Discovering the Discovery Poetry Contest: A collective history - 92Y, New York

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Exclusive content celebrating 145 years of 92Y

Discovering the Discovery Poetry Contest: A collective history

Mar 22, 2019

For over six decades, 92Y’s Discovery Poetry Contest has provided a launchpad for extraordinarily talented young poets who have not yet published a book. Many of these writers—John Ashbery, Lucille Clifton, Mark Strand, Mary Jo Bang, Solmaz Sharif and many others—have gone on to become leading voices of their generations.

In celebration of this history, and coinciding with 92Y’s 145th Anniversary, we asked some of these poets—along with former Unterberg Poetry Center director Grace Schulman and current administrators Ricardo Maldonado and Sophie Herron—to tell us about what the Discovery Prize has meant to them.

1995 Discovery Contest winners and judges
1995 Discovery Contest winners and judges on May 8, 1995; Back row: Daniel Tobin, Mary Jo Bang, James Longenbach, Julia B. Levine; First row: Arthur Smith, Grace Schulman, Edward Hirsch

Monica Ferrell (’01): I first heard about the prize through reading the bios of some of my favorite writers—I noticed an incredibly high correlation between winning the Discovery prize and poetic excellence. Though the contest was on my radar, I still thought I was too young and unformed and frankly inadequate to enter, but then a friend told me he was planning to, and I decided to throw my hat in the ring.

Ricardo Maldonado: In the years before we received submissions online, we’d get thousands of manuscripts the week before the deadline, all via snail mail. Boxes and boxes of poems—that was our office for more than two months—filled with the promise of new work, more than a thousand new voices. As a poet myself, I can’t think of a more humbling setting for the work we do here.

Grace Schulman: The judges met in my apartment the early years—I remember one of them looking up at the ceiling to ask for heavenly help in making the tough decision.

Ricardo Maldonado: One judge called in from Germany. Another’s phone broke down and we kept him updated via Gchat. One judge called in from a rest-stop along highway—I remember hearing trucks driving by. I remember when Reginald Shepherd planned on serving as a judge, and when he left us due to illness, we listened to his own Discovery reading from 1993—D.A. Powell stepped in to complete Reginald’s work. And John Ashbery’s reply to my invitation to judge in 2014: “I'll have to say yes, since the contest was the beginning of my poetry career, a mere 52 years ago.”

Sophie Herron: Ricardo and I sit in, silently, on the judges’ call every year—it’s some hybrid monster of suspense thriller and master class.

Rosanna Warren (’80): I’ll never forget the shock of opening the envelope from the 92nd Street Y and reading that I’d won a Discovery Award. It was 1980, and I was a graduate student in the Writing Seminars at Johns Hopkins.

Eduardo C. Corral (’05): I was at work—library assistant in Phoenix, Arizona—when Grace Schulman called me.

Erika L. Sánchez (’13): I was working at a nonprofit when I got the call. I answered my phone at my desk and Ricardo Maldonado informed me that I had received the prize. I was disgruntled with my career at that time, so the validation was incredibly important to me.

2018 Discovery Contest winners Heidi Johannesen Poon, Monica Sok, Paul Tran and Jake Skeets on May 10, 2018
2018 Discovery Contest winners Heidi Johannesen Poon, Monica Sok, Paul Tran and Jake Skeets on May 10, 2018

Jake Skeets (’18): I was actually at work when I first missed the call from Sophie. My mouth was wide open as I listened to Sophie tell me on my voicemail that they had a "bit of good news.”

Diana Khoi Nguyen (’17): I got the news while walking to a meeting with a professor for whom I was a TA. Even though we were meeting to discuss a course for undergraduate business majors, the professor understood the significance of my news—and joy—as she too was a poet. Embarrassingly, she shared my news with the class.

Monica Ferrell (’01): The first whiff of my winning came in the form of a voicemail message left by Grace Schulman on the tape of my answering machine—this would have been early 2001. She said she had some good news but qualified it in some way I can no longer remember—"sort of good news,” something like that. I thought I was perhaps a runner-up and got tremendously excited. I got too excited, actually, to call her back.

