Tevis wins Pushcart Prize
For nearly 40 years the finest writers the country has to offer have been featured in David Henderson’s The Pushcart Prize: Best of the Small Presses. It would appear, then, that Furman English professor Joni Tevis is officially one of our finest writers.
Dr. Tevis was recently named a Pushcart Prize winner for her essay “What the Body Knows,” which will be published with other award winners in the 2015 edition of the series. Short stories, poetry, and essays are represented in the annual collection, and being selected for inclusion is a coveted career achievement.
“I was so happy about it. I had hoped for one for a number of years,” Tevis said. “I’ve been nominated a couple of times before and was just happy to be nominated. It’s such an honor to be in the anthology with writers like Louise Glück, Philip Levine – people whose work you’ve read and admired for years.”
“What the Body Knows” recounts Tevis’s experience on a rafting trip she took with her husband David in the summer of 2009 on the Canning River more than a hundred miles north of the Arctic Circle. For two weeks, they and their guide braved frigid temperatures and potentially life threatening currents in the stunning, empty vastness of the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge on their way to the Arctic Ocean, which Tevis shares with readers in the form of vivid imagery sprinkled with a thought-provoking dose of philosophical musing.
The mosquitoes, for example, are a constant menace, yet Tevis realizes at some point that “without the mosquito, the jaegers and longspurs and buntings would starve, and the wolf and the bear. They’re the wide base of the food pyramid here, billions of pounds of protein on the wing.”
“It was just such an amazing time to be up there. I had never been to Alaska, and I’d always wanted to go,” she said. “The sun never set . . . and you would think that would be very unsettling and strange, but it immediately made sense to me and I really enjoyed that time. Writing about it was a way for me to relive it and also to share it with other folks who hadn’t been there because it’s a hard area to reach. Even in Alaska, it’s a hard area to reach.”
“It brings a lot of well-deserved recognition to Joni Tevis for her work as a non-fiction writer, but it also it brings a lot of attention to the writing program at Furman and Furman overall,” Furman English department chair David Bost said. “This is a national prize, very highly regarded.”
“What the Body Knows” will also be one of the anchor pieces of Tevis’s second book, called The World Is on Fire and scheduled for release in April 2015 by Milkweed Editions, which also published 2012’s The Wet Collection: A Field Guide to Iridescence and Memory. Both are a collection of essays, which are Tevis’s specialty.
“I love all the genres, but I think the essay is the queen of the genres because it takes what it needs from other genres and uses it for its own end,” she says. “You have the character-building and the scene-building of good fiction, you have the careful attention to language that you would have from poetry, and you could have associative leaps too. I really feel that the essay has a ring of truth to it, or it should . . . The actual French root of the verb essay is just to try. It’s such an inviting form. Everyone should write essays.”
Being such a successful purveyor of her craft gives Tevis instant credibility in the classroom, Bost says.
“A lot of the students I talk to who are prospective English majors are really very interested in writing, being creative writers, being poets, being non-fiction writers the way Joni is,” he said. “They may want to go into journalism or even some aspect of marketing where writing will be one of the basic skills that they use. I think it does matter to students that they’re working under the guidance of not only published authors but authors whose work has been recognized by their peers as being exemplary.”
The Pushcart, which bills itself as “the most honored literary project in America,” has forged through a massive upheaval in the publishing world by carving out a niche with what are called “small presses”—publishers with annual sales below $50 million—and surviving thanks to an endowment.
“It really is one of the last great holdouts of the literacy collectives of the late ‘60s,” Tevis said. “Just one fella (Henderson) basically carries it on and puts out this anthology every year that’s 800 pages long. It’s amazing to me what he’s been able to do. It’s a labor of love.”