CHESTERTOWN, Md. — Justin Nash — a writer and poet from Delaware — has been named the recipient of the 2021 Sophie Kerr Prize, the largest undergraduate literary prize in the nation.
Mr. Nash, of Smyrna, was one of six Washington College seniors selected as finalists for the annual prize, worth $65,580 this year.
As he stood before the socially distanced group gathered in Decker Theater on the college campus, he noted that the finalists were told to prepare remarks if they won. He did: he wrote the important things, the people he wanted to thank.
He came up with 80 people, he said: friends, colleagues, teachers, mentors — “the people to whom I hold myself accountable and to whom I aspire.”
“But ... I can't imagine this moment being about anything other than the other five people here on the stage behind me,” he said. “I could not have imagined a better cohort and you five are five of my absolute best friends who are the best writers and editors and journalists and artists who I have ever had the pleasure of knowing. I think it's one of the great shames of any prize like this that only one person can win it and I just refuse to let this moment be about anything other than all of us all at once.”
The ceremony celebrated Mr. Nash and the other finalists — Tamia Williams, of Millsboro, MacKenzie Brady, of Baltimore; Nicole Hatfield, of Columbia, Maryland; Rebecca Kanaskie, of Tamaqua, Pennsylvania; and Megan Walsh, of Timonium, Maryland — as each took time to read their work.
James Dissette, a Washington College alumnus and the winner of the prize in 1971, gave the students in his keynote address their “affirmation to go forward, knowing you have this ability to share your voice.”
When the poet Ranier Maria Rilke was the secretary to sculptor Auguste Rodin, Mr. Dissette said, after long conversations about art, the two would bid each other goodnight.
“But rather than say goodnight, Rodin would say: ‘Courage’ — something that stuck with the young poet for the rest of his life,” he told the finalists. “So I say tonight: courage to you all.”
Mr. Nash will graduate this weekend from the college with a degree in English and minors in journalism, editing & publishing; communication & media studies; and art & art history.
Each year, seniors at the college submit portfolios of their academic and creative work for consideration. A committee of faculty members from the college selects the finalists and winner.
Mr. Nash emphasized the work of his fellow finalists, noting he could envision a world where each of them won.
“I wouldn't be here, I wouldn't be the writer or the person that I am, without all of their influence,” he said.
But he remembers when he was a freshman, knowing he had an interest in books and writing and hoping that he’d be able to do that some day.
“It's so rewarding and fulfilling to have that thing that I didn't think I could do culminate into what is maybe the biggest vote of confidence I could have imagine," he said. "It's so reassuring and affirming to have the belief of the full committee and so many of my peers."
Mr. Nash’s portfolio, collectively titled “Prestidigitate,” consisted of poems, stories and essays that “examine travel, childhood and conceit through manipulated address and formal play,” according to a news release.
As a student, he served as editor-in-chief of Collegian, the campus literary magazine, and the Washington College Review, the liberal arts journal.
In addition, Mr. Nash worked as a senior poetry reader for “Cherry Tree: A National Literary Magazine @ Washington College.”
The Cherry Tree Young Writers Conference, a writing program for high school students stemming from the literary journal, is what first brought Mr. Nash to the Chestertown liberal arts school.
Mr. Nash served as vice president of the campus organization Writers’ Union, and a member of academic honor societies, Cater Society of Junior Fellows and Sigma Tau Delta.
It was all of those things that helped Mr. Nash exemplify what Sophie Kerr envisioned when she bequeathed half a million dollars to the college in her will upon her death in 1965, said Sean Meehan, chairman of the English department.
“All of these six finalists have talent, and that's true of all Sophie Kerr finalists,” he said. “In Justin's case, on top of that talent, he just has this sense of understanding of what it means to be a writer.”
When founding the prize, Ms. Kerr wrote that the money should go to the senior with the most promise in literary endeavors.
“One of the terms we used in discussion was what the professional life of writing is, that we already have that sense. And that is very important to what Sophie was envisioning, which is not somebody who has already done something and is being rewarded for that, but someone you could imagine in 10 years being actively engaged in some form of publishing, creative endeavors, editing — in any number of forms,” Dr. Meehan said. “Knowing all the things he's done, all the internships, publication work on campus, that's what really stood out. That's just someone who is really actively engaged in the idea of being a writer, in the work of being a writer.”
View the full ceremony below: