SUPERIOR, Wis. — A professor at the University of Wisconsin-Superior is in the running for a Pulitzer Prize.
Jayson Iwen, a writing professor and chair of the Writing, Language and Literature Department, wrote “Roze & Blud,” which was nominated for the Pulitzer Verse Award category by the publisher, the University of Arkansas Press.
Written in long poetic verse, the book examines the thoughts and feelings of Roze Mertha, a teenage girl growing up in a trailer park, and William Blud, a veteran navigating age and loneliness in an apartment he shares with an Afghan refugee.
Iwen said he found his inspiration for the book he started six or seven years ago came from talking to people in the community. The process took two years to complete.
“Superior has a lot of fascinating stories when you go and talk to people,” Iwen said. “It’s a really unique place because, I don’t know, people just have really rough lives ... I heard so many heart-rending stories just talking to people.”
Iwen said the personas don’t reflect any one individual, but a compilation of the stories he’s heard in the Twin Ports from talking to people.
“(I) just don’t read about this kind of stuff in literature, especially poetry,” Iwen said. “You don’t hear the kinds of stories that people are going through: poverty-level, working-class families and the kind of hardship they deal with. You have the number of stories you have in a big city boiled down to what is essentially a small town. It just feels so concentrated, all of the narratives. I wanted to share those, show what people are going through.”
Iwen said he first created the persona of Blud — a crusty, older individual who would have experienced a lot, who would tell the story of growing up down and out in Superior. He said the story seemed imbalanced, too dark.
“I thought I needed to have a yang to that yin,” Iwen said. “So I created this female character to look at life from the other direction. He’s kind of looking back at life and she’s looking forward kind of like a mirror image of one another.”
The two characters inspired even more poetry because of the different perspectives on similar realities, he said.
Iwen said he did ask the publisher to consider sending it in for a Pulitzer Prize. It was a bit more surprising when the book won the Miller Williams Poetry Prize and he received a call from Billy Collins, poet laureate of the U.S. from 2001 to 2003.
“I didn’t think it was him,” Iwen said. “I just thought it was someone named Billy Collins. Here it was the poet laureate of the United States telling me I won this Miller Award. I was completely gob-smacked.”
In addition, “Roze & Blud”was a finalist for the National Poetry Series and the Green Rose Prize, and a semifinalist for the Wheeler Prize and Felix Pollak Prize.
Iwen has written 18 books to date, of which four have been published; two are now out of print.
Still, Iwen said it was gratifying the publisher thought enough of the book to nominate it by writing a proposal and paying the processing fee.
“In all honesty, I didn’t even tell anyone I was nominated for a Pulitzer … until I was talking to a colleague and it just kind of slipped out.” He said from there, his colleague contacted marketing at the university and from there, he’s slowly come to the realization that it’s probably a big deal.
“Whether I win or not, I will be sitting there watching it,” Iwen said.
Winners and finalists in the competition will be announced at noon June 11 at Columbia University after the Pulitzer Prize Board decided to postpone the 2021 awards announcement. It was originally scheduled for April 19. The event will be livestreamed and event information will be available at pulitzer.org.
“People in the area have kind of a horse in the race,” Iwen said. “It’s not just about me. It’s about this book. It’s about the Twin Ports. If the book wins, or even if it doesn’t win, it's affirmation that our stories matter. Our stories are compelling enough to publish, to want to put out there … It’s affirmation that our lives matter.”