Poetry may be the path to the highest literary expression, but it doesn't usually pay much. • That's why Jay Hopler, an accomplished poet and assistant professor of creative writing at the University of South Florida, says, "I'm still in shock." • He says, "A couple of weeks ago I came back from class and there was a message on my answering machine. It was out of the blue." • And into the green. Hopler had been chosen as one of 10 recipients of the 2009 Whiting Writers Award — which comes with a $50,000 check.
As literary awards go, that's a pretty good chunk of change, especially since the Whiting, awarded by the Mrs. Giles Whiting Foundation, is given to "emerging writers" of poetry, fiction, nonfiction and plays. Many literary awards go to well-known writers at the height of their careers, but the Whiting is intended to encourage newer talents. Past winners have included David Foster Wallace, Denis Johnson, Colson Whitehead, Cristina Garcia and Mark Doty.
Hopler has had significant recognition as an emerging writer before. In 2005, his first collection of poetry, Green Squall, was the winner of the Yale Series of Younger Poets prize, the oldest annual literary award in the United States.
Born in Puerto Rico, Hopler earned degrees from New York University, the Johns Hopkins University Writing Seminars and the Iowa Writers' Workshop; he has been on the faculty at USF for four years.
The tropics, and especially Florida, are a theme throughout the poems in Green Squall. A review in Ploughshares noted, "Hopler's Floridian terrain is as seductive as it is venomous."
He has just finished a first draft of his next collection of poetry, which he expects will be published in about a year. "Florida does appear," he says. "The title poem, The Rooster King, is set in Ybor City, where I lived for a couple of years when I first came to Tampa. There are Florida landscapes, but it's not quite as exploding, as tropical as the last book."
His next book will be a collection that he selected and edited, The Yale Anthology of Younger American Poets, to be published in fall 2010. It gathers poems by 50 poets younger than 40.
Hopler, who is 39 — "I get to be a younger poet for another year" — says that selecting the poems was an interesting experience. "I had done an anthology of short fiction about a decade ago (The Killing Spirit: An Anthology of Murder-for-Hire). But with this one I discovered there were a lot of extra-esthetic considerations." The poetry world, he says, "is a very political place."
He found most of the poets in the book by word of mouth. "I just started calling people I knew and asking who I should read. I really wanted to showcase writers no one had ever heard of. A lot of them don't even have a book out."
Hopler says he enjoys working with aspiring poets in the classes he teaches at USF. "Teaching actually helps me to write. I write far more when I'm teaching than when I'm not. It really helps to be able to talk about what I love with people who are so enthusiastic about it."
He says he is "exclusively a poet," although as a student he tried writing fiction. "It became clear very quickly I have no idea what a plot is or how to make one. I can do images, I can do characters, but I can't make them interact."
Hopler cites as influences poets John Donne, George Herbert, James Wright, John Berryman, Pablo Neruda and Cesar Vallejo.
"My wife teases me that I'm a Romantic poet, with a capital 'R.' "
His wife, Kimberly Johnson, is also a poet (her most recent collection is A Metaphorical God) and creative writing professor — although she teaches at Brigham Young University in Salt Lake City.
Talking by phone from Utah, Hopler says, "It's a long commute." They try to meet at readings they give around the country, he says, and "definitely" were pleased to attend the Whiting Writers Prize award ceremony at the Morgan Library and Museum in New York City on Wednesday.
What are the poet's plans for that $50,000?
"I'll pay off my debts. Without that awful weight I'll be able to concentrate more on my writing."
Colette Bancroft can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org or (727) 893-8435. She blogs on Critics Circle at blogs.tampabay.com/arts.