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The Andrés Montoya Poetry Prize

by Francisco Aragón

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As a graduate student at UC Davis, I remember browsing the university bookstore and coming across, buying, and enjoying The Iceworker Sings and Other Poems (Bilingual Press, 1999, Compare Prices) by Andrés Montoya. The noted poet Francisco X. Alarcón, I later learned, had selected Montoya’s manuscript as first place winner of UC Irvine’s Chicano/Latino Literary Prize for 1997. Bilingual Press, to their credit, came through and produced the book. Sadly, Andrés Montoya never got to hold it in his hands: in 1999 at the age of 31 he succumbed to leukemia before production of his book was completed -— a book that went on to win a Before Columbus Foundation American Book Award in 2000.

The impetus for the Andrés Montoya Poetry Prize was, in a way, aided by a number of coincidences. Andrés Montoya’s father is the distinguished artist Malaquias Montoya, who teaches at UC Davis. Malaquias Montoya was the first visiting fellow at the Institute for Latino Studies (ILS) at the University of Notre Dame, which was founded in 1999 (and which I joined in 2003). Gilberto Cárdenas, the founding director of the ILS, is one of Malaquias Montoya’s principal collectors. We approached the Montoya family with our idea for the prize, and they gave their blessing. After University of Notre Dame Press came on board, a national first book prize for Latino poetry was born.

In the spring of 2004, I had the pleasure of calling Sheryl Luna on the phone to inform her that she had won the first Andrés Montoya Poetry Prize. Pity the Drowned Horses (University of Notre Dame Press, 2005, Compare Prices) had been chosen by final judge Robert Vasquez. A former Stegner Fellow and the award-winning author of At the Rainbow (University of New Mexico Press, 1995), Vasquez, like Andrés Montoya, had grown up in Fresno.

The book has had a good reception. The opening poem, “Bones,” was featured at Poetry Daily in 2005. Sheryl Luna, along with her book, were also featured in the Poets & Writers article, “The Glittering Possibility,” on 18 debut poets in 2005. In October of that year, both Luna and Vasquez read from their work at the University of Notre Dame’s new Performing Arts Center -— specifically, in the Regis Philbin Studio Theater, whose “black box” space was transformed into a café for an evening of poetry and music. More recently, an interview with Luna conducted by the poet Emmy Pérez is due out this summer in Indiana Review’s special issue on Latino and Latina writers.

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