Rumination on life in rural Appalachia wins Yale Younger Poets prize

Robert Wood Lynn won for his manuscript “Mothman Apologia,” which transports an apparition from West Virginia folklore to modern-day Appalachia.
Robert Wood Lynn

Robert Wood Lynn

Robert Wood Lynn, an M.F.A. candidate at New York University and native of Virginia, was awarded the 2021 Yale Younger Poets prize for a manuscript that explores the challenges of a young person growing up in rural Appalachia. 

His manuscript, “Mothman Apologia,” was selected by acclaimed poet Rae Armantrout in her first year as judge of the Yale Series of Younger Poets competition, which celebrates prominent new American poets by bringing them to the attention of the greater public.

The Yale Younger Poets prize, awarded by Yale University Press since 1919, is the longest running poetry prize in the United States.

In the long poem, the “Mothman” — an apparition that, according to West Virginia folklore, was seen by several people during the 1960s — reappears as a kid growing up in Appalachia, where he is “a helpless witness to devastation both personal and public, from strip-mined landscapes and towns awash in Oxycontin to the loss of a lover,” said Armantrout.

Robert Wood Lynn has written about tragedy without either grand-standing or giving in to self-pity,” she said. “The ‘Mothman’ has always been an equivocal messenger. Here he begins to doubt his own existence as soon as he scans the internet (much as anyone deep in a ‘flyover’ state might do).”

She added: “As a reader, I was often surprised, even engrossed, and never once bored! How often can you say that?”

Lynn is a graduate of the University of Virginia School of Law. He teaches creative writing in the undergraduate writing program at New York University and serves as art editor for Washington Square Review. His work has been featured in such outlets as American Literary Review, Blackbird, New Ohio Review, and Michigan Quarterly Review, among others.

I am so grateful for this honor and to be included in this esteemed series,” said Lynn. “My manuscript, ‘Mothman Apologia,’ explores the complications of being young in a rural area, an experience that resists the pastoral and the provincial. I want to reach people with that. I am so thankful for Rae Armantrout and Yale University Press for believing in this book. For believing in the Mothman, if just while reading it.”

Yale University Press will publish “Mothman Apologia” in April 2022. The manuscript is the 116th volume in the series. Its last Yale Series of Younger Poets’ volume, Desiree C. Bailey’s “What Noise Against the Cane,” will be published next month.

Earlier winners of the prize include such noted poets as Adrienne Rich, John Ashbery, and Robert Hass.

Yale University Press continues its partnership with The James Merrill House in Stonington, Connecticut, where winners of the prize receive one of five writing fellowships offered there. The fellowship provides a furnished living space — and daily access to an apartment where Merrill, a Pulitzer Prize-winning poet, once lived — for a writer in search of a quiet setting to complete a project of literary or academic merit.

One of the poems from Lynn’s “Mothman Apologia” follows. 

Psalm for the Haters in the Back

As a child, I read once about

            a criminal on the run so long

she forgot her own name, forgot

            even that she was on the run at all;

no one more surprised by her

            capture in the end than herself.

It was the sort of thing I didn’t 

            believe was possible but

also the sort of thing I figured

            would probably happen to me.

Maybe it already has. Here I am

            not counting down the days until

the cops show up and kick these doors

            down in the name of someone else’s law.

When that time comes, when the front door

            swings off its hinges, I hope I know what to do

like so many sea turtle hatchlings

            squirming towards an ocean,

a lost dog breaking into a run when it

            hears its name for the first time in years.

© Robert Wood Lynn

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