Professor Brenda Hillman Wins Top Literary Award

Professor Brenda HillmanBrenda Hillman, the Olivia C. Filipi Professor of Poetry, has achieved a first at Saint Mary’s College. She has won the prestigious Morton Dauwen Zabel Award, a highly coveted award bestowed by the American Academy of Arts and Sciences (The Academy).

As a 2020 award winner, Hillman receives not only the distinction of receiving the highest literary award in the nation, but she also receives $10,000, which she joyfully said will go toward her grandson’s college fund.

Hillman, whose 35-year tenure at Saint Mary’s is a milestone achievement in itself, spoke of her excitement upon discovering that she had won the award. “The American Academy of Arts and Letters is a very old and prestigious academy that is very established and well-known, and has some amazing artists as academy members,” said Hillman. “The award I received is given every three years in poetry, so it makes this an even greater honor.” Founded in 1898 as an honor society of the country’s leading architects, artists, composers, and writers, The Academy features early members Mark Twain, Edith Wharton, Theodore Roosevelt, Childe Hassam, and other notable creative historic figures.

Awards from The Academy are usually given to both established and emerging writers of fiction, nonfiction, drama, and poetry. This year’s literature prizes were awarded to 19 writers in various categories and totaled $350,000. “The award was a complete surprise. I don’t know their process, but I received out of the blue a nice letter saying that I had been given this award,” said Hillman. “At first, I thought it was just a solicitation letter asking for a donation, but then I read “We want to congratulate you” and realized that something nice had happened.”

The Academy’s 250 members propose candidates, and a rotating committee of writers select the winners. “I’ve discovered that it’s not a process where someone nominated me, but it’s based upon the judges’ knowledge and awareness of writers, and I’m honored for the recognition,” said Hillman.

For Hillman, receiving the Morton Dauwen Zabel Award is something of a career prize. “We all want our books and our published work to be given recognition, but this award is especially important to me because it’s given for innovative, progressive, and experimental work,” said Hillman. “In some ways, I think of myself as working within very beloved literary traditions, but also as a rule breaker trying to pave the way, especially for women writers doing experimental work or writers who need permission to take a chance on different kinds of styles or different kinds of subject matter. In my case, it’s ecological poetry or very spiritually strange poetry.”

Hillman also views the award as a commendation for doing something that she really loves, and that is finding her individuality as an educator; poetry is her calling. “It’s been a journey that is naturally educational—the merging of my hopes and dreams with my poetic hopes and dreams,” added Hillman. “My work is spiritual, but it’s also sort of social justice oriented with a stylistic kind of change that binds us. So, what this award means to me is that my work was seen and honored as a whole, not just in one particular aspect.”

The award also speaks to how important it is to recognize older writers. “Very often, older writers are not chosen for a lot of awards because the tendency is to give the awards to younger writers to encourage them, so there’s a real ageism, and it’s implicit in a lot of literary awards,” shared Hillman. “But I’m extremely happy as an older writer that The Academy has recognized me for my innovation and experimental work. And to be the first person from Saint Mary’s College to win this award makes me happy to bring this honor to our school.”