For the past four years, Jennifer Militello, who’s the author of the poetry collections A Camouflage of Specimens and Garments, Body Thesaurus, Flinch of Song, and Anchor Chain, Open Sail, has mentored poets for NEC’s low-residency MFA Program in Creative Writing. But now she’s authored a non-fiction book, Knock Wood, the first non-poetry book she’s published, winning a prestigious award.
Dzanc Books announced on their website on November 21, 2018, NEC’s own Jennifer Militello had won the Dzanc Prize for Nonfiction for Knock Wood, her forthcoming collection of lyric nonfiction.
All the mentors in NEC’s MFA program, and, in particular, the students, were proud of Militello, who had been nicknamed “MFA Mom” by some of them during the first residency she hosted as Director. During the residency (a 1-2 week period in summer and winter when MFA students gather on campus for all day sessions that include lectures, workshops, and readings), she invested a good deal of energy in ensuring everything went smoothly: from the meals in Gilmore to the dorm rooms in Charter. She was the stereotypical kind mom, but clad in dark flowing kimono-style dusters, and with a wide smile, and a vivid expression to match every situation.
Militello currently mentors poetry students in the Program, but she may begin mentoring nonfiction writers as well, alongside the Program’s nonfiction mentors: David Ryan, author of such works as Animals In Motion, Allison Titus, author such works as Sob Story, and Sarah Manguso, author of such works as 300 Arguments.
She has been a mentor in the program since 2015. But Militello, who has a PhD in Creative Writing from Bath Spa University and an MFA in Creative Writing from The University of North Carolina Greensboro, became the face of the program when she became the Director in 2017. Many undergraduates are familiar with her as well because she taught Introduction to Creative Writing and Isolation and Morality last fall (which she will teach again next fall).
Militello was in her office on campus when she first received the news that Knock Wood had won the Dzanc Prize. “I was absolutely thrilled to learn that I had won the prize, and also surprised,” she said, “even though the book had been a finalist for several prizes, Dzanc was a dream press of mine for the book–it’s such an incredible press.”
Dzanc Books, which is a non-profit organization that promotes great writing and the advancement of literary readership, has published collections and novels by such accomplished and award-winning writers as Roy Kesey, Suzanne Burns, and Peter Selgin. They publish innovative, daring, and original works, and host three annual literary prizes, two that remain fixed: the Dzanc Books Prize for Fiction and the Dzanc Books Short Story Collection Prize, and one that changes each year. This year they decided the third prize would be the Nonfiction Prize.
When Dzanc Books announced the submission period would run from March 1st to September 30, 2018, they described the prize as honoring “an innovative and inspiring work of nonfiction, including but not limited to memoir, essays, polemical writing, historical writing, and biography.”
Militello submitted Knock Wood then waited out the long weeks that followed while Dzanc culled through hundreds of submissions. Then in mid-November, she learned Knock Wood had won, after having been informed it was on the long list the week previous.
On November 21, 2018, Dzanc announced on their website that Knock Wood had won the Dzanc Nonfiction Prize. Editor-in-Chief Michelle Dotter said, “We’re honored to have the chance to publish such an intricate and beautiful book” and “Like slivers of glass in a carefully arranged mosaic, every word in Knock Wood is vivid, precise, and sharp enough to cut. I enjoyed putting together the picture one piece at a time.”
Militello was overjoyed the book won such an esteemed award, “I had worked hard for years to make the book what it was by the end.”
When Militello won the prize she told Dzanc Books, “I feel so fortunate that the editors at Dzanc were moved by this quirky, lyric examination of time’s fluidity, this book born of my obsessions and built by twining together impassioned stories—of family, insanity, crime, and love—that happened decades apart.”
Militello has won many awards for her poetry: Flinch of Song (2009) won the Tupelo First Book Award, Body Thesaurus (2013) was named by Best American Poetry as one of the top poetry books of 2013; she also received the Yeats Poetry Prize, the Barbara Bradley Award, the Ruskin Art Club Poetry Award, the Ruskin Art Club Poetry Award, the Betty Gabehart Prize, and the 49th Parallel Award. But the Dzanc Nonfiction Prize is the first award she has won outside of the realm of poetry.
When Jacob Rivers, an MFA Candidate Militello mentored this semester, heard she’d won the Dzanc Nonfiction Prize, he was thrilled. Rivers, an adjunct professor at NEC, and the Managing Editor of The Henniker Review, said he admires Militello’s work.
“Jennifer Militello’s work brings us into the smallest and most intricate of worlds– the worlds of our bodies, our dreams, our wants: “Inside me, thresholds, / groves enough. Oblivion: the stem of any flower,” Rivers said, quoting lines from Militello’s poem “A Dictionary of Perishing.” “As a reader, these are worlds I never want to leave. Her poems remind us, as García Lorca once did in Buenos Aires, that “duende is not a question of ability, but of true, living style, of blood, of the most ancient culture, of spontaneous creation.”
Allison Titus, who has been mentoring in the MFA Program alongside Militello for several years, managed to sneak a preview of Knock Wood, which is forthcoming in August. She said, “I was lucky to read a draft of Knock Wood a few years ago, and was immediately taken by it—its sly, edgy beauty; its gorgeous, lyrical language. It’s smart vulnerability. I knew it was only a matter of time before it made its way into the world—and I’m excited for the chance to read it all over again, and kind of jealous of the readers who get to discover it for the first time and be enchanted.”
Dzanc describes Militello’s book on their website: “In Militello’s collection of lyric nonfiction, a knock on wood to ward off illness sets off a series of events and memories that call into question the very structure of time. Obsessive habits, insane relatives, a criminal ex-lover dead of a heroin overdose, and a current lover untethered in time emerge as this book maps out a new chronology of love and loss.”
As part of the prize, Militello will receive a $1,500 advance to accompany the publication of Knock Wood, which will become available for sale on Amazon on August 13, 2019, and at the NEC bookstore shortly after.
You can purchase Knock Wood here.