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W&L English Professor Attends National Book Awards; Alumna is Finalist

Marc Conner, professor of English at Washington and Lee University, attended the National Book Awards on Nov. 18 as a guest of novelist Charles Johnson, who received an honorary degree from W&L in June and was the Martin Luther King Jr. Day speaker at the university in 2008. A winner of the National Book Award in 1990 for Middle Passage, Johnson chaired this year’s fiction-award judges’ panel.

Lyrae Van Clief-Stefanon ’93 was a finalist for the poetry award, for Open Interval. An assistant professor of English at Cornell University, she won the 2001 Cave Canem Poetry Prize for her book Black Swan and co-wrote with Elizabeth Alexander, who composed and delivered this year’s presidential-inauguration poem, the chapbook Poems in Conversation and a Conversation. Van Clief-Stefanon’s poems have appeared in Shenandoah: The Washington and Lee University Review, African American Review, Callaloo, Crab Orchard Review and Rattapallax, and in several anthologies.

Johnson announced the fiction winner: Colum McCann, for his novel Let the Great World Spin. McCann, born in Ireland and living in New York, was thrilled.

“I enjoyed the rare opportunity to attend,” said Conner. “McCann was definitely the popular choice. His novel is a tour de force of language, style, theme. He floats in and out of many characters’ minds, many stories, many plots, but weaves them all together in a beautiful, if painful, connected narrative.”

Comedian and writer Andy Borowitz hosted the ceremony. Actress Joanne Woodward presented the award for Distinguished Contribution to American Letters to Gore Vidal. “In his 84th year, he delivered a trenchant acceptance speech,” said Conner, “focusing mainly on the fearful age in which we live.”

Complete details of the ceremony, the finalists and the winners can be viewed at http://www.nationalbook.org/index.html.