Alex Vidiani

by Dana Kester-McCabe

Meet this year's Sophie Kerr Prize winner: poet Alex Vidiani.

Sophie Kerr was a native of Denton, Maryland, and a graduate of Hood College who served as the managing editor of a magazine called Woman's Home Companion. She authored 23 novels and hundreds of short stories during the early to mid 20th century. You can still find many of her novels at online book sellers. For 48 years Washington College in Chestertown, has made use of a fund named for Sophie Kerr which she endowed.

Half of the income from the endowment supports visiting writers and student publications. The rest goes to the graduating senior who shows the most "ability and promise" as a writer. It is the largest literary award given to an undergraduate in the world. This year the prize is for $62,900. That is larger than the Pulitzer Prize or the National Book Award. During May at a special ceremony, a previous recipient of the prize, author Peter Turchi announced this year's recipient. And, the winner is… Alex Vidiani.

I recently interviewed Alex Vidiani by phone when I asked him about how he got interested in writing.

Alex Vidiani:
I started off writing fiction in high school and that didn't go too well so when I got to Washington (College) I enrolled in my first collegiate creative writing class and after that I switched entirely to poetry because I was so taken with the books we were reading, and the other poets around me especially my professors.

I can write pretty much anytime and anywhere. It's more just a matter of being struck by something. So I can be at work and ringing somebody up at the cash register, or something like that, and just be hit all of a sudden have to go write something down really fast and then go back to work. It's more about getting the thoughts down, and then revising, for me. I usually don't worry about revising until I get all the thoughts down that I need and then I can machete chop everything. It's like roughly hewing and then doing the finer details after words.

During his freshman year Alex became interested in the powerful and emotionally driven poetry of visiting writer Nick Flynn. Alex says he wanted to have a similar effect on his audience while dealing with his own challenges in life: separation from his father who now lives in France and the tragic passing of a friend.

Alex Vidiani:
He writes elegies about his father and mother. His mother committed suicide. His father, he was without a fixed residence, or homeless. So his poetry is processing the emotions attributed to such things. You know they're pretty powerful things. They're pretty hard to process. And I suppose I just wanted to do the same thing. I wanted to process my father's absence so I wrote elegies about him. I wanted to work through the emotions that surrounded my friend's suicide.

I'd say I lean more toward lyrical poetry, although I starting to get more into its narrative structure as a way to broaden my horizons I suppose. And I think the poems I have right now fit into this elegiac lineage of American poetry. An elegy is away to commemorate somebody's loss, whether deceased or left your life one way or another. So in a way my poems are conversations as well as not immortalizations but a way to commemorate.

If you keep writing everyday eventually it becomes second nature. I never really took it as sign of courage. For me it was just necessary, I suppose, to tell these stories. And in them, it's me speaking, but it's only a part of me. So as I said, hewing the stone and then doing the finer details later, I get all the motions out that I need to. I make the poem usually wholly my views, and then afterwards that I can pursue it more intellectually. I can step back a bit and think, "Well, this is a poem. What do I need to do to make it good?"

Alex prepared a portfolio of his work in order to apply for the Sophie Kerr prize. He focused on expressions of loss, of masculinity, and how words can help connect us to each other. One of the reviewers said that there was almost enough for his first book in the collection. Included was the following poem which Alex read for us.

Those Sunday Afternoons by Alex Vidiani
Sunday afternoons, when I was a kid,
my father would hand me his empty tumbler.
The brown dregs of his whiskey burned
my tongue, but I drank them anyway
in the kitchen where he couldn't see.
There I would set the glass down
and climb onto the counter, balancing
to reach the Old Crow and bitters.
If I fell, I learned to hide bruises.
In this way, I learned from him,
on Sundays like this, how to live
with numbness. I poured as he showed me,
one finger, two fingers, handing it
back to him, hearing him say
Not enough this time. Almost, kiddo,
the whip-sting of liquor on his breath.

Alex Vidiani:
It is inspired by Robert Hayden's "Those Winter Sundays" which is about him, in the later years of his life, reflecting back on his father and all the things his father did for him; like polishing his shoes for church and chopping firewood in winter and stuff like that; and, how this is coupled with his father's emotional distance. So I thought of that and well, everything my father didn't do for me, but also the emotional closeness. So it was kind of the opposite. So that was how this poem was birthed I suppose.

For anyone of any age dealing with grief and loss Alex recommends writing as both an art and form of catharsis.

Alex Vidiani:
It's a way to come to terms with it. I mean, you might not ever get over it. Obviously these aren't really things to get over. But, you will be able to step back and view it from a different perspective. It helps you recover. I think I wrote in the introduction to my portfolio that my poems are stones to skip across the water. You throw it away and you are done with it. It's a healing process.

This Fall Alex will enter the MFA program in poetry at the University of Maryland, where he has been awarded a Teaching Assistantship. He will also continue as the senior poetry reader for Cherry Tree which is the new annual literary journal published by Washington College. Their first edition came out in February of this year.


Poet Alexander Vidiani Wins the Prize!

Cherry Tree

Theology by Alex Vidiani on Juked