Elizabeth Knapp, an associate professor of English at Hood College, won the 2019 Jean Feldman Poetry Prize for her poetry collection “Requiem with an Amulet in Its Beak.”
The book is the second collection of poems by Knapp, who resides in Frederick. Her first collection of poems “The Spite House” won the 2010 De Novo Poetry Prize. She was also recognized as the 2018 Robert H. Winner Memorial Award from the Poetry Society of America and a 2017 Maryland State Arts Council Individual Artist Award. Her poems have recently appeared or are forthcoming in The Kenyon Review, The Massachusetts Review, North American Review, and Quarterly West, among others.
“Requiem with an Amulet in Its Beak” was released in October by The Washington Writers’ Publishing House, which presented the Jean Feldman Poetry Prize.
Knapp took a few minutes to answer questions about poetry, her latest collection and what she wants readers to experience.
Tell me about what inspired the poems in “Requiem with an Amulet in Its Beak.”
Knapp: Although the first poem was written over a decade ago, the majority of “Requiem” was written in the last three or four years. The book really started to coalesce in the summer of 2016 after the death of a friend who was also a poet. At that point, I thought personal elegy would be the primary mode of the collection. Then the 2016 presidential election happened, and a new kind of grief took hold, a kind of collective grief over what I saw as the death of country. I know that sounds melodramatic, but something did indeed die in America after the election of Donald Trump, or maybe many things died, our sense of decency being at the top of the list. From that point forward, the poems began to explore the intersections of the personal and the political and the way our current sociopolitical landscape reflects the contemporary American psyche. Elegies, love poems, political poems, ekphrastic poems, prose poems, sonnets, and more all coexist in the same book.
How were you notified that you won the 2019 Jean Feldman Poetry Prize?
Knapp: The Jean Feldman Prize winner from 2018, Jona Colson, called and notified me. I had to ask him to repeat everything because I couldn’t process it over the phone!
What did it mean to you to be selected for the prize?
Knapp: The Washington Writers’ Publishing House is one of the oldest and most respected literary publishers in the D.C. area, so this is an amazing honor. I also really admire the work of my pressmates Jona Colson, Nicole Tong, Caroline Bock, and the 2019 fiction winner Nathan Leslie. And reading at Politics and Prose and The Writer’s Center is a wonderful bonus.
When did you first start writing poetry?
Knapp: Words and language have been at the center of my life for as long as I can remember, but I started writing what I consider to be real poems in high school. I continued writing and taking poetry workshops throughout college. When I started my Master of Fine Arts in my mid-20s, I fully committed to poetry, understanding of course that writing poems is a vocation, not a profession, a way of experiencing and translating the world.
What attracts you to poetry?
Knapp: For me, poetry is not just an art form, it’s a mode of being. My 7-year-old daughter just wrote my official “biography,” and in it she says that I “do” poetry. I think that’s more accurate than saying I write or read or teach poetry. On the most basic level, I’m attracted to poetry because I love language and music. Also, I read poetry to be surprised, and I write it to surprise myself.
How often are you writing?
Knapp: During a normal year, most of my poems happen in the summer, since I teach the rest of the year. When I am in a rhythm with writing, I tend to write more in short, sporadic bursts than I do for sustained periods. But that’s just the actual process of writing poems. The work behind them is happening all the time — the looking, the listening, the thinking.
What do you hope readers will experience when they read your poems?
Knapp: Robert Frost says that a poem should begin in delight and end in wisdom. Emily Dickinson says that a poem should take the top of your head off. Personally, and I know this sounds a bit sadistic, but I want readers to feel a little gutted. Poetry should disquiet, not comfort. It should upend our expectations and startle us awake. It should widen our perspective and give us a new way of seeing and understanding the world.
Poetry is one subject that you teach at Hood College. What advice do you give fledgling poets that you practice yourself?
Knapp: Read. If you’re going to be a poet (or any kind of writer), you have to read the masters, both living and dead. I hear so many students say they love to write but they don’t really read. You’re not going to get anywhere as a poet without reading poetry. Can you imagine a professional musician who doesn’t listen to music? Or a painter who doesn’t look at art? Read. It’s the only way to learn to write.
Students can sometimes think of poetry as words written by people who have died long ago, but being a very much alive woman who is not only publishing collections but is being recognized for your work, do you think this can change this perception?
Knapp: Actually, I don’t think that’s the perception of poetry now at all with the rise of slam and Instapoetry. (The latter I don’t really consider poetry, but that’s another subject.) There are more poets writing today than there are journals, magazines, and presses that can publish them. The art is booming and very much front and center within the resistance movement. Regarding the subject of recognition, it is of course the hope of every poet that their work will be read and well received and maybe even canonized someday, but it’s not the reason I write.
The poetry prize came with a $1,000 cash prize. Do you plan on doing anything special with the prize?
Knapp: With most small independent presses, authors are responsible for their own publicity and sometimes even production costs, so things like permission fees for cover art, copyediting, and sending out review copies are all the author’s responsibility. Any prize money usually goes toward these and other costs, like travel for readings.
What are you working on next?
Knapp: Another book of poetry, although I haven’t written a single word of it yet.