Polly Buckingham

EWU English and Creative Writing Faculty and INCW mentor Polly Buckingham will be signing her new fiction chapbook A Year of Silence at AWP 2014.  The book is the winner of the 2012 Jeanne Leiby Memorial Chapbook Award, sponsored by University of Central Florida’s The Florida Review.

Polly Buckingham’s stories and poems appear or are forthcoming in The Threepenny ReviewThe New Orleans ReviewThe North American ReviewThe Tampa Review, (Pushcart nomination),Exquisite CorpseThe Literary Review, The Chattahoochee ReviewHubbubThe Potomac ReviewThe Moth and elsewhere.  She was a finalist for Flannery O’Connor Award in 2011, 2012, and 2013.  Polly is founding editor of StringTown Press and teaches creative writing and literature at Eastern Washington University.

 Judges’ Remarks:

The three finalists for the Jeanne Leiby Chapbook Award each deal with the mysteries of grief from three different points of view:

  • First Place: “A Year of Silence” by Polly Buckingham
  • Second Place: “Magnify, Sanctify” by Sharon Solwitz
  • Third Place: “Do You Believe in Ghosts?” by Leslie Pietrzyk

In the winning story, “A Year of Silence,” a man who has lost his wife to a terrorist attack in the London Tube tries to take care of his daughter, a gifted seven-year-old pianist, who gradually loses her ability to feel the keys of her instrument, to play the music her mother loved or, after surgery, to use her hands for even the most simple task. Stranded in a cottage with no electricity and little food in an unrelenting winter flood rising from the North Sea, the two characters survive the cold wind- and rain-swept Outer Hebrides, an almost perfect embodiment of a depthless and unending grief.

While all three stories reveal courage in their unflinching depictions of loss—the lost son of a Jew who no longer believes in God in “Magnify, Sanctify,” the lost husband of a narrator with an inimitable voice tough, authentic and tender as Jeanne Leiby’s–“A Year of Silence,” as its title suggests, strikes me most powerfully in its willingness to strip away the loudness of the modern world in all its meaningless busyness—a too-easy escape from countless un-grieved losses—so that, in the great silence of a great loss, we can see grief in its purest, rawest, most terrifying form, then receive the greater gift of renewed feeling, a girl who’s lost her hands for a long, silent year drawing a portrait of her lost mother.

The last time I saw Jeanne Leiby was at an Associated Writing Programs conference, just a year or so after she became editor of the prestigious Southern Review. A former editor of the Florida Review and the Black Warrior Review when I was the magazine’s faculty advisor, she’d also been one of my most memorable, gifted workshop students at the University of Alabama, one of those rare young writers whose voice and vision were unlike any other writer’s I’d ever read, uttlerly unsentimental, with a unique gift of dark humor and an unflinching honesty delivered with genuine empathy, generosity and kindness. How could I forget “Vinegar Tasting,” which she wrote for the first graduate workshop I ever taught, a story later published in the Indiana Review and in her Doris Bakwin Prize-winning story collection, Downriver?

When she saw me at AWP, she hugged me and said something I’ll never forget, though I can’t say it here, a single simple declarative sentence, a simple kindness, that I see as the beginning of the end of one of the most difficult periods in my life, a long period of private grief she helped bring to an end. A year later, she was gone, too young, too soon, at the beginning of what had already become a distinguished career as a writer and editor.

Being asked to judge the chapbook contest in Jeanne’s name has been a simple kindness Jocelyn Bartkevicius and the editors of the Florida Review have given me, helping me, and others, I hope, in bringing a depthless grief to whatever end is possible, in a celebration of Jeanne’s remarkable life, work and spirit.