By Tuesday at noon, piles of writing submissions will have formed in 1176 Angell Hall, better known as the Hopwood Room. For the 78th year in a row, selected works of poetry, fiction, nonfiction and screenplays will be awarded all in the name of Avery and Jule Hopwood.
The Hopwood Awards is widely considered among the largest and most prestigious writing contests in the country. Avery Hopwood, a playwright and University alum from 1905, wrote in his will that the University should use one fifth of his estate toward a writing contest that held the Hopwood name.
Although he became one of the most popular playwrights on Broadway in the early 20th century, he was troubled by the possibility that his writing would never be remembered as extraordinary. He decided to leave his unfulfilled dreams up to future writers instead, calling the competition a challenge that should exemplify “the new, the unusual and the radical.” Since 1931, Hopwood’s goal of encouraging creative expression in young writers has been vividly active at the University.
“To the degree that Ann Arbor is a town celebrated for its authors, this is part of that. The bookstore culture, reading culture and the writing community — all are importantly sustained by the whole experience of the Hopwoods,” said Prof. Nicholas Delbanco, director of the Hopwood Program for over 20 years.
“We’re inhabiting a very old space and honoring a long-established tradition,” he said.
In addition to the Undergraduate and Graduate Hopwood Awards, the Hopwood Program administers 13 other writing contests, including the Arthur Miller Award and the Kasdan Scholarship in Creative Writing, which were named after two renowned recipients. Other well-known winners include Robert Hayden, Frank O’Hara and University Creative Writing Prof. Laura Kasischke.
Submissions have continued to grow since the program’s inception in 1931. And although only a few of these submissions are eventually bestowed with awards, the program has certainly accomplished what Hopwood wished it: encouraging student writing.
After submissions have been read by a preliminary set of judges, chosen works are sent to national judges who are not associated with the University. All submissions are sent in anonymously, making the contest as close to objective as possible.
“Any artistic contest is so much shaped by elements that are outside the work itself, including the subjectivity of the reader and simply the quality of perception of the reader,” said Keith Taylor, a creative writing lecturer in the Department of English and former judge of the Hopwood Awards. “Quality does find a way to get to the top sooner or later but you can’t be absolutely sure of the process.”
Writing in and of itself can be immensely difficult, but crafting one’s work for a contest can feel even more daunting. Still, there’s something more to be said of winning a contest like the Hopwoods.
“I always thought they were very vindicating — winning an award makes all those nights alone in your room with paper and a pen worth it,” said Beenish Ahmed, RC Creative Writing senior and winner of several Hopwood Awards. “The most remarkable thing about the writing scene in Ann Arbor is that there is one.” “A writer will never be homeless here,” she said.
One doesn’t need to look far to realize that encouragement of student writing goes beyond the monetary value of these awards. A campus saturated by interest in the arts, the University — and, moreover, Ann Arbor — is made up of a supportive community that understands the extent to which writing reaches a larger audience.
“I think what I learned in Ann Arbor was how to seek out a second set of eyes and ears when I need them and how to be my own best editor,” said Matthew Hittinger, a 2004 MFA graduate who now lives and works in New York City. “I had an outlet to share my work and the floodgates opened when I got there.” Hittinger was the recipient of a Hopwood Award for Poetry and the Helen S. and John Wagner Prize in 2004.
Student-run literary publications like Xylem, the Oleander Review and Interrobang Literary Magazine, along with poetry and fiction readings sponsored by the Hopwood Program and the MFA Program, are only a few examples of how the power of the written word can’t help but resonate throughout this arts-hungry college town.
“Only in Ann Arbor would you have two readings going on in the same night,” Hittinger said. And he’s right. When he gave a poetry reading at Shaman Drum in November from his book “Pear Slip” (winner of the 2006 Spire Press Chapbook Award), another reading was being given at Crazy Wisdom, a local bookstore on Main Street.
Although poetry has remained grounded in its own subculture, its relevance is undeniably present in Ann Arbor. The city’s ability to both encompass the nation’s largest writing contest and become the backdrop against which close-knit groups of writers and readings flourish make such relevance possible. This is the stuff Ann Arbor’s rare and expansive literary culture is made of. The same can be said of the Ann Arbor Arthur Miller once knew.
Delbanco has inserted a portion of the playwright’s autobiography in the introduction to his book on the Hopwood Awards: “Outside, Ann Arbor was empty, still in the spell of spring vacation … I ran up to the deserted center of town, across the Law Quadrangle and down North University, my head in the stars … The magical force of making marks on a piece of paper and reaching into another human being, making him see what I had seen and feel my feelings — I had made a new shadow on the earth.”
Like so many others, this is a place where Miller’s realization of his life as a writer was first hatched and the place where his dreams were validated. It is also, remarkably, the same place where a similar dream was ripened for writers like Ahmed and Hittinger, and now, for many of those who will submit their work Tuesday.