op-Ed in The Daily Texan titled "Give non-Michener writers a chance":

"If an undergraduate ever wins, I vow to read James A. Michener's "Tales of the South Pacific" aloud, in its entirety, from the top of the Tower, clad only in this editorial."

See ya next year, maybe?

Full press release after the break:

College of Liberal Arts Awards Keene Prize for Literature to Michener Center Graduate

AUSTIN, Texas — George Brant, a recent graduate of the James A. Michener Center for Writers at The University of Texas at Austin, has won the 2008 Keene Prize for Literature, one of the world's largest student literary prizes. Brant will receive $50,000. An additional $50,000 will be divided among three finalists.

Brant's play "Elephant's Graveyard" was chosen out of 51 submissions in drama, poetry and fiction. In addition to the Keene Prize, it earned the 2008 David Mark Cohen National Playwriting Award from the Kennedy Center. Produced at the university last fall, it was honored as Best New Play by the Austin Critics' Table.

"'Elephant's Graveyard' is an original and imaginative drama," said Elizabeth Butler Cullingford, chair of the Department of English and chair of the award selection committee. "Brant uses the true story of Mary, a circus elephant who killed a handler and was executed by hanging, to create a portrait of small-town Tennessee life in 1916. Brant transforms a grotesque historical incident into a moving and metaphorically resonant narrative."

Established in 2006 in the College of Liberal Arts, the Keene Prize is named after E.L. Keene, a 1942 graduate of the university, who envisioned an award that would enhance and enrich the university's prestige and reputation in the international market of American writers.

The competition is open to all university undergraduate and graduate students, and the prize is awarded annually to the student who creates the most vivid and vital portrayal of the American experience in microcosm. Students submit poetry, plays and fiction or non-fiction prose.

In addition to Brant, the three finalists are:

* Smith Henderson, master of fine arts candidate at the Michener Center, for his short stories "Number Stations" and "Muscles." The committee singled out Henderson's stories, which are set in his native Montana, for their combination of wry humor, rich detail, convincingly terse dialogue and emotional depth.

* Domenica Ruta, a recent graduate of the Michener Center, for the opening chapters of her novel "Edgewater." The committee praised the novel's large cast of idiosyncratic characters and artful interweaving of scenes, which gradually create the back story of a mysterious murder.

* Sarah Smith, master of fine arts candidate at the Michener Center, for three stories: "The Wild Girl of Western Pennsylvania," "The Bigtime" and "Night Shift at the Don Knotts Memorial Hospital." The committee commended Smith's quirky, poetic voice, and her sharp powers of observation and comic inventiveness, which create intriguing characters.

Members of the 2008 selection committee included: Cullingford; Randy Diehl, dean of the College of Liberal Arts; Robert Schmidt, chair of the Department of Theatre and Dance; Joanna Hitchcock, director of The University of Texas Press; and resident author Tom Zigal, speechwriter for President William Powers Jr.

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Keene Prize, George Brant

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