2023 Creative Writing Prize Winners

The Creative Writing Program awards a number of prizes annually to University of Pennsylvania students. See below for our most recent prize winners; previous winners are listed at the bottom of this page. Details on our 2024 prizes and how to submit work will be available on our website in early 2024.

Congratulations to the 2023 recipients of the Creative Writing Prizes:

The Peregrine Poetry Prize from the Academy of American Poets
Awarded to the best poetry by a graduate student.

Winner: Knar Gavin

Contest judge Syd Zolf writes: Gavin’s impressive “poetics of the improbable” produces “hungering / line[s]” that move “thru glitch / into revolution.” As we dwell in the “lair” of their poems, we savor “honey; bread; roses” and imagine possible futures beyond “the noir procession / of today.” Come, let's join Gavin and create new tender worlds “free with the nectarine / blossoms.”

Honorable Mention: James Mesiti, Michael Martin Shea

About the judge: Syd Zolf has published six books of poetry and a book of theory, No One’s Witness: A Monstrous Poetics (Duke, 2021). Films Zolf has written and/or directed have shown internationally at venues such as White Cube Bermondsey, the Wexner Center for the Arts, and the International Film Festival Rotterdam. They have received a Pew Fellowship in the Arts and a Trillium Book Award for Poetry, among other honors. Zolf holds an MFA in Creative Writing and a PhD in Philosophy, Art and Social Thought and teaches at the University of Pennsylvania.


The College Alumni Society Poetry Prize
Awarded to the best poetry by an undergraduate student.

Winner: Sof Sears

Contest judge Syd Zolf writes: Sears makes stunning word pictures of the wonders and horrors of girlhood. While their quintessential queer monster may be “rusting & yawning under the bed,” Sears keeps “gutting the scenes around us like fish” and “laughing at the mess” along the way. “The girl goes home before the movie ends” but we still feel her presence long after, a silhouette, a trace, a green taste of violence. That’s the sign of a good poem.

Honorable Mention: Nidhi Bhatt, Celine Choi, Astrid Raganas, William Zong

About the judge: Syd Zolf has published six books of poetry and a book of theory, No One’s Witness: A Monstrous Poetics (Duke, 2021). Films Zolf has written and/or directed have shown internationally at venues such as White Cube Bermondsey, the Wexner Center for the Arts, and the International Film Festival Rotterdam. They have received a Pew Fellowship in the Arts and a Trillium Book Award for Poetry, among other honors. Zolf holds an MFA in Creative Writing and a PhD in Philosophy, Art and Social Thought and teaches at the University of Pennsylvania.


The Lilian and Benjamin Levy Award

Awarded to the best review by an undergraduate of a current play, film, music release, book, or performance.

First Place: Ria Vieira, “Babylon Review: Forget About La La Land, This Is Damien Chazelle’s Masterpiece”

Contest judge Anthony DeCurtis writes: Less a review than a celebration, this piece bravely takes on the phantasmagoria that is Babylon, Damien Chazelle's whirling chronicle of early Hollywood in extremis. Like the film itself, Vieira explores the contemporary implications of Hollywood’s dramatic transitions -- in this case, the monumental impact of the advent of sound. “Is this the end of cinema?,” she asks, while making it clear that movies this compelling deliver a resounding, uplifting answer.

Second Place: Angela Ji, “Fiona and Jane: An Homage to Messy, Sexy (Queer) Love”

Contest judge Anthony DeCurtis writes: Angela Ji takes an incisive look at Fiona and Jane, the debut collection of stories by Jean Chen Ho, and views it as a fresh take on the complexities of the lives of Asian American women. Along with its warmth and energy, she especially values the book’s dismantling of stereotypes, even (especially?) ones that are meant to be flattering. The messiness of Fiona and Jane’s lives is presented as a compliment. Friendship over decades is no neat path, Ji insists, and is all the more real for its bumps, detours and unpredictable shifts.

Third Place: Emma Marks, “The Flavors of Connection”

Contest judge Anthony DeCurtis writes: Few books have made as forceful an impact in recent years as Michelle Zauner’s Crying in H Mart, and Emma Marks’ smart, thorough essay captures why. She works through the book’s emotional depths with skill and empathy, capturing the journey that Zauner traveled and the heartfelt meanings her story brought alive. As Zauner does herself, Marks makes sure we understand that tears, however profoundly felt, are not the final stop in this tale of food, love and music.

About the judge: Anthony DeCurtis has taught in the creative writing program at Penn for twenty years and has long been a contributing editor for Rolling Stone. Among other books, he is the author of Lou Reed: A Life and coauthor of Clive Davis's autobiography, The Soundtrack of My Life, a New York Times bestseller. He is a member of the nominating committee of the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame, a Grammy Award winner and a PhD in American literature.


