New Yale Younger Poet brings alive the people and landscapes of the South

Alabama native Ansel Elkins, whose work often explores the scenery and people of the South, has been named the 2014 Yale Younger Poet.
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Alabama native Ansel Elkins, whose work often explores the scenery and people of the South, has been named the 2014 Yale Younger Poet.

This year’s judge, award-winning poet Carl Phillips, chose Elkins’ manuscript “Blue Yodel” for the prize, the oldest annual literary award in the United States. It is given to poets under the age of 40 who have not previously published a volume of poetry.

“Through her arresting use of persona, in particular, Ansel Elkins reminds us of the pivotal role of compassion in understanding others and — more deeply and often more disturbingly — our various inner selves,” Phillips says. “Razor-edged in their intelligence, southern gothic in their sensibility, these poems enter the strangenesses of others and return us to a world at once charged, changed, brutal, and luminous.”

Yale University Press will publish “Blue Yodel” in April 2015. The manuscript is Phillips’s fourth selection as judge and the 109th volume in the series. Phillips’s third Yale Younger Poet selection, Eryn Green’s “ERUV,” will be published by Yale University Press on April 8, 2014.

Elkins is the recipient of a 2013 National Endowment for the Arts (NEA) Fellowship in Poetry, the 2012 North American Review James Hearst Poetry Prize, the 2012 Fugue Poetry Prize, the 2011 “Discovery”/Boston Review Poetry Prize, and was a 2012 Tennessee Williams Scholar at the Sewanee Writers’ Conference. Her poems have appeared in AGNI, The Believer, Best New Poets 2011, Boston Review, The Daily Beast, Ecotone, Gulf Coast, The Southern Review, and others. New work is forthcoming in The American Scholar and Denver Quarterly.

In an artist statement for the NEA Fellowship, she wrote: “Much of my work explores the South as a complex place of racial violence and isolation, but also familial love. Growing up in rural Alabama as the daughter of two journalists shaped my vision and imagination as a writer. My father, a newspaper photographer, would carry me with him on his assignments when I was a girl. I swear he knew every unnamed county back road in the state of Alabama, and it was traveling with him — going to river baptisms, seeing mules grind sugarcane, meeting folk artists and fiddle carvers and tornado survivors — that made me want to write intimately about and out of the humanity of these people I met.”

Awarded since 1919 by Yale University Press, the Yale Series of Younger Poets prize celebrates the most prominent new American poets by bringing the work of these artists to the attention of the larger public. Earlier winners of the prize include Adrienne Rich, John Ashbery, Jack Gilbert, Jean Valentine and Robert Hass. 

Yale University Press will also continue its partnership with The James Merrill House. Winners of the Series will receive one of the five writing fellowships offered at The James Merrill House in Stonington, CT. The fellowship provides a furnished living space and daily access to James Merrill’s apartment for a writer in search of a quiet setting to complete a project of literary or academic merit.

The following poem, “Reverse: A Lynching,” originally appeared in the Boston Review in 2011 and will be featured in “Blue Yodel.”

Return the tree, the moon, the naked man

Hanging from the indifferent branch

Return blood to his brain, breath to his heart

Reunite the neck with the bridge of his body

Untie the knot, undo the noose

Return the kicking feet to ground

Unwhisper the word jesus

Rejoin his penis with his loins

Resheathe the knife

Regird the calfskin belt through trouser loops

Refasten the brass buckle

Untangle the spitting men from the mob

Unsay the word nigger

Release the firer’s finger from its trigger

Return the revolver to its quiet holster

Return the man to his home

Unwidow his wife

Unbreak the window

Unkiss the crucifix of her necklace

Unsay Hide the children in the back, his last words

Repeal the wild bell of his heart

Reseat his family at the table over supper

Relace their fingers in prayer, unbless the bread

Rescind the savagery of men

Return them from animal to human, reborn in the long run

Backward to the purring pickup

Reignite the Ford’s engine, its burning headlights

Retreat down the dirt road, tires speeding

Backward into rising dust

Backward past cornfields, past the night floating moths

Rescind the whiskey from the guts

Unswallowed, unswigged, the tongue unstung

Rehouse the flask in the field coat’s interior pocket

Unbare the teeth, unwhet the appetite

Return the howl to its wolf

Return the shovel to the barn, the rope to the horse’s stable

Resurrect the dark from its heart housed in terror

Reenter the night through its door of mercy

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