A 'Shy' Kansas City Poet, Essayist, And Teacher Wins A Major Literary Prize
Kansas City poet and essayist Anne Boyer, who teaches writing at the Kansas City Art Institute, is among this year's winners of the Whiting Award, a prestigious honor that comes with $50,000.
The awards, presented to emerging writers, "are based on the criteria of early-career achievement and the promise of superior literary work to come," according to the Whiting Foundation. Boyer is one of ten winners announced Wednesday evening at a ceremony in New York City.
“Year on year, we’re astounded by the fresh ways Whiting winners challenge form and stretch the capabilities of language, while scrutinizing what’s most urgent in the culture,” Courtney Hodell, the Foundation's director of writers’ programs, said in a statement. “The award is intended to give them the freedom to keep experimenting and growing."
Boyer says she was shocked to get a phone call in January telling her she had won.
"I still don’t know how I got the award," she says.
The foundation promises anonymity to nominators; the selection committee is described as "a small group of recognized writers, literary scholars, and editors appointed every year by the Foundation."
“What they told me is that they defined 'emerging' broadly,” says Boyer, who has taught at the Art Institute for 10 years, published four books, edited a poetry journal and written essays for numerous magazines. A New York Times critic wrote that her 2015 book “Garments Against Women” was “a sad, beautiful, passionate book that registers the political economy of literature and of life itself”; earlier this year, it won the Cy Twombly Award for Poetry.
"While I’ve had an extensive practice in poetry, my involvement with non-fiction is really recent," she explains. "So this award for me is to recognize this transition to nonfiction and my emerging status as I move from poetry into a new world."
Her newly published "A Handbook of Disappointed Fate" is a book of essays and criticism, and her memoir, "The Undying," is due next year from Farrar, Straus and Giroux.
Despite her national recognition, Boyer keeps a low profile in her home town.
"I have a real shyness about doing readings and events in Kansas City, because I worry that my students are going to think more about my work than their own. When I’m in Kansas City, I really feel as though I’m there teaching," she says.
Teaching all sorts of courses at the Art Institute — besides writing, she teaches courses in subjects such as general education, literature and aesthetics — "feeds" her work as a writer.
"For me the classroom is a real site of learning and conversation across a broad spectrum the significant questions of our time with these brilliant young artists who come through my classroom each semester."
Then, she says, "I’ll go give a reading in London or at Harvard or somewhere, and it seems like when I come home to Kansas City, I get to have a little bit of humility and anonymity and service to others. I can get my interaction with a kind of world that knows my name when I go elsewhere."
She knows that might begin to change.
"There’s a point at which you can’t hide that you’re doing things elsewhere," she says with a laugh. "It’s not so easy to obscure it."
Boyer grew up in Salina, Kansas, and left to go to college when she was 18; before she came to the Art Institute, she was at Drake University in Iowa.
"I have never lived on a coast or in New York," she says. "I’ve only lived in Kansas, Iowa and Missouri, which is this kind of miracle because almost everyone else who wins these (Whiting) awards lives either in California or New York. And so to win it from Kansas City feels like a real victory."
She says she hopes that reaffirms the fact that artists and writers can do serious work and earn international recognition without leaving.
"You don’t have to be from Kansas City. You can stay in Kansas City," she says. "And that does not mean you’re isolated from the important conversations of our time, but instead have a perspective on those conversations that’s really unrivaled by those who live in the expected places."
C.J. Janovy is KCUR 89.3's digital content editor. You can find her on Twitter, @cjjanovy.