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Vol. 10, No. 1

The Bard Award
by John Barth

Of the many tidal rivers on Maryland's Eastern Shore of Chesapeake Bay, most bear Indian names, as does the great Bay itself; names antedating the fateful arrival of white colonists four centuries ago, but filtered through those English ears into their present forms and spellings: Pocomoke, Wicomico, Nanticoke, Choptank, and the handsome Matahannock, near whose ever-less-wooded shores I write these lines. A mile wide where it ebbs and flows past our Heron Bay Estates development, the Matahannock (like these opening sentences of this would-be story) then winds on and on: another dozen-plus miles upstream, ever narrower and shallower, northeastward through the agribusiness corn and soybean fields and industrial-scale chicken farms of our table-flat Delmarva Peninsula, to its petering out (or in) at its marshy headwaters somewhere near the Delaware state line, and about the same distance downstream from here, ever wider and somewhat deeper, southwestward past marinas, goose-hunting blinds, crab- and oyster-boat wharves, former steamboat landings, 18th-century estates and 21st-century McMansions, and more and more waterfront housing developments, until it joins our planet's largest estuarine system, which itself flows from and ebbs into the Atlantic and thence all the other oceans. Although no Heron Bay Estater has yet done so or likely ever will (we being mostly Golden Agers), one could theoretically set out from HBE's Blue Crab Marina Club, sail down the Matahannock, under the Bay Bridge and on south into Virginia waters, then hang a left at Cape Charles and cruise on to the Azores, Cape Town, Tahiti—right 'round the world!
     The region's counties, on the other hand, like the state they subdivide, have Anglo names—not surprisingly, since they didn't exist as geographical entities until the natives' dispossessors claimed, mapped, and laid them out: Dorchester, Talbot, Avon, Kent—most of them boundaried by the above-mentioned rivers. Ditto those counties' seats and other towns, their American characters quite out of sync with their historic English names. Cambridge and Oxford, for example, on opposite shores of the broad Choptank, are pleasant small towns both, but absent anything remotely like their Brit counterparts' venerable universities.
     Likewise "our" Avon County's Stratford (the gated community of Heron Bay Estates is five miles downriver, but Avon's county seat is our P.O.). A colonial-era customs port on the slightly wider river-stretch where Stratford Creek joins the Matahannock, it's now a comfortable town of six or seven thousand that nowise resembles its famed English antecedent: not a thatched roof or half-timbered gable-end to be found in our Stratford's red-brick-Georgian Historic District. Unlike those Choptank towns aforenoted, however, it does in fact boast a modest institution of higher learning. Stratford College is no Oxford or Cambridge University, but it's a good small liberal arts college, old by American standards like the town itself. We currently enroll some fifteen hundred students, mainly from our tri-state peninsula (Delmarva is short for Delaware, Maryland, and Virginia), with a double handful from across the Bay and nearby Pennsylvania and half a handful from remoter venues. As might be expected of a Stratford in, if not quite on, an Avon, the college gives particular emphasis and budgetary support to its Department of English and Creative Writing. "Who'll be our Shakespeare?" our student-recruitment ads ask prospective applicants: "Maybe you!"—adding that many a potential bard not born in Stratford has been reborn in the college's Shakespeare House, headquarters of the writing program, "under the benignly masterful tutelage of experienced writer-professors on the faculty and distinguished visitors to the campus." What's more (those ads bait their hook by declaring further), every budding playwright, poet, and prose-writer in the program has a shot at winning the college's Shakespeare Prize, awarded annually to the graduating senior with "the most impressive body of literary work composed in his or her courses."
     And this is where Yours Truly comes in, eventually. Stratford's "Bard Award," as everybody on campus calls it, is a hefty prize indeed, endowed some decades ago by a wealthy alumnus who had aspired unsuccessfully to playwriting but later flourished as the CEO of Tidewater Communities Inc., his family's real-estate development firm. His munificent Shakespeare Fund pays the honoraria and travel expenses of an impressive series of visiting lecturers, maintains the Shakespeare House and its associated quarterly lit-mag, The Stratford Review, and annually showers one lucky apprentice writer with a cash award currently twice the size of—get this—the Pulitzer Prize, the National Book Award, and the PEN/Faulkner Award combined: the equivalent of at least two years' tuition at the college or the annual salary of one of its mid-range professors! Little wonder that competition is intense among the dozen-plus seniors who submit portfolios (stratcoll.edu is a small operation, remember), and the pressure considerable on the half dozen of us faculty-folk who review and, to the best of our ability, judge them.
     Those uses and ours . . . After thirty-some years of teaching at Stratford, I'm newly retired from Academe these days, but I still enjoy hanging out at the Shakespeare House with new students and old colleagues (my wife among them, who has a couple of years yet to go before joining me out in the pasture) and serving on the Prize Committee. Mandy and I are a pair of those "experienced writer-professors" mentioned in the school's ads—who out of teacherly habit here remind you that experienced doesn't necessarily mean good, much less successful. Not likely you'll have heard of the fictionist George Newett or his versifying spouse Amanda Todd, even if you're one of those ever-scarcer Americans who still read Literature for pleasure (as you must be if you're reading this, if it ever gets published, if it ever gets written). Oh, I scored the occasional short story once upon a time, and Mandy the occasional lyric poem, mainly in Serious Quarterlies not much more widely read than our Stratford Review: little magazines that we ourselves rarely glance at unless something of ours or our colleagues' is in them, which was never often and, in my case anyhow, is now nearly never. The New Yorker, Harper's, Atlantic Monthly? Neither of us ever made it into those more prestigious (and better-paying) Glossies. I did manage to place a novel forty years ago—not with one of the New York trade houses, alas, but with my Midwestern alma mater's university press. On the strength of that modest publication plus three or four lit-mag stories, an MFA from the Iowa Writers' Workshop, and two years of assistant-professoring at one of our state university's branch campuses, I was hired at Stratford, where then-young Mandy was already an instructor with an MA from Johns Hopkins and a comparably Promising track record in poetry. A fine place to raise kids, she and I were soon happily agreeing in and out of bed—and so the town and its surroundings proved to be. Over our wedded decades, however, our separate and never loquacious muses more or less clammed up here in Oyster & Blue Crab Land, as they doubtless would have in any other venue, and we learned to content ourselves with trying to help others do better than their coaches were doing. The circumstance that as of this writing no Stratford alum has managed that not-so-difficult achievement does not prove our pedagogical labors fruitless, at least in our and most of our colleagues' opinion: Our program's graduates are better writers by baccalaureate-time than they were at matriculation, more knowledgeable about language, literary forms and genres, and the achievements of three thousand years' worth of their predecessors. If they then become law clerks, businesspeople, schoolteachers, or whatever else rather than capital-W Writers—well, so did their profs, and we don't consider our careers wasted.
     Do we?
 

To read the rest of this story and others from the Spring 2006 issue, click here to purchase it from our online store.

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