Rosanna Warren (’80): I lived in a listing, second floor apartment in a shabby wooden house on a shabby backstreet of Baltimore—a street I loved for its sagging porches, aspiring maples, and oddly angled dormer windows. I felt I had been “translated,” like Bottom in A Midsummer Night’s Dream, when I found myself a few months later lined up to read with my fellow young poets Don Bogen, Michael McFee, and Stephen Yenser in the august auditorium of the 92nd Street Y.

Grace Schulman: When Rosanna won, her father had been the first reader at the Y that September, so that the season opened and closed with the Warrens.

2005 Discovery Contest winners: Stacie Cassarino, Eduardo C. Corral, Rita Mae Reese, Dave Lucas on May 16, 2005
2005 Discovery Contest winners: Stacie Cassarino, Eduardo C. Corral, Rita Mae Reese, Dave Lucas on May 16, 2005

Eduardo C. Corral (’05): Grace’s phone call went to voicemail. During my break I walked outside to eat something. As I finished my snack, I decided to check my voicemail. Those were the days of flip phones, so I flipped open my phone, pushed a button to hear my messages. Grace’s voice—patient, gracious—let me know I was one of the winners. I let out a small shout of joy, which startled a few patrons exiting the library. Then I accidentally erased the voicemail.  

Jake Skeets (’18): I immediately called back and was speechless as Sophie Herron told me that the bit of good news was that I won.

Jake Skeets' manuscript page, as printed for the winners' reading
Jake Skeets' manuscript page, as printed for the winners' reading

Sophie Herron: Once the final choices are made, Ricky and I get to call the winners. It’s the best. We typically say something like, “We have a bit of news,” but that’s, at least for me, because I guess it’s not very seemly to simply yell into a receiver or voicemail that someone’s won the Discovery Contest? I guess. But I’ve never once been able to keep the smile out of my voice—it feels like the best, kindest, most marvelous joke. There’s a puppy in this phone call! Only the puppy is an award, and you’re coming to New York. God, I love those calls.

2013 Discovery Contest winners Catherine Blauvelt and Erika L. Sánchez on May 6, 2013
2013 Discovery Contest winners Catherine Blauvelt and Erika L. Sánchez on May 6, 2013

Erika L. Sánchez (’13): I stood up and ran around the office in a frenzy. I remember I also jumped up and down. My coworkers were so confused!

Eduardo C. Corral (’05): I immediately started thinking I had imagined the voicemail. It wasn’t until I received an email confirming the good news that I let myself believe it.

Monica Ferrell (’01): When I spoke with Grace and she told me I had won, I think I was a little rude about the news—strictly because I couldn’t summon up conversation. At one point she said that just before we were to go on stage at the 92nd Street Y the readers would have a little brandy in the green room—"if you drink brandy,” she qualified. I started laughing crazily, insanely, at that—because I had a glass of brandy in my hand at that moment, to calm my nerves—and am pretty sure I spooked her.

Nicole Cooley (’94): Winning in 1994 launched me as a poet.  I was a graduate student living in Atlanta and traveling up to New York City with my husband and my father, who is also a writer and knew what the Y meant in literary history, was truly a dream come true.

Grace Schulman: In 1967, the reading was originally planned for November, but the publisher said that we were having another little contest at that time: McGovern vs. Nixon.

Jake Skeets (’18): This experience marked my first time visiting New York City.  As a poet from a Native Nation, I felt extremely honored.

2017 Discovery Contest winners Erika Luckert, James Henry Knippen, Diana Khoi Nguyen, and Courtney Faye Taylor on May 8, 2017
2017 Discovery Contest winners Erika Luckert, James Henry Knippen, Diana Khoi Nguyen, and Courtney Faye Taylor on May 8, 2017

Diana Khoi Nguyen (’17): I was too nervous to appreciate the green room—my first and only one!—and tradition of scotch shots with everyone. My favorite part of the night was realizing that another winner was also utilizing the projection screen to share multimedia work. As a fellow multimedia poet and maker, I immediately felt the presence of community, and felt optimistic about the future of poetry.

