Students submit to English Department Writing Prizes


By the deadline tonight, Upper Division (UD) students will have submitted poems, essays, and prose fiction pieces to the yearly English Department Writing Prizes in hopes of winning an award. These awards include the Paul Block Award for Creative Writing, the Alan Breckenridge Award for the Personal Essay, the Edward Simpson Prize for an Essay in Literary Criticism, and the Pandemic Writing Award. Every submission is read by various English teachers at the school, who then select a winner based on their evaluations.
“Unlike in the past, students this year are only able to submit one piece per prize,” English Department Chair Vernon Wilson said. This will encourage students to take the time to go through their writing and select their best work, he said. By doing so, judges will have to read fewer submissions. The only exception to this new policy is the Paul Block Award for Creative Writing, where students can submit two works — one in prose and another in poetry.
The English Department receives over 150 submissions each year, Wilson said. Due to the large number of submissions, two or three teachers from the English Department read for each prize, he said. The submissions are judged anonymously. To decide on the winners and runner-ups, the judges choose their favorite pieces, make a case for the one they think should win, and then take a vote.
English teacher Dr. Jonathan Kotchian, who has reviewed essays submitted for the Edward Simpson prize in the past, looks for brilliance in the essays he reads. “I look for something that has the potential to genuinely change how readers see a literary work,” he said. “This includes something that’s well argued, makes a lot of sense, but will also really make the reader reevaluate their relationship to the literary work being discussed.”
When judging, English teacher Dr. Andrew Fippinger looks for a specific, compelling voice from the author, he said. “I’m looking for some sense of style or flair,” he said.
Fippinger has different criteria for each prize. In analytical essays, he looks for precision of writing, as well as the depth of analysis drawing from the language and evidence of the text, he said. In personal essays, he wants the reader to “show, not tell” and hear the specific anecdotes to feel as if he is in the moment, he said. “Poetry is a little harder to put my finger on exactly what I would be looking for, but it’s really an interesting, vibrant use of language and surprising terms of phrase.”
Tomoko Hida (11) plans to submit a series about breathing for the Paul Block Award, she said. A good friend once told Hida that the point of poetry is to convey to someone how one feels in words and to express a specific emotion, she said. “When I write, I try to grasp exactly what I’m feeling in two or three words with specific connotations and specific nuances that will allow the reader to imagine exactly what I’m imagining while I’m writing it.”
This year, Vivien Sweet (12) plans on submitting an analytical essay and a personal essay. Last year, she wrote a short story and was awarded runner-up for the Paul Block Award for Creative Writing, she said. However, Sweet does not submit essays simply hoping to win an award, she said. “For me, the purpose of the essays is not about placing highly, but rather it’s about reading things about people you’ve never heard of before, and sharing what you’ve been writing with the schools community.”
Mekhala Mantravadi (11) is submitting a short story about an Indian woman that she worked on over the summer. The story reflects her mother’s life experience, she said. “I wanted to write about someone who is often overlooked, like the female immigrant who’s a housewife and following her husband, and the bravery [in this act].”
When assessing the essays, the judges are able to see students write in genres that they might not typically see in their English classes, said Kotchian. “I get to see lots of different student work, and a wider range of really good writing.”
“The judges and I look forward to reading the submissions,” Wilson said. “It’s great fun.”