When Tyree Daye got the call informing him he had won the Whiting Award — the prestigious, no-strings-attached prize of $50,000 given to rising stars in the literary world — he almost blocked the unfamiliar number.
It’s a good thing he didn’t. The award comes at just the right moment in his life, not just financially — and that’s huge — but also to give him a confidence boost that he’s in the right line of work.
Daye, 28, is a poet who grew up in Younsgville and is one of 10 writers to win one of this year’s Whiting Awards, which have been given since 1985. He learned he’d won last month but had to keep it a secret until Wednesday, when the awards were made public at a ceremony in New York City.
“It means so much,” Daye said by phone Wednesday from a New York City park, hours before the ceremony.
The 10 winners include writers of fiction, nonfiction, poetry and drama. Daye is one of three poetry winners.
The awards, according to the Whiting Foundation, go to those who have “early-career achievement and the promise of superior literary work to come.” The foundation has given $8 million to 340 writers over the years, including such luminaries as David Foster Wallace, Jonathan Franzen and Tony Kushner with other recipients going on to top bestseller lists and win other writing prizes.
Like the MacArthur Foundation “Genius Grants,” Daye didn’t apply for the award and doesn’t know who nominated him. The award just comes out of the blue.
Daye is modest about his accomplishments and said he sometimes lacks confidence in what he writes. He once even entered a writing competition, only to tell organizers he wanted to pull his entry. Twenty minutes later, they told him he had won the contest.
“I’m not good at believing in my work,” he said.
But others think he’s pretty adept with the written word. In 2017, he won the American Poetry Review’s Honickman First Book Prize, which helped him publish “River Hymns,” a collection of poems, and gave him $3,000. He has been published in The New York Times and the Nashville Review and has been a finalist or winner of numerous other writing awards.
Judges for the Whiting Award praised “River Hymns,” whose “pictures of a river life are strung together in language that is clear, lucid, unexpected, and often unforgettable: image-making of the highest order.”
‘Never the best in school’
While born and raised in Youngsville, Daye now lives in Raleigh with his wife, De Lissa Daye. He teaches English composition at Louisburg College and a poetry workshop at UNC-Chapel Hill and said he enjoys being part of a flourishing, supportive writing community in the Triangle.
He started writing in the sixth grade but didn’t know to call it fiction. In high school, his mother, Joyce Glover, brought him the complete collection of Langston Hughes poems. That opened his eyes, he said, to poetry and that writing could be a career. But college wasn’t initially a goal, he said. “I’ve never been the best in school,” he said.
But he learned he could major in writing. He applied to one school, Elizabeth City State, and went there a year before transferring to N.C. State. He earned a bachelor’s degree in English with a concentration in creative writing in December 2015, then earned a master’s of fine arts with a concentration in poetry in May 2017.
He describes his style as “narrative poems that have a lyrical thread.” By that he means the images in a story are lyrical moments or “outbursts.”
“Those strains, those stranger moments,” he explains.
Growing up in Youngsville, a small Franklin County town (pop. 1,307) just over the Wake County line, and being raised in the South heavily influence Daye’s writing.
“All the surrealism and all the magical images, all the mythology comes from the street I grew up on,” he said. “That upbringing of playing in the woods, and stories of mothers, aunts and uncles.”
Drawing from those experiences helps him make sense of who he is today.
“It’s me trying to find my current narrative,” he said. “I work my way back to move forward. Our narratives always change.”
He pauses for a bit, though, when he tries to define his current narrative. He lands on “black, Southern, raised by a single mother.”
“Writing is always a part of my narrative,” he said. “It feels a little more confirmed.”
As for the Whiting Award, once he answered the phone from the foundation, he sat in silence for a bit, still thinking he was being scammed. He said he didn’t want to believe it was real until he got the email. And even then, he said it wouldn’t seem real until Wednesday’s ceremony.
The money will be used for practical things, like paying off debt. He and his wife hope to buy a house next year. For a writer, it’s invaluable, taking some of the pressure off of his financial obligations so he can focus on writing.
Another collection of poems, called “Cardinal,” will be released in 2020, with narratives of migration and traveling while black.
“It keeps me going,” he said of the prize. “Keeps me moving forward.”
Tyree Daye’s poetry
This appeared in The New York Times Magazine Oct. 27, 2017.
I was the unbroken horse
of that town, slept standing up,
held on to the breeze like wildflowers.
I kept caterpillars in jars,
my mother let them go,
I figured they just disappeared.
There are moments you can hear God
say things soft-spoken, the sun
settling between thin pines.
Collected crickets in 2 liter bottles,
dropped them in a path far from the house
one or two at the bottom drowning
in the last swig of cola, the smell of mama’s
leaf pile faint and almost gone.
My mother would say
to kill a cricket is a sin against the night.
“The World Grows”
This appeared in Oxford American Nov. 20, 2018.
Once, the world no bigger
than railroad-divided Youngsville.
Once, we made it to South Carolina;
all of us alive for the family reunion;
once, two miles from the city limits
my uncle pulled out of the car
to have his coin-filled pockets searched.
Once, to see the ocean,
we took the back way out of town,
we lived in a circled path
and made do behind a kerosene’s heat.
Once, my mother the shape of God
pointing to the moon in a screen door.
Around a card table with her brothers and sister
in gin they trusted the squash would sprout a way.
Once, I trusted a hand pointing north;
once, I called for a wolf
and a man walked out of the night.
I walked Youngsville and marked myself down on a map
I was making.
Once, for my birthday,
my family gathered near the rusted cars in our backyard
and my happiness the color of balloons.