On March 11, the Yale Younger Poets Prize — the oldest annual literary award in the United States — was awarded to Robert Wood Lynn. Lynn won the award for his book titled “Mothman Apologia,” inspired by his youth in Virginia and later life in West Virginia.
According to Lynn, the book consists of personal poems from the perspective of the Mothman, a creature of cryptozoology in West Virginia folklore. Lynn said the Mothman has developed into folklore that people can project hopes and fears onto. In his work, Lynn imagines the Mothman as a rural inhabitant, often invisible to people.
“I am really grateful to be included and am also so aware that there are probably manuscripts submitted to the same prize that are going to go bloom in the world in a way that mine might not,” Lynn said.
When Lynn received news of his award, he was shocked. He knows the previous year’s winner, Desiree Bailey, and he had felt excitement in seeing her win and watching her get her book published. Yet, in spite of applying for the prize twice previously, Lynn was in disbelief when he won.
Typically, hundreds of poets apply to the prize every year. The Yale University Press works closely with the series’ judge and panel to consider each submission. “Mothman Apologia” is the first book to be chosen by the series’ new judge, Rae Armantrout, American poet and professor at University of California, San Diego. The panel chooses poetry for Armantrout to read before she makes a final decision.
Ash Lago, language manager and editorial assistant to the Yale Series of Younger Poets, or YSYP, described the process of choosing an awardee as a “thrilling and concerted effort.” Lago said that each awardee brings a unique voice and experience to the existing body of American poetry.
Lago said that “Mothman Apologia” is a collection of poems that builds on itself through its themes and subjects. She said to read the book is to “experience rural West Virginia’s rawness and vulnerability.”
Jennifer Banks, senior executive editor for Yale University Press, oversees and manages the YSYP. Banks said that “Mothman Apologia” was a dazzling and arresting manuscript and added that “Lynn’s distinctive voice swept [her] into a fiery consciousness.”
Lynn recounted that he grew up hearing stories about the Mothman. He added that unlike “terrifying creatures that stumble out of the woods,” the Mothman fascinated him since it “doesn’t do anything.”
The Mothman is an apparition, often visualized as a tall, foreboding and red-eyed figure. The creature’s appearance was tied to a series of tragedies in West Virginia — including a bridge collapse in the 1960s — which led to his legacy as a creature that warns of imminent danger.
Despite “tragedy after tragedy” in West Virginia following the 1960s and 1970s, after the Mothman’s original sightings, he never appeared again.
This led Lynn to wonder about Mothman’s role if he lived in the world today and ultimately inspired Lynn to write “Mothman Apologia.”
Yet, Lynn said that comparing different poets in a competitive format is “kind of antithetical to the idea of getting creative work out into the world.”
Lynn began writing poetry in 2007. At the time, Lynn felt obligated to write about serious and worldly themes rather than his youth. He advises young poets to capture the knowledge they hold while young.
“No one is an expert at being young, except for the young. We think that we remember it, but we forget it very quickly,” Lynn said. “I wish someone had told me that when I was 20.”
“Mothman Apologia” will be released in the spring of 2022.
Maia Decker | firstname.lastname@example.org
Correction, Mar. 23: An earlier version of this story mentioned that Lynn spent his youth in West Virginia. In fact, he grew up in Virginia. The story has been updated.