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Steel Toe Books is excited to announce our Steel Toe Books Poetry Award Winner selected by judge Dustin Pearson and our Steel Toe Books Prose Award Winner selected by judge Xhenet Aliu. The titles will receive publication in Fall 2021. Congratulations to our shortlist and longlist authors, and thank you to all of the authors that submitted to the prize. The 2021 Steel Toe Books Poetry and Prose (fiction and nonfiction) Awards for full-length books will open January 1, 2021. Please read the judge’s citations below.   


Jenny Qi                       Focal Point


Steven Ray Smith          a two minute forty second night

Emily Hockaday             Naming the Ghost

Tom Paine                      Who Beats the Heart?

Jason Olsen                   Everything Gets Louder in the Dark


Nicole Callihan              Of Many Rooms

Millicent Yedwa             Your Uncoming.

Amiya Moretta               i hear the birds beckoning

Robert Okaji                   In the Temple of My Dismay

Justin Rigamonti           Songbird Disorder


Robert Kirvel                   iWater and Other Convictions


Catherine Gammon       Nightbirds in an Age of Light

James Gyure                   A Valley Famous

Peter Selgin                    DUPLICITY                       

Alexandria Peary            Mattress on the Floor


Dinah Cox                        The Paper Anniversary: Stories

Patrick Lawler                   In the Eye of the Bee Holder

Lesley Jenike                    Hide Fox and After All

Roberta Degnore            The Man Who Made Mapplethorpe

Tina Cabrera                     Former Things

Alexandrine Ogundimu   blue disaster

Diane Josefowicz             Guardians & Saints



Dustin Pearson on Jenny Qi’s Focal Point


Reflecting on a bedside scene in the catalogue of her mother's terminal illness, the speaker notes I was never a better daughter, as if to suggest the dying of a mother is an occasion we rise to, and in some frame, flourish under, but when that occasion lapses, as it does early on in Focal Point, the speaker ventures into asking how, then, do we exhaust ourselves? What animation, frame, or point of view keeps us from wilting with what has wilted after the vastness of the distance between those seemingly adjacent states of being has been witnessed intimately? Steeped in metaphors enabled by a speaker with a close proximity to science and art, Focal Point is a nuanced and heartfelt inquiry, a wonderful book.



Xhenet Aliu on Robert Kirvel’s iWater and Other Convictions

While thematically this collection explores the psychological and neurophysiological roots of the mistrust of the "other," it's written with--for lack of a better term--a lot of heart. In other words, these essays aren't strictly conceptual or intellectual exercises, but rather very personal attempts to reconcile the contradictory, almost religious belief in an inherently superior nationalist identity with simultaneous mistrust in our American institutions, both of which are often enacted within the author's own family. Somehow, despite its direct engagement with incredibly fraught issues as gun control, gay rights, xenophobia, and far-right conspiracy theories, as well as more esoteric ideas such as phenomenology, it's also incredibly readable and often very, very funny. In the title essay, for example, the author slyly adopts the manic, circular rhetorical pattern of a conspiracist as they describe the various outlandish theories to which members of their own family has subscribed; in "American Exceptionalism," the author responds to a cousin's insistence that eight-year-olds should attend school armed with, "Of course, you are free to conjure visions of deranged jihadists mowing down unarmed kiddies denied the right to concealed carry, if that's your thing, but my thing is classical music and diction." In "A Bomb in the Final Essay by Oliver Sacks," the author points out several uncanny parallels between Dr. Sacks and himself, but even without this diagram, I would have drawn a comparison: both are incredibly smart and able explorers of the human mind, and neither accept that scientific reasoning and human feeling are contradictory. If I were a bookseller, I'd shelve iWater and Other Convictions in a special display that contains texts that don't fit neatly in the academic or personal essay sections, perhaps in a section curated to generally thinking, feeling, curious human beings. 

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