The Phi Kappa Sigma Fiction Prize
Awarded to the best original short story by an undergraduate.

Winner: Erin Brennan, “Vanishing Act”

Contest judge Weike Wang writes: Brennan’s story is set against the majestic Sleeping Bear dunes. Dynamic and heartfelt, the story succeeds on two fronts because it is told from two well-rendered perspectives. Brennan writes with uncanny confidence and humor about the kind of big love that young adults are capable of, that adult-adults sometimes forget.

Second Place: Andrew Basile, “Lobster”

Contest judge Weike Wang writes: What can be said of Basile’s “Lobster” except that I was drawn to the voice, one that I would follow anywhere. The story tells of a vacation gone wrong and is masterful in how it is able to contain itself—the momentum and multitudes—through a single paragraph.

Third Place: Zelda Godsey-Kellogg, “Neon Night”

Contest judge Weike Wang writes: Godsey-Kellogg’s story is set on a public “golf course in the middle-of-no-where Tennessee” and from there unfurls a most delightfully fun tale that involves floating boys and glow sticks. The prose is flawless. The execution, exquisite.

Honorable mention: Miriam Shah, “Being Beatrice” 

Contest judge Weike Wang writes: Shah’s prose shines with intellect and verve. The protagonist of the story is curious, effortlessly wise and takes the reader on an explorative journey through a most interesting mind.

About the judge: Weike Wang is the author of CHEMISTRY (Knopf 2017) and JOAN IS OKAY (Random House 2022). She is the recipient of the 2018 Pen Hemingway, a Whiting award and a National Book Foundation 5 under 35.  Her work has appeared in Ploughshares and The New Yorker, among other publications. She is in the 2019 Best American Short Stories and O. Henry Prizes. She earned her MFA from Boston University and her other degrees (a bachelors in chemistry and a doctorate in epidemiology) from Harvard. She currently lives in New York City and teaches at the University of Pennsylvania.


The Judy Lee Award for Dramatic Writing
Awarded to a graduate or undergraduate student for the best script of any length.

Winner:  Michael Martin Shea, DR. LOVE - Season One, Pilot Episode: "Valley of Love"

Contest judge Jeffrey James Keyes writes: Shea’s well written pilot jumps off the page and commands your attention. I was struck by how quickly I was drawn into the world and rooting for “Zach”, Shea’s protagonist. The lingering question raised by this story, “what will someone do to get by?” is familiar but feels new and timely through Dr. Love. The script illuminates this remarkable writer’s care and reverence for language and the craft of writing. Shea is a daring writer that has created an engaging story supported by strong dialogue, an understanding of conflict, and a unique point of view. This is a writer to know and pay attention to.

Second Place: Kelly A. Diaz, WHAT'S IN A NAME 

Contest judge Jeffrey James Keyes writes: Diaz flashes high-quality screenwriting through her complex and nuanced storyline. I was extremely impressed with her grasp of storytelling and how she utilized time and space to reveal the advanced structure of her script. I found her story thought provoking and surprising with each turn. I felt for her intriguing characters and found myself worrying about them as I quickly turned each page, eager to discover what would happen with each turn. What's in a Name is polished, well crafted, and I look forward to more from this creative and strong screenwriter.

Third Place: Natalie McTigue, BLUE PALM 

Contest judge Jeffrey James Keyes writes: McTigue’s Blue Palm is a fun and surprising script that I couldn’t put down and immediately re-read. I was impressed with McTigue’s visual storytelling, and her understanding of how idiosyncrasy serves the world of her story. Her protagonist, “Mia” is the type of character that many actresses would jump at the chance to play. I found myself rooting for her while she made what might seem like poor life decisions while somehow seemingly remaining in total control of her own destiny. I look forward to turning on Netflix one day and seeing Blue Palm in my queue.

About the judge: Jeffrey James Keyes is an interdisciplinary writer and artist. He co-authored the New York Times bestseller Killer Chef with James Patterson in 2016. He was an inaugural recipient of the PEN America L’Engle Rahman Prize for Mentorship in 2021. His short film uniform screened in over thirty film festivals around the world. His audio immersive experience, Wherefore Art Thou Juliet? ran through Times Square when most shows were closed in 2021. He was recently nominated for a 2022 Queerty Award for Digital Entertainment. BA: Fordham University College at the Lincoln Center, MFA: Columbia University School of the Arts. jeffreyjameskeyes.com 


The Gibson Peacock Prize for Creative Nonfiction
Awarded to the best creative nonfiction piece—memoir or essay—by an undergraduate student.

