This year marks the 15th year of the annual BLR Literary Prizes. A writing contest is an ocular hybrid of sorts, a combining of the eye of the reviewer and the eye of the editor with the eye of the judge. Nearly 700 writers submitted their work for the contest this year, far more than we can ask our judges to read. Our reviewers do the initial read of the submissions, which are submitted “blindly”—without name or cover letter.
Submissions with promising reviews are then passed on to the editors. We read these thoroughly and debate them, usually quite passionately. This process of honing the final pile is one of the most time-intensive and invigorating parts of the editorial calendar. The spirited tussle of opinions about style, character, plot, perspective, voice, setting, and metaphor ends up ensuring that there is a wide variety of pieces in the final pile.
That raucous debate screeches into silence as we pass the final pile—10 stories, 10 essays, 10 poems—off to the judges. And then we wait. The judges read these stories without any knowledge of who the author is, what the reviews were, how vociferous or unanimous the editorial debate was. While the judges take their time to deliberate, we editors sink back to our regular work—the next round of manuscripts is waiting to be reviewed —but it’s hard to fully focus. There’s always that thought percolating in the back of our heads, “Hmm, I wonder who they’ll pick?”
It’s an exciting moment when the suspense is finally broken and we hear back from the judges. This year was no different. We were thrilled to hear that Bryan Washington had selected “Rivers,” by Yalitza Ferreras for the 2020 Goldenberg Prize for Fiction. In this story, a man battles diabetes, dependence, family dynamics, forces of nature, and the trans-national tug between the Dominican Republic and the United States. Honorable Mention was given to “We the Mothers,” Kathi Hansen’s exploration of the ramifications of campus sexual assault from an unusual perspective—the collective voice of the mothers of the accused.
Sheri Fink selected “Refugere,” by Nina Adel, for the Felice Buckvar Prize for Nonfiction. In this haunting meditation, the narrator journeys geographically and emotionally to seek refuge from earlier trauma. In “The Empath,” the Honorable Mention essay by Stephanie C. Smith, the narrator journeys home to New Orleans to grapple with the ghosts and memories of her past.
DéLana R.A. Dameron chose “Ordinary Psalm with Near Blindness” by Julia B. Levine as the winner of the Marica and Jan Vilcek Prize for Poetry. In this graceful poem about the vagaries of vision, the poet writes: “The world mostly gone, I make it what I want: / from the balcony, the morning is a silver robe of mist, / I make a reckless blessing of it…”
In the richly texted poem “House of God,” which won Honorable Mention, Sadiqa de Meijer recalls the night “…I placed / two fingers on his inner wrist, and felt his pulse emit / a slipshod effort, and then stop, and in the room /it was as if a wave receded to the ocean…”
In addition to our prizes in fiction, nonfiction, and poetry, the BLR offers the Daniel Liebowitz Prize for Student Writing, which is awarded annually to an NYU medical student for an outstanding piece of reflective writing submitted during their clerkship in internal medicine. This year’s winner is Michael Sonson, whose poem “Do You Know Why You’re Here?” probes the communication gap between doctor and patient.
Concurrently with the contest, the BLR editors and reviewers are still reading the thousands of other manuscripts that cross our threshold. The breadth and variety never ceases to impress. The literary works that comprise this 38th issue of the BLR travel from China to Texas to Tehran, from small town to big city, from World War I-era to the present.
We are extremely grateful to the Goldenberg, Buckvar, Vilcek, and Oratz/Knapp families for their generosity in sponsoring our Literary Prizes, and to our judges—Bryan Washington, Sheri Fink, and DéLana R.A. Dameron—for lending their time and leaving their personal stamp on this issue of the BLR. A special thanks to all of our reviewers for helping us critically evaluate the submissions to the BLR. And thank you to all the writers whose dogged determination and ceaseless efforts provide us with the raw material to create a journal of such high caliber.
Lastly, we thank you, the readers, without whom none of the above could exist. We hope you enjoy reading this issue as much as we enjoyed putting it together.