Art Beat: The Big Prize | WMUK

Art Beat: The Big Prize

Feb 25, 2021

Oliver Baez Bendorf and friend
Credit Courtesy of the artist

The National Endowment for the Arts recently announced that Oliver Baez Bendorf, an assistant professor of English at Kalamazoo College, has won a 2021 Creative Writing Fellowship.

NEA fellows are selected through a highly competitive, anonymous process and are judged on the artistic excellence of their work. The fellowships provide funding for recipients to write, revise, research, and travel.

“It’s an enormous honor,” Baez Bendorf says. “The NEA Fellowship is government support, essentially a grant, for anything that helps make the writing possible. In addition to the material support—and I can’t say how blessed I feel for that—another element of it that has been a huge gift is the mandate to figure out what that means for me, what will actually make the writing possible.”

Oliver Baez Bendorf reading at Bookbug/this is a bookstore in Kalamazoo
Credit Kim Charles Kay

Baez Bendorf says he has applied every year since 2014. Distracted by teaching his college classes virtually during the pandemic, he forgot about his latest submission and focused on his work. When the phone call came that he had won, he thought it was because something was missing in the application.

There wasn’t.

Since 1967, the Arts Endowment has awarded more than 3,600 Creative Writing Fellowships totaling over $56 million. Many American recipients of the National Book Award, National Book Critics Circle Award, and Pulitzer Prize in Poetry and Fiction, were initially recipients of NEA fellowships.

Considering what he'll do with the Fellowship, Baez Bendorf says, “I’m still working out what my writing needs right now. I can say this past year of no travel has made it really clear that one place that is important for me to set my feet on and lay my eyes on is the Ronneburg Castle in Germany, which for over a century housed a group of ancestors on my father’s side—Germans and French Huguenots who had fled France. They were part of the group called the Community of True Inspiration.”

The group, Baez Bendorf says, fled religious persecution. His hope is to research the experience of his ancestors and from that create a collection of poems or prose.

Baez Bendorf is the author of two poetry collections, most recently Advantages of Being Evergreen, published in 2019. In 2020, he received the early career achievement award from The Publishing Triangle. His work has also won fellowships from CantoMundo, the Vermont Studio Center, and the Wisconsin Institute for Creative Writing. His poems appear in recent or forthcoming issues of the American Poetry Review, Interdisciplinary Studies in Literature and Environment, the New England Review, Orion, Poetry, the anthology Troubling the Line: Trans and Genderqueer Poetry and Poetics, and other publications.

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