Katie Peterson Wins 2016 American Academy Prize

Kathleen Peterson, UC Davis English professor, wins American Academy of Arts and Letters 2016 literature award.
Katie Peterson

UC Davis assistant professor of English Katie Peterson is one of eight writers of “exceptional accomplishment in any genre” to receive an American Academy of Arts and Letters 2016 literature award. Author of three books of poetry, Peterson is on a list that includes two MacArthur “genius grant” Fellows and a Pulitzer Prize winner.

Nominations for the awards are made by American Academy members, a 250-member group of architects, artists, composers and writers. A committee consisting of John Guare, Sharon Olds, Anne Tyler, Rosanna Warren and Joy Williams selected the literature winners this year. The award is $10,000. 

“I was shocked,” said Peterson when she received word of the award March 22. “Something like this comes out of the blue. You have to be nominated, but I have no idea who nominated me.” 

Peterson came to UC Davis in early 2015 to teach in the creative writing program. She has published three books: This One Tree (2006), Permission (2013) and The Accounts (2013), which won the Rilke Prize of $10,000. She has another book of poetry nearing completion and is working on a book of essays. 

Peterson’s poems explore interior and exterior landscapes, exposure and shelter. 

In her artist statement Peterson says: “I like a poem that feels logical but is not — a poem in which thinking takes the shape of a hallucination. I like a poem in which all of my intelligence fails. I am forced to use other tools: desire, anger, recklessness. I pursue beauty and memory not to preserve them but to try, against odds, to preserve that perishable pursuit.” 

A native of Menlo Park, California, Peterson earned a bachelor’s degree at Stanford University and a doctorate at Harvard University. 

“One of the extraordinary aspects of being honored by the American Academy of Arts and Letters is that it's not something you can even apply for, and often you have no idea who has handed your work to whom so that it might end up in the hands of the committee and come under consideration,” said Lucy Corin, director of the Creative Writing program. “A lot of incredible writers have to think very highly of your work for it to be honored in this way. I'm thrilled for Katie and for the new readers this will bring to her books.  

The academy also gave 12 other awards to writers in specific genres.

“Getting an award like this mid-career is especially good,” Peterson said. “When you’re a poet you sign up to not have a lot of people pay attention to what you are doing. Then something like this comes along and you know there’s at a least one more person who has read your work.” 

Other winners include non-fiction writer Ta-Nehisi Coates and playwright Lynn Nottage, both MacArthur Fellows, Pulitzer Prize winning playwright Stephen Adly Guirgis, two novelists and three other poets.

The awards will be presented in May in New York.

— Jeffrey Day, content strategist in the UC Davis College of Letters and Science