Winner: Alexandria “Alex” Behm, “Wind Ridge”

Contest judge Piyali Bhattacharya writes: This is an eerily beautiful piece about grandparents, lost generations, that love that can never be recaptured, and also elderly loss as it relates not only to the young, but also to those left behind in that generation. What captures the reader most about this essay is its sense of place and setting. This piece couldn’t have taken place anywhere else but in the narrator’s ancestral home, a place in which even the gas prices and bathroom furnishings tell a story.

Second Place: Cynthia Zhou, “Starbucks Saints”

Contest judge Piyali Bhattacharya writes: This is a gorgeous, playful, but canny and sharply observed piece about the characters we meet in mundane situations, and how even the trivial parts of life are full of color, if we allow ourselves to see it. Unsurprisingly, what captures the reader here is character. This author draws such clear pictures (also unsurprising, as the essay also speaks of her work as a visual artist) of people, and observes them so keenly in their own worlds, that they linger in the mind long after the piece has been put down.

Third Place: Angela Ji, “People You Love in Philadelphia”

Contest judge Piyali Bhattacharya writes: This is a gem of a piece about romance, love and the multiplicity of race, sexuality, and daughterhood that comes with all of that. Told in a kaleidoscopic pattern, the piece is nuanced about the melancholy of being a 20-something in the 2020s, and also the hope of this moment. It’s beautifully rendered in second person by a narrator who is viewing herself, but is also viewing you.

Honorable Mention: Meg Gladieux, “The Death Café”

Contest judge Piyali Bhattacharya writes: This lengthy piece deserves its page space. How many ways can one play with the image, the idea, of death? What is death to a DeadHead (by whom the narrator is raised), what does it mean that the narrator has a “graveyard of romantic relationships,” what does it mean that in trying to set up a meetup that will discuss death, the narrator contracts COVID-19, ultimately leaving her feeling “not dying, but might as well be dead?” It is a mature meditation from a young voice, told with clarity and without fear.

About the judge: Piyali Bhattacharya is a fiction and nonfiction writer. Her short stories and essays have appeared in Ploughshares, Literary Hub, The New York Times, The Wall Street Journal, National Geographic and elsewhere. She is the editor of the anthology Good Girls Marry Doctors: South Asian American Daughters on Obedience and Rebellion, which won the Independent Publisher Book Award and a grant from the National Endowment for the Arts. At Penn, she is the Abrams Artist-in-Residence and has won the Beltran Family Award for Innovative Teaching and Mentoring.

The Parker Prize for Journalistic Writing
Awarded to the best news article, exposé, investigative work, or reported essay by an undergraduate.

First place: Walker Carnathan, “Life is a Cabaret”

Contest judge Lise Funderburg writes: This lively profile of an on-campus production of Cabaret sparkles with creativity as Carnathan braids together multiple strands, including lines of dialogue, synopsis, research into the business end of college productions, and charming, funny, reflective vignettes of the students who comprise cast and crew. Ambitious, well-executed, and a delight to read.

Second Place: Gemma Hong, “Playing Offsides”

Contest judge Lise Funderburg writes: In this reported essay, Hong harvests poignant memories and details from her mother’s life as well as her own childhood, all in service of understanding why her mother insisted on Hong’s participation in soccer, a sport neither cared much about. The narrow scope allows for well-fleshed-out scenes and vibrant descriptions, and at the same time broadens out to encompass enormous themes of race, immigration, perseverance, and parental love.

Third Place: Lila Dubois, “The Nuns Are Dying”

Contest judge Lise Funderburg writes: Dubois goes all in here with a look at a species nearing extinction: the American nun. Using an all-girls’ school in California as her launchpoint, Dubois explores the history of modern nuns and their distinct relationships to service and faith as well as their second-class status in the political hierarchy of the Catholic church. In addition to strong scene work, Dubois inserts a mini-profile of the school’s president, Sister Donna, which humanizes the larger theme.

About the judge: Lise Funderburg teaches creative nonfiction at the University of Pennsylvania. She is the author of Pig Candy: Taking My Father South, Taking My Father Home, a contemplation of life, death, race, and barbecue, as well as the groundbreaking oral history Black, White, Other: Biracial Americans Talk About Race and Identity. Her latest book is Apple, Tree: Writers on Their Parents, a collection of 25 original essays she commissioned and edited. Funderburg's essays have appeared in The New York Times, Chattahoochee Review, Cleaver, Broad Street, National Geographic, TIME, Threepenny Review, Harper's, Brevity, and elsewhere.



Past Contest Winners

2022 | 2021 | 2020 | 2019 | 2018 | 2017 | 2016 | 2015 | 2014 | 2013 | 2012 | 2011 | 2010 | 2009 | 2008 | 2007 | 2006 | 2005 | 2004 | 2003 | 2002 | 2001