Poet Wins Sophie Kerr Prize

Amongst a hushed and eager crowd, Washington College senior Sophie Foster was named the winner of this year’s prestigious Sophie Kerr Prize. Now in its 57th year, the prize continues to be the nation’s largest literary award for a college student and totals more than the Pulitzer Prize and National Book Award combined. The 2024 award is valued at just over $77,000. Primarily a poet, Foster’s work largely tends to personal internality and inclinations toward the natural world. She read two poems at the evening ceremony in Washington College’s Gibson Center for the Arts, alongside four other finalists, before the winner was announced by College President Mike Sosulski.

Washington College senior Sophie Foster was named the winner of the 2024 Sophie Kerr Prize.

Foster was taken aback when she was announced as the winner and in thanking the English department and College for the honor and recognition, noted that she came to Washington feeling disillusioned by literary spaces that were “elitist and prejudiced.” She went on to praise the College and her fellow finalists for creating a supportive environment that she lovingly enjoyed over the last four years. “It has been the honor of my life to come here and be among the impossibly rare community I’ve been granted here,” said Foster.

Foster’s portfolio submission was a collection of poetry, fiction, and nonfiction all themed around the notion of liminality. “I think a lot of the major moments in our lives are fractured, brief and fleeting. A lot of what we remember are moments that happen by circumstance,” said Foster. Her writings, she noted, “navigate the emotionality of brevity.”

“In reading her work, the committee agreed, we kept wanting more,” said Courtney Rydel, associate professor of English and chair of the English department. “Sophie’s writing is lyric and beautiful and fluid, expressing complex emotions by allowing her readers to connect with her narrative on a personal level.”

James Hall, director of the Washington College Rose O’Neill Literary House and associate professor of English and creative writing, noted that reading Foster’s portfolio felt like more like reading a book. “Time and space dissolved, and I was completely captivated by this voice. Through lyrical prose and sharp-witted poetry set as close as Baltimore and as far as Britain, Sophie captured my whole heart. Her style is marked by sophisticated syncopation, lyrical control, verbal pyrotechnics, and—despite her young age—a wisdom that we will all do well to study. This is big-hearted, hard-thinking Literature with a capital L.”

Lauded by her professors as one of the strongest editors and literary citizens at Washington College, Foster has been praised for her consistent encouragement and support of her fellow writers. An English major minoring in creative writing and journalism, editing and publishing, Foster has been editor-in-chief of the College’s literary magazine, president of the on-campus Writers’ Union, and opinion editor of the school newspaper. The Reisterstown, Maryland, native will tentatively begin a Master of Fine Arts in poetry at the University of Massachusetts in Boston next year. In the longer term, she hopes to pursue a career in publishing.

Foster’s work stood out from an impressive collection this year, with the selection committee praising the finalists’ work across the board, which included an exhibition of the “provocative power” of the story; a collection of short stories, flash, a novella, and a personal essay on the “indulgence of abject and ugly emotions”; a crown of sonnets focusing on the cyclical nature of human love and experience; and themes of community and queer love through film criticism, personal editorials, and reporting.

“Everyone who submits a portfolio for the Sophie Kerr Prize shows courage in allowing others to scrutinize the work they hold so dear,” said Rydel. “It further takes incredible talent, persistence, and aesthetic insight to produce writing on the level that these finalists have created. We repeatedly were struck by the risk, ambition, lyricism, sonic texture, and insight in these finalists’ portfolios.”

This year, all five finalists were from Maryland. Foster’s fellow competitors included Liv Barry of Dundalk, Dante Chavez of Baltimore, Vivienne “Vee” Sharp from Westminster, and Joshua Torrence from Parkville.

During the ceremony, 2003’s Sophie Kerr Prize Winner and Ohio Center for the Book Fellow at Cleveland Public Library, Laura Maylene Walter noted the unique nature of the prize and the impactful base it laid for her life in writing.

“There’s really nothing like the Sophie Kerr Prize in the literary world,” said Walter. “The Sophie Kerr prize is a prize for promise, for the work that still lies in your future, for what you may one day be capable of.”

Walter is the author of the novel Body of Stars, an Ohioana Book Awards Finalist and a UK Booksellers Association Fiction Book of the Month selection. Her writing has appeared in Poets & Writers, Kenyon Review, Slate, The Sun, Ninth Letter, The Masters Review, Literary Hub, the Horse Girls anthology, and many other publications. Her debut short story collection, Living Arrangements, won the G.S. Sharat Chandra Prize, a national gold IPPY, and a silver Foreword Book of the Year award.

In announcing the winner, President Mike Sosulski noted how “humbled and awed” he was to be among such brilliance and congratulated the finalists and thanked them for “so much beauty.”

The Sophie Kerr Prize

A proud tradition of Washington College’s liberal arts education, the Sophie Kerr Prize is named for an early 20th century writer from the Eastern Shore of Maryland who published more than 20 novels and hundreds of short stories. In her will, Kerr left a generous bequest to the College with the stipulation that half of its annual proceeds fund a literary prize for a student.

Open to submissions from all Washington College seniors from any major, the prize is awarded each year to the graduating senior who has, as Kerr’s bequest stipulates, “the best ability and promise for future fulfillment in the field of literary endeavor.” In the past, it has been awarded for both creative and critical writing alike. A full list of Sophie Kerr Prize winners since its inception in 1968 is available online.

Portfolios submitted for consideration encompass the full range of writing that students pursue at Washington College, including fiction, poetry, creative nonfiction, screenplays and drama, journalism, editing, scholarly criticism, and research in all disciplines, and even song lyrics. A committee comprising full-time faculty in the English department and the President review and make the final decision. Winners are chosen for their literary excellence, regardless of genre.

In addition to the life-changing literary award, the support made possible by Sophie Kerr’s gift continues to fund experiences and offerings for Washington College students throughout the academic year. For more than 50 years the endowment has brought many of the nation’s top writers, editors, and scholars to Washington’s campus including Toni Morrison, Joyce Carol Oates, Robert Pinsky, Edward Albee, Joseph Brodsky, Gwendolyn Brooks, Lucille Clifton, James McBride, Eamon Grennan, Charles Simic, and Jane Smiley. Funding scholarships and internships and enabling research in literature, writing, and publishing, round out the impressive impact made possible by the Sophie Kerr legacy.

About Washington College  

Washington College, Maryland’s premier small college, enrolls approximately 1,000 undergraduates from more than 39 states and territories and 23 nations. Washington is known for outstanding academics in more than 50 academic programs. With an emphasis on experiential learning opportunities across the disciplines, ranging from internships and research to international study and civic engagement, Washington prepares students for successful careers and lives after graduation. The College is home to nationally recognized centers of excellence in the environment, history, and writing as well as the 5,000-acre river and field campus which provides unique research opportunities for students and faculty. Learn more at www.washcoll.edu.

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