Artist with ‘impulse to shake things up’ wins 2023 Yale Younger Poets Prize
Cindy Juyoung Ok, whose work “pushes constantly” against social norms, has been named winner of the 2023 Yale Younger Poets Prize, a prestigious honor that aims to bring greater public attention to America’s most promising new poets.
Her winning manuscript, “Ward Toward,” which was selected by acclaimed poet Rae Armantrout, will be published by Yale University Press in April 2024.
Presented by Yale Press since 1919, the Yale Series of Younger Poets prize is America’s longest-running poetry award.
In addition to writing her own poems, Ok has taught creative writing at various colleges and universities, and edits, translates, and reviews poetry. She is also a recent recipient of a MacDowell Fellowship, a New Hampshire-based residency program that supports emerging and established artists. Her poems from “Ward Toward” have previously appeared in The Nation, Poetry, and The Yale Review, among other publications.
“Cindy Juyoung Ok is a wonderfully inventive poet with a command of her craft,” said Armantrout. “She writes in many forms, some invented, but her constant impulse is to break the frame, to escape oppressive containments. She pushes constantly against the social norms that have sometimes trapped her, writing with startling frankness about mental wards, domestic abuse, and racial stereotyping.
“Her impulse is to shake things up,” Armantrout added. “Using dream material, sound play, puns, and grammatic instability, she shows that there is always more than one way to make sense, as she elegantly argues at the end of ‘The Five Room Dance’: ‘a closed round, the words we cross a swarm/from which I am wrung. As I, wrong, form.’”
Ok said she is both elated and grateful to win the Yale poetry competition.
“A preoccupation of my book is what connects and alienates the rooms that make up a life, and since teenagehood, many volumes of the Yale Series of Younger Poets have made those spaces novel, known, and whole to me,” she said. “I feel delighted to be included in the series and am always thankful to the family, friends, students, teachers, and communities that have heartened me and my poetry. They made it possible for me to question and develop the styles and grammars that led to this manuscript, which, apart from me, only the judge and others at the prize have read.
“I am astonished that next year, the pages will have the chance to be opened by many.”
Previous winners of the Yale Younger Poets Prize include such noted poets as Adrienne Rich, John Ashbery, and Robert Haas. Honorees also receive one of five writing fellowships offered at the James Merrill House in Stonington, Connecticut. The fellowship provides a furnished living space and daily access to the late poet James Merrill’s apartment, allowing the writers a quiet setting to complete projects of literary or academic merit.
Next month, Yale University Press will publish “Mass for Shut-Ins,” a manuscript by Mary-Alice Daniel ’08, recipient of the 2022 Yale Younger Poets Prize.
The publication of Ok’s manuscript will be the 118th volume in the series.
An excerpt from her poem “Faint,” from “Ward Toward,” follows:
To be my chorus,
I first had to be a teenager who hoped
to kill the myth of the protagonist,
related quarries. Mental trespasses then
of floating down from tall towers
denoted the hope of language’s
end. In its icon of bloodlessness,
my skin had, has, the potential
to be a good canvas for the palettes
of others. I’m not native to any
place and so naive to every log—
still want the trees less naked.
© Cindy Juyoung Ok