Writers singled out for voice, craft

Langston Hughes Creative writing award

Christopher Citro

Christopher Citro started writing to impress a girlfriend.

He was 15, he says, taking himself very seriously and churning out what he describes as typical “melodramatic, adolescent poetry.”

Times have changed for the winner of this year’s Langston Hughes Creative Writing Award in poetry, who keeps a stack of notebooks containing every verse he’s ever written. Notebook No. 70 is still in progress.

“My entire development is between those covers,” says the 33-year-old Citro, who sometimes revisits the early notebooks. “It often ends with me cringing, gently closing the cover and going to sit quietly in a room. I’m glad to have them, but most of the time when I look, I’m glad I’ve progressed from wherever I’ve been.”

And he has progressed. In addition to the Langston Hughes honor, Citro has been nominated for one of this year’s prestigious Pushcart Prizes, which recognize outstanding work printed on the national journal circuit.

“I’m really proud of that,” Citro says. “I’ve actually had a really good last few months.”

Christopher Citro won this year's Langston Hughes Creative Writing Award for poetry.

“Typical, Really,” the poem that garnered Pushcart notice, also helped Citro win the Hughes award. Its whimsical humor characterizes much of the poet’s work:

One thousand chipmunks

woke him up from a deep sleep

and he mistook them

for angels

when he could simply have been

amazed at a thousand

chipmunks in one place.

“I use humor in my poetry,” he says. “But at the same time, other poems are more, I guess you could call them, existential. They deal with issues about human relationships, how humans get by in the world.”

Citro has had a lot of practice talking about his poetry lately. He’s been shipping out applications to graduate writing programs all over the country. His goal is to get a Master of Fine Arts and then teach writing at the university level, while continuing to publish poetry regularly.

If he’s successful, he’ll be moving – and Lawrence will be losing an active member of its poetry scene. Citro frequents readings in coffeehouses and bars and relishes the chance to perform for an audience.

“I guess I’m a bit of a ham,” he says. “But also, in other forms of art, like being a musician, you get the ability to see your work appreciated by an audience. And since my work often includes humor, making someone laugh is one of the greatest feelings in the world. It’s extremely scary to attempt it, but if you can pull it off, it’s really wonderful.”

Citro, who grew up in Chagrin Falls, Ohio, has a bachelor’s degree in philosophy from Ohio University and did three years of graduate work in philosophy at Kansas University. He’s learned it’s best to keep philosophy out of his poems. In fact, he tries to keep the writing process as pure as possible.

“I do my best in my writing to sort of minimize my intentionality, minimize the part of my mind that knows what it wants to say,” Citro says. “I usually write for a couple of hours and write out everything that I think I know, and then I get to a point where I’m continuing to write – and that’s usually when poetry happens for me.”

Langston Hughes award judge Denise Low, a writer herself, recognizes clarity, originality and mastery in Citro’s submissions.

“In each of the poems, there’s a reality that I could immediately grab hold of,” she says. “At the same time, it wasn’t a superficial magazine picture. It was an image or groups of images and narratives that made me think more deeply.”

Mary G. Wharff

Jack just wants to dip his feet in the ocean.

The 35-year-old sculptor stood by as his wife drove to a new job in a new city. In the meantime, he’s painting houses in Iowa to make a buck, won’t show his artwork and doesn’t have the nerve to join his family in California.

Mary Wharff, photographed with her dog Zoe, won this year's Langston Hughes Creative Writing Award for fiction.

Jack is paralyzed by fear.

He figures a road trip to Florida, a quick wade in the salty waves – “because he’s tired of hyperventilating at the sight of water with no end and sky with no edge” – might lift him out of his funk.

In the end, the best he can do is sculpt a swimming sandman on the beach who slowly dissolves as the tide rolls in. But that’s enough for the protagonist of Lawrence writer Mary G. Wharff’s “The Waves of St. Augustine,” the short story that won her this year’s Langston Hughes Creative Writing Award in fiction.

“I think I would call it a journey story,” Wharff says. “But it’s more about his journey from feeling completely powerless in his life to trying to regain some power by facing one of his fears.

“What I was really hoping was happening at the end was he did the best that he could do. He got a little power back.”

The highways that link Iowa to Florida are familiar to Wharff, who has lived in the Midwest and Georgia and driven the routes in between. Indeed, Jack’s truck stop visits and motel breakfasts bear the too-familiar detail of one who’s traveled this way before. One of Wharff’s road trips led her to St. Augustine, Fla., which is part of the reason she set her story there.

“But I also liked that St. Augustine as a saint spoke a lot about the idea of forgiveness,” she says. “So in a way, to me, the story is about self-forgiveness and being able to just keep going, but keep going with more power than you were just kind of struggling along with.”

In some ways, Wharff can relate to Jack’s empowerment journey. She’s been divorced and remembers wondering what she would do next – how she could move forward in her life on days when she wasn’t feeling particularly strong. So it piqued her interest when someone once told her he was going to put his feet in the ocean to face his fear, sparking the idea for her story.

“I wish I had thought of that,” Wharff says. “I should have gone repelling down a mountain, or something that really freaks me out.”

Wharff’s certainly not living in fear these days. At 46, she has remarried, left a career in promotional writing and completed a Master of Fine Arts degree in creative writing at Kansas University. Now she devotes at least four hours a day to penning new stories, serves as fiction editor for Coal City Review and associate editor of I-70 Review, and makes frequent efforts to get her work published.

Raymond Carver, William Trevor and George Saunders top Wharff’s list of short story writers she most admires. She also has a great deal of respect for Lawrence authors, as well as the namesake of the Langston Hughes Award.

“It’s neat to win an award with his name attached to it,” Wharff says. “He’s a really rhythmic and fabulous poet. When I write, I try to write with an ear toward rhythm.”

Lawrence writer Denise Low, one of the judges on the award panel, says Wharff’s story succeeds at the challenging task of getting readers to invest in its characters.

“The voice was so wonderful; the style and care with language was so wonderful,” Low says. “And then the dilemma of the main character was compelling and interesting.”