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Thomas Wolfe Prize and Lecture

Thomas Wolfe Lecture 2023, Allison Hedge Coke

2023 Thomas Wolfe Prize and Lecture

“Breathe deeply, inhale into reaches. . . .When you get a foot in the door, hold it wide open for others to pour through.” For the whole of her astonishing literary career, memoirist, poet, and activist Allison Adelle Hedge Coke has embodied a deep commitment to the land and the people who are often overlooked as they work its fields, fish its waters, and try to make a life amidst seemingly impossible obstacles. Having worked in manual labor until she was 30 years old—in fields, factories, commercial fishing, construction, and cleaning—Hedge Coke brings a compassionate and unflinching perspective on the lives of everyday people in her poems, nonfiction, and activist work. “This is a time we must unravel what would otherwise surely choke us,” she says as an invitation to all who read her work and, through it, hope to find a way into their own hard-fought stories.

Poet, writer, and educator Allison Adelle Hedge Coke was born in Texas and raised in North Carolina, in Canada, and on the Great Plains. She left North Carolina to escape domestic violence as a young mother and enrolled in former field worker retraining on the west coast when leaving manual labor due to disability. She is the author of the poetry chapbook Year of the Rat (1996); the full-length poetry collections Dog Road Woman (1997), Off-Season City Pipe (2005), Blood Run (2006 UK, 2007 US), Streaming (2014), Burn (2017, with illustrations by Dustin Illetewahke Mater); and the memoir Rock, Ghost, Willow, Deer (2004, 2014). Streaming comes with a full album recorded in the Rd Klā project period with Kelvyn Bell and Laura Ortman. One inclusion was selected by Motion Poems and Pixel Farms to be made into an animated film, and several of the poems in Streaming also influenced the documentary project she directed, Red Dust. Her latest book, Look at This Blue, a poem (2022), is an assemblage book-length poem, and was selected as a 2022 National Book Award Finalist and 2023 Emory Elliott Book Award winner.

The recipient of numerous awards and fellowships, Hedge Coke received the 2016 Library of Congress Witter Bynner Fellowship, the 2017 Tulsa Artist Fellowship, the King-Chávez-Parks award, the Sioux Falls Mayor’s Award for Excellence in Literary Arts, and the Wordcrafter of the Year and National Mentor of the Year Awards from Wordcraft Circle. Hedge Coke was elected into the Texas Institute of Letters, awarded the AWP George Garrett Award for field service in 2021, and honored with a Legacy Artist Individual Artist Fellowship by the California Arts Council for 2021-2022. She is a Distinguished Professor of Creative Writing at the University of California, Riverside.

“