Our Own Jones-Pruett Wins Rona Jaffe Award

by Jacquelyn Malone

One of our own just won a $30,000 Rona Jaffe Foundation Writers’ Award. It feels right to say that Danielle Jones-Pruett is “one of our own” because she has been involved in so many Mass Poetry programs, including Common Threads and Student Day of Poetry, and has taught workshops at the annual festival.

It is with pleasure, then, that we present an interview we did with Danielle shortly after she returned from New York where she and five other women writers were officially given the award. 

What are the criteria for winning a Rona Jaffe Foundation Writers' Award?

The Rona Jaffe Foundation supports women writers in the early stages of their writing careers. Grants are awarded to writers of fiction, creative nonfiction, and poetry to make writing time available and to provide assistance for purposes such as childcare, research, and travel costs.

How many of this year's six winners are poets?

This year the committee selected two poets. I was very honored to be in the company of Solmaz Sharif, whose work I had read in The Kenyon Review and Poetry even before the announcement was made.

Since you can't apply for this award, did you have any idea you were in the running for it?

I received a letter in May informing me I had been nominated for a Rona Jaffe award and that I had made it through the first round of winnowing. They had already seen my CV and approximately ten poems, and wanted me to send in 10-15 more pages of poetry and a work proposal. It was a very big surprise, and I was bracing myself for a very big disappointment. I still can’t believe I actually won! 

 Why do you think you won? How did you receive the news? Were you sitting down?

I hope I won because the committee saw some promise in my work and felt as strongly as I do about my proposed project.

I really feel like the poems I’m working on need to be written, and now I know I have the time and resources I need to make it happen. That’s a great feeling.

I received the news by telephone, and I was stunned. I literally couldn’t breathe for a moment—like when you fall and the wind is knocked out of you. Once my breath came back, I thought I might scream, but I held it together until I got off the phone. Then I called my husband, Josh, and screamed in his ear for a bit.

I understand you were in New York to receive the award last week. Can you tell me about the ceremony? And the other winners?

The Rona Jaffe Foundation threw us a lovely party in a private club in New York City. There were publishers, agents, editors and literary figures there, but also our personal guests, and it was a wonderful way to celebrate. It was also the first time I met the other recipients, and they were kind and generous and just beautiful people, and I was so grateful to be part of that group. Adrian Nicole LeBlanc was the guest speaker, and she reminded us the award is about process not product, and that was exactly what I needed to hear. I am so overwhelmed that the Rona Jaffe Foundation exists and that it provides this extraordinary gift to women writers.

Tell me about the project you are working on and how it will benefit from the award. How did you decide on this project? Will it be a series of poems or a verse novel?

I grew up in Anniston, Alabama, which is known as one of the most polluted patches of America. Toxic Town. For nearly 40 years, in a small, local factory, Monsanto produced industrial coolants known as PCBs.

Despite knowing for decades that what they were doing was harmful, they discharged toxic waste into a west Anniston creek and dumped millions of pounds of PCBs into open-pit landfills. The area most affected was the poorest part of town—perhaps that’s why the local government didn’t seem to care much. They actually helped Monsanto cover up what they were doing.

I started thinking about this a lot when someone I care very much about got breast cancer. I started to think about just how many people I had known with cancer when I was growing up, and couldn’t help wondering how those decades of pollution played a part. I believe Anniston still has one of the highest cancer rates in America. And Anniston provides a rich backdrop for many of the political topics that plague America as a whole, but it’s important to me that the poems are more than political manifestos. For this reason, I’ve chosen to tell the story of this town through the voice of a young, female speaker, whose personal story—and the tragedy of her own family—converge gradually and subtly with the history of the town.

I will use the award to travel home. I feel like I need to see the way the street where my family lived looks at dusk; to visit the now-closed military base where my father worked and walk through the abandoned cinder block houses; to struggle with the ghosts of the old Monsanto plant; and, most importantly, to talk with the people who lived in the area most affected by the contamination. I want to hear their voices in my poems.

---

Danielle Jones-Pruett received a B.A. in English and psychology from Jacksonville State University, and an M.F.A. in poetry from the University of Massachusetts Boston. Her poems have appeared or are forthcoming in Best New Poets 2014, Beloit Poetry Journal, Cider Press Review, Southern Poetry Review, and many others. She recently finished her first collection of poems, and is eager to begin work on the new project described above.