CHESTERTOWN — An English major with three minors, as different as journalism and art history, is the 2021 recipient of Washington College’s Sophie Kerr Prize.
Justin Nash, 22, of Smyrna, Del. walked away with the nation’s largest undergraduate literary prize Friday night in a celebration that was held in-person as the college cautiously reopens after a pandemic-driven shutdown that began last March.
In a spontaneous gesture of generosity, Nash invited the five other finalists to stand with him at the podium — MacKenzie Brady of Baltimore; Nicole Hatfield of Columbia; Rebecca Kanaskie of Tamaqua, Pa.; Megan Walsh of Timonium; and Tamia Williams of Millsboro, Del.
“I can’t imagine this moment being about anything other than the other five people here on the stage behind me,” a tearful Nash said. “I could not have imagined a better cohort and you five are five of my absolute best friends who are the best writers and editors and journalists and artists who I have ever had the pleasure of knowing.”
He ordered them to “Come on, get out of your seats.”
Then, there was a group hug.
“I think it’s one of the great shames of any prize like this that only one person can win it, and I just refuse to let this moment be about anything other than all of us all at once,” he said. “So thank you. That’s it.”
Alphabetically, beginning with Brady, the finalists read from their writings as a lead-in to announcement of the winner, chosen for talent and the promise of future fulfillment in the field of literary endeavor.
The prize is named for Eastern Shore writer and Washington College benefactor Sophie Kerr, and has been given every year since 1968.
This year it’s worth $65,580, more than the National Book Award, the Pulitzer Prize and the PEN/Faulkner Award combined.
The Sophie Kerr Committee described Nash as the “consummate literary citizen,” said Sean Meehan, chair of the English Department and director of the Sophie Kerr Endowment.
“Justin grasps the power of writing to move the world, one thoughtful and witty and well-edited line at a time. As a student who has actively worked on every campus publication, with unparalleled editorial skills and instincts, and incredible generosity in supporting his peers and our programs, Justin already has a deep understanding of writing as both a profession and a calling,” Meehan said in a news release.
Among the incredibly strong field of writers this year, and particularly the talented group of finalists, the committee determined that Nash’s promise is unbounded.
“We will all be hearing more in years to come from this leader and explorer of the literary landscape,” Meehan said.
Nash came to Washington College through the Cherry Tree Young Writers’ Conference, attending two conferences before enrolling in the fall of 2017.
During his four years here, he held a number of literary positions, including editor-in-chief of the campus literary magazine Collegian and the liberal arts journal Washington College Review.
He has been senior poetry reader for Cherry Tree: A National Literary Magazine @ Washington College, vice president of the Writers’ Union, and a member of the Cater Society of Junior Fellows and Sigma Tau Delta, the honor society for English majors.
He was awarded the William Warner Prize for Writing about Nature earlier this spring.
In addition to his internships with Cherry Tree, Nash held two distinguished internships in the writing and publishing world. Last summer, he interned for 24 Pearl Street, and the summer before that he interned for Copper Canyon Press, the country’s leading independent poetry publisher.
The poems, stories and essays in his portfolio, collectively titled “Prestidigitate,” examine travel, childhood and conceit through manipulated address and formal play, according to the news release.
James Allen Hall, associate professor of English and director of the Rose O’Neill Literary House, said Nash “has proven himself to be an incredible literary talent, with particular strengths in poetry and creative nonfiction writing but also in editing and publishing.”
The two have known each other since before Nash arrived at Washington College.
That’s because Hall created the first Cherry Tree Young Writers’ Conference that Nash attended.
“We are meeting him at the beginning of a great career,” Hall said.
After graduating, Nash intends to take a gap year before pursuing an MFA in poetry.
As stipulated by Kerr’s will, the prize check itself was awarded Saturday, May 22, as part of the college’s 238th commencement, which was open only to the graduates and their registered guests.
Katie Hood, CEO of the One Love Foundation, delivered the keynote address. Under Hood’s leadership since 2014, the high-profile organization created in honor of Yeardley Love has become the nation’s leading educator of young people on the topic of relationship abuse.
Hood also received an honorary Doctor of Public Service degree.