Camille Rankine (’10): It was the first time I read on a formal stage, and the first time I read for more than five minutes, and it was the most prepared I've ever been for a reading. I arrived with pre-written inter-poem banter!

Monica Ferrell (’01): This event was going to be my very first real public reading besides a little student thing I had done the previous spring—I was a second-year MFA student in the School of the Arts at Columbia. At that time I had nearly had a heart attack, and read quite badly, so I knew I needed a lot of practice. I practiced standing up in front of my roommate, practiced into a little handheld tape recorder. I printed out my poems and pasted post-it notes in a bunch of places that simply said “WATER” as a reminder to drink some.

Grace Schulman: People dealt with the experience in different ways. One poet came late to the reading, explaining that her teacher once told her to send poems out and then forget about them. Another poet got so nervous she couldn't read, and Rachel Wetzsteon took her aside and gave her "therapy" until she was able to go onstage.

Camille Rankine (’10): The quiet attention of the audience brought this charged energy to the room that I'd never experienced before.

2001 Discovery Contest winners Joanna Goodman, Bryan Dietrich, Monica Ferrell and Amy Beeder on April 23, 2001
2001 Discovery Contest winners Joanna Goodman, Bryan Dietrich, Monica Ferrell and Amy Beeder on April 23, 2001

Monica Ferrell (’01): When it was my turn to read, someone backstage handed me an impossibly small plastic cup of water. I’ll never forget accepting it, squeezing too tightly so that half of it spilled, then turning over my wrist so that the rest fell on her. She accepted this eventuality gamely and in that way, holding a file folder and a small empty cup, I walked onto the stage to read from a sheaf of pages with “WATER” posted at regular intervals. As it happened, I confessed the whole story to the crowd, which won them over. The feeling in that room was so warm and celebratory. I felt that I was at an inflection point in my life.

Camille Rankine (’10): I believe it was also the first time I was in the same room as Claudia Rankine—proving that we are not, in fact, the same person! I got to introduce Claudia to my parents that night. She and my dad spent a bit of time chatting about the parish in Jamaica that our name hails from. It was an odd little family reunion of people who are not actually related, and perhaps my favorite part of the evening.

Camille Rankine's manuscript page, as printed for the winners' reading
Camille Rankine's manuscript page, as printed for the winners' reading

Nicole Cooley (’94): But my most important and vivid memory of the experience is being given this award with three other strong, powerful and beautiful women poets: Ann Townsend, Angela Sorby and the late Reetika Vazirani.  Being on stage and reading and listening to the other young women was a highlight of my writing life—and I think of it often. I am still in touch with Angela and Ann and was in touch with Reetika until her death. This experience shaped my identity as a poet and as a woman writer.

Jake Skeets (’18): I was able to speak my Native language on stage in a New York City. I like to call this story "Diné Poet in New York" after Lorca's Poet in New York. It was truly life-changing.

Rosanna Warren (’80): At the dinner afterwards, in a small restaurant, our elders, the judges, welcomed us into their charmed company: Alfred Corn, James Merrill, Judy Moffett. I don’t remember drinking any wine, but I didn’t need to. The evening was intoxicating in its promise.

Monica Ferrell (’01): After the event finished, one of the judges, the poet Marie Ponsot, approached me in the auditorium aisle. She said something to me like, “You really have it, keep going.” I felt that I had been claimed for poetry forever and that my path would never again be the same. Then a bunch of friends and I walked twenty blocks away to a tiny piano bar where we sang Led Zeppelin songs for a couple of hours.

John Ashbery’s postcard to Poetry Center Director John Malcolm Brinnin
John Ashbery’s postcard to Poetry Center Director John Malcolm Brinnin

Categories: 145th Anniversary