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WVU English professor named NEA Creative Writing Fellow

West Virginia University professor Jenny Johnson has been named a 2019 National Endowment for Arts Creative Writing Fellow.

An assistant professor in the Department of English, she is using the award to write and do research toward her second book of poems. 

Jenny Johnson
Jenny Johnson

On a two-year cycle, the NEA awards different concentrations in creative writing – poetry or prose. This year’s focus is poetry. Johnson hopes to use the resources from the fellowship to further the work she started in her first book, “In Full Velvet,” published in 2017.

“My first book explores gender, desire and LGBTQ lineage. It asks questions about the natural world – What is natural? What is normal? The title of the book is an allusion to the velvet on the antlers of white-tailed deer. That’s one reading,” Johnson said. “There’s also a poem about the fact that during mating season, when some bucks rub the velvet off their antlers, other deer never lose their velvet and never mate. I know I am anthropomorphizing here, but these deer are different, or dare I say queer? Often, they live solitary lives away from the pack, evade hunters and continue to have these beautiful velvet antlers for their rest of their lives. So, the phrase ‘in full velvet’ is a nod to the velvet-horned deer.”

A native of Winchester, Virginia, Johnson is one of 35 poets across the country to be chosen for the award. 

“I’m going to use the time and space the fellowship offers me to work on a second book of poetry, which, like the first collection, will be both personal and political,” Johnson said. “I’m not entirely sure where working on the next collection will lead, and that’s part of why I’m grateful for the fellowship. An important part of my process is to follow the hard questions that arise and to listen closely to what each poem needs.”

Johnson joined the Creative Writing Program at WVU in the fall. Already, she says she’s found a place where she can thrive creatively and professionally.

“I’ve found WVU to be a supportive and collegial space where I have outstanding colleagues who are wonderful to work beside, think beside and write beside,” Johnson said. “It’s definitely been nourishing to find a home here.”

Recipients of the 2019 NEA Creative Writing Fellowship will receive an award of $25,000. Through its Creative Writing Fellowships, the NEA endeavors to give writers the time they need to create. Fellows are selected through a highly-competitive, anonymous process and are judged solely on the artistic excellence of the work sample provided.

Johnson was selected from a pool of approximately 1,700 applicants. She will begin the fellowship in fall 2019.  

"We were extremely fortunate to have been able to hire Professor Johnson, and the NEA is another testament to her incredible abilities as a writer,” said Brian Ballentine, chair of the Department of English. “In a very short amount of time she has had a remarkably positive impact on the Creative Writing Program and the Department of English. We all look forward to her next collection of poems."