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January 21, 2010

Poet Laureate Chooses Jill McDonough and Atsuro Riley For 13th Annual Witter Bynner Award and Reading, Feb. 18

Poet Laureate Kay Ryan has chosen two talented voices in poetry, Jill McDonough and Atsuro Riley, for the 2010 Witter Bynner Fellowships, and will introduce the poets on Feb. 18 at the Library of Congress.

McDonough, from Boston, and Riley, from the San Francisco Bay area, will read their poems at 6:45 p.m., Thursday, Feb. 18, in the Mumford Room on the sixth floor of the James Madison Building, 101 Independence Ave., S.E., Washington, D.C. The event is free and open to the public; tickets are not required.

McDonough and Riley each will receive a $7,500 fellowship, provided by the Witter Bynner Foundation for Poetry in conjunction with the Library of Congress. This is the 13th year the fellowships have been awarded.

Librarian of Congress James H. Billington said, "These fellowships -- to poets whose distinctive talents and craftsmanship merit wider recognition -- provide a wonderful way for the Laureate, the Library and the Witter Bynner Foundation to encourage poets and poetry."

McDonough's recent work, "Habeas Corpus" (2008), is a collection of 50 sonnets, each one about a legal execution from 1608 to 2005. Ryan said McDonough's "understated, elegant writing in 'Habeas Corpus' brings to narrative and description such a clean dignity that a book about executions achieves something nigh on impossible: histories of injectings, hangings and burnings wind up not sensational but mysterious. The poems are egoless."

Ryan continued, "McDonough writes sonnets that are subtle in their art and clear in their object. They are quiet, like natural-history dioramas, where we understand what a miracle life was -- by its having been taken."

About Riley's work, Ryan said "Atsuro Riley warps and double-saturates the language of his native South Carolina Low Country, until it has the sinuousness and irresistibility of the river along which his many interlocking poems unspool. I don't know how writing can be at the same time so visceral and so aesthetic.

"Riley's fiercely intelligent and ambitious poems play equally over the skin and the mind," Ryan said. "The remarkable music of the poems -- rhyming, echoing, even a kind of visual and aural mirroring -- make a complex chord that unifies the whole sequence."

Since 1999, McDonough has taught in Massachusetts prisons through Boston University's Prison Education Program. She's also an adjunct professor at the University of Massachusetts-Boston and the Harvard University Extension School. McDonough's poems have appeared in The Threepenny Review, the New Republic and Slate. Her awards include a Pushcart Prize and fellowships from the National Endowment for the Arts, the Fine Arts Work Center, Stanford's Stegner Program and the Cullman Center for Scholars and Writers.

Riley is the author of "Romey's Order," forthcoming in 2010 from the Phoenix Poets series of the University of Chicago Press. His work has been published in Poetry Magazine, The Threepenny Review, and The McSweeney's Book of Poets Picking Poets (2007), and has been featured on Poetry Daily, the online web anthology. He has received a Pushcart Prize, the J. Howard and Barbara M.J. Wood Prize from Poetry Magazine, and grants from the Silicon Valley Community Foundation.

The Witter Bynner fellowships are to be used to support the writing of poetry. Only two things are asked of the fellows: that they organize a reading in their hometown and participate in a reading and recording session at the Library of Congress. Applications are not taken for the fellowships; the Poet Laureate makes the selection.

The Witter Bynner Foundation for Poetry was incorporated in 1972 in New Mexico to provide grant support for programs in poetry through nonprofit organizations. Witter Bynner was an influential early-20th-century poet and translator of the Chinese classic "Tao Te Ching," which he named "The Way of Life According to Laotzu." He traveled with D.H. and Frieda Lawrence and proposed to Edna St. Vincent Millay (she accepted, but then they changed their minds). He worked at McClure's Magazine, where he published A.E. Housman for the first time in the United States, and was one of O. Henry's early fans.

Previous Witter Bynner fellows were Carol Muske-Dukes and Carl Phillips (1998), David Gewanter, Heather McHugh and Campbell McGrath (1999), and Naomi Shihab Nye and Joshua Weiner (2000), all appointed by Robert Pinsky; the late Tory Dent and Nick Flynn (2001), appointed by Stanley Kunitz; George Bilgere and Katia Kapovich (2002), and Major Jackson and Rebecca Wee (2003), appointed by Billy Collins; Dana Levin and Spencer Reece (2004), appointed by Louise Gluck; Claudia Emerson and Martin Walls (2005), and Joseph Stroud and Connie Wanek (2006), appointed by Ted Kooser; Laurie Lamon and David Tucker (2007), appointed by Donald Hall; Matthew Thorburn and Monica Youn (2008), appointed by Charles Simic; and Christina Davis and Mary Szybist (2009), appointed by Kay Ryan.

For further information on Witter Bynner fellowships and the poetry program at the Library of Congress, visit www.loc.gov/poetry/.

Photos of McDonough and Riley are available upon request.

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PR 10-015
01/21/10
ISSN 0731-3527

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