As we announced in mid-March, Oliver Baez Bendorf is the winner of the Betty Berzon Emerging Writer Award. Bendorf is the author of two collections, Advantages of Being Evergreen (2019), and The Spectral Wilderness (2015), which was a finalist for Thom Gunn Award for Gay Poetry. His poems can be found in recent and forthcoming issues of American Poetry Review, Poetry, BOMB, and New England Review, and they have been anthologized in Troubling the Line: Trans and Genderqueer Poetry and Poetics.
Born and raised in Iowa, Oliver is currently an assistant professor of poetry at Kalamazoo College in Michigan. He is a fellow of the CantoMundo Poetry Workshop and a recipient of the Rane Arroyo Chapbook Prize. His work on #PulseOrlandoSyllabus was covered by Chronicle of Higher Education, Elle, and WLRN Miami. The judges for the Berzon Prize said, “Oliver Baez Bendorf’s work is intense, unique, and evocative, and it amplifies the voices of marginalized groups without being deprecating or apologetic.”
Here are Bendorf’s remarks accepting this award: “When I talk with my creative writing students about being readers, about this magical transporting power that writers do with language, I bring to class two books that have transported me. One is a thick-as-a-brick hardcover of Shel Silverstein poems that I loved to pore over as a kid, its pages full of drawings and rhymes. One of the poems became my homebody-hypochondriac anthem: ‘ “I cannot go to school today,” / said Little Peggy Anne McKay. / I have the measles and the mumps, / A gash, a rash, and purple bumps . . . ,’ and on it goes.
“The other book I show them is a paperback with gem tones on the cover, called Growing Up Gay/Growing Up Lesbian: A Literary Anthology. Geared toward gay and lesbian youth, it was the first of its kind when it was published in the early 1990s. Selections by James Baldwin, Audre Lorde, Jeanette Winterson, and others, more than fifty in total, hummed inside those covers. And what I tell my students is the truth: that it would be years before I even cracked the book cover open to read a single word inside. It was enough just to know it existed and to have it nearby.
“Growing up in Iowa, going to Catholic school from second through eighth grade, what I knew so far about being gay on the prairie was what happened to Matthew Shepard in 1998, when I was eleven. But that anthology reflected back a whole and lovable future to me, numerous versions of it, lives worth living, stories worthy of print. Writers who became my elders, my shelter. I stowed it under my bed, never opening it. What kind of power is that? What way of reading? That anthology has moved to every home with me in the intervening decades, while my sexuality and gender identity evolve. I have somehow survived everything in my life thus far. My younger self would not believe any of this. Maybe sleeping with the book under the bed was a kind of reading. Not the close reading I dwell in now, but a way of being transformed by language nonetheless.
“The book lives out and proud on my bookshelf these days, though it’s across town in my office on campus, while I shelter-in-place at home due to the Covid-19 pandemic. And so, from my home in Michigan, I accept the Betty Berzon Emerging Writer Award. To me, this award is a promise and a commitment. To remember the queer elders who’ve looked after me through language, and to try to pay it forward. To ‘take care of my blessings,’ as Essex Hemphill said. The memory of Dr. Betty Berzon is truly a blessing. I’m so grateful to Teresa DeCrescenzo for this honor and support, as well as everyone at the Publishing Triangle, and also to Francisco Aragón, Gabrielle Calvocoressi, Jennifer Natalya Fink, and CAConrad, and to their wise mentors as well. May we all stay safe and protected. May we know our power.”
The Betty Berzon Emerging Writer Award honors the author, activist, and psychotherapist Betty Berzon (1928–2006). It is given annually by the Publishing Triangle to an LGBTQ writer who has published at least one book but not more than two. The award is funded by Berzon’s widow, Teresa DeCrescenzo.