Two UI Professors Recognized as National Book Award Finalists

University of Iowa Associate Professors Donika Kelly and Melissa Febos are finalists for the National Book Critics Circle Awards for their books “The Renunciations: Poems” and “Girlhood.”

grace smith

Authors Melissa Febos and Donika Kelly pose for a portrait holding each other’s books at the University of Iowa English Philosophy Building on Thursday, January 27, 2022. Both Kelly and Febos have been named finalists in the National Awards for Book Critics 2022 for the books. Phoebus’s book, “Girlhood,” explores the narrative that women are taught about what it means to be a woman. Kelly’s “The Renunciations” is a series of poems about one’s journey through trauma. Prizes will be delivered virtually in March. (Grace Smith/The Daily Iowan)

Writers and partners Donika Kelly and Melissa Febos are finalists for the 2021 National Book Critics Circle Awards.

Kelly and Febos, who are also assistant and associate professors of English at the University of Iowa, are nominated for their books The resignations: poems Y Childhood, respectively, in the categories Poetry and Criticism. The awards will be presented on March 17 in a free virtual ceremony open to the public.

Since 1974, the National Book Critics Circle has presented awards recognizing the best published books in six categories: fiction, nonfiction, biography, autobiography, poetry, and criticism.

Kelly and Febos will compete against five other authors in their respective categories.

The National Book Critics Circle is made up of 800 members that include critics, authors, literary bloggers, book publishing professionals, and more. Finalists and prizes are chosen by members of the organization, according to its website.

Febos said it is an honor to be recognized as a finalist for the award alongside Kelly.

“The idea of ​​us both being finalists in the same year seems so far-fetched. We stood in the hallway and had a little laugh when we found out, and then we had a little dance,” she said. “I feel very fortunate to be able to write for a living and talk about writing for a living with my students.”

Phoebus said that the writing process Childhood started in 2017 while going through old childhood diaries looking for research for an essay. As she did this, she noticed how a younger version of herself had rewritten the experiences differently than she remembers them now.

The experience led Phoebos to interview other women with similar experiences to see how her growth as a woman had played out later in life through systemic values.

“These were really tense experiences of bullying in particular that I rewrote the narrative in a way that would be more digestible for me psychologically,” he said. “I was curious to unearth other narratives that I had rewritten to make them less onerous and that might be worth re-exploring.”

Kelly said that interacting with her students has been instrumental in how she approaches her work and has helped her develop a language to think about poetry differently.

“Teaching absolutely feeds my work. In the poetry workshops I teach, we read a lot, and the conversations that come out of those readings are very fun and helpful,” he said. “Students here are very good readers and are open to the experience of a poem.”

Kelly said she started working on her poetry collection when she lived near Buffalo, New York. She said that she had recently moved to the area and that she didn’t have much to draw attention to herself in other places, so she started writing.

“I was making a lot of observations, feeling a lot of feelings, and the place where that all went was in two poems,” Kelly said.

the poems in The Waivers tells the story of how someone’s perspective on themselves can be altered after experiencing trauma, with Kelly touching on themes of love, resilience and survival.

Although she doesn’t necessarily write her poems for other people, Kelly said it’s exciting to share her work with readers who recognize it as art.

“Poems are a space for me to process what I’m thinking and how I’m thinking to investigate how I came to the stories that have defined so much of my life,” she said. “It feels like a research practice that has been really vital to both my life as a writer and as a teacher.”

Loren Glass, executive director and professor of the English department at UI, said the fact that the university has writers like Phoebus and Kelly on faculty shows the direction the department is headed.

“This shows that we are the English department of the future,” he said. “We’re going to have people who are both critics and content producers, people exactly like Melissa and Donika who have really combined being an artist and a critic in a way that we haven’t seen as much in the English department.”

Phoebus said that if she’s ever thinking of the audience that would enjoy her work, she thinks of one reader specifically and said she’s grateful that so many have engaged with Childhood.

“If I ever think of any type of reader in particular, it’s a slightly younger version of myself, or any type of reader who has shared my experience and needs company in that process,” she said. “This book, which has moved so many people, has been incredibly rewarding.”

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