Doctoral student Safiya Sinclair wins top honor for poetry
Safiya Sinclair will use the $10,000 Metcalf Award to work on her next book — a memoir of her Jamaican childhood. Photo by Willy Somma.

Doctoral student Safiya Sinclair wins top honor for poetry

Safiya Sinclair, a doctoral student in creative writing and literature at USC Dornsife, has won a prestigious award from the American Academy of Arts and Letters for her debut collection of poetry.
BySusan Bell

Prize-winning poet Safiya Sinclair, a doctoral student at USC Dornsife, has added another laurel to her literary crown with the announcement that she has won the renowned Addison M. Metcalf Award in Literature from the American Academy of Arts and Letters.

Sinclair was selected to receive the biennial $10,000 award, which is “intended to encourage a young writer of great promise,” for her debut collection of poetry, Cannibal (University of Nebraska Press, 2016). She will receive the award at a ceremony in New York City in May.

“I feel honored and astounded to have my work be seen and acknowledged by such an important literary body. There are so many writers in the academy who’ve incited and inspired me as a poet — writers I’ve admired for so long,” said Sinclair, a doctoral student in creative writing and literature. “Most of all, I feel extremely encouraged by this support and belief in my work, and I see this award as another bright spark in the night sky, a signal that I must keep working, continue writing myself into a space that I can finally feel at home in.”

University Professor of English and Comparative Literature and Chair of English David St. John said one of the reasons the Metcalf Award is considered such a remarkable achievement is because it is open to young writers of fiction, nonfiction, drama or poetry.

“To be the recipient for her debut collection of poetry has put Safiya in very rare company indeed,” he said.  

Blooming with intense lyricism and fertile imagery, Sinclair’s poems confront postcolonial identity as they explore her Jamaican childhood in a strict Rastafarian family, Jamaican history, race relations in America, womanhood, otherness and exile.

Cannibal is the recipient of the 2016 Whiting Award and the OCM Bocas Prize for Caribbean Literature (Poetry). It is also an American Library Association ”Notable Book of the Year” and is one of The New Yorker’s “Books We Loved in 2016.”

“There’s a luminous intelligence to Safiya’s poetry, as well as a startling maturity and a formal poise that is extremely rare,” St. John said. “She’s able to weave enormously compelling and bold, mythic dimensions through her poetry while being intensely lyrical throughout her work.     

“Safiya Sinclair is only at the beginning of what clearly will be a life of remarkable poetry.”

Sinclair said she plans to use the award this summer to give herself “some more unencumbered writing time” to work on her next book, a memoir of what it was like to grow up as a young woman in a fiercely patriarchal society.

She is, she said, looking forward to what the award will provide: “A clean desk in a quiet place, with the view of an ocean, so I can continue working, and move toward finishing my next book, to say something unsaid of my particular experience as a Jamaican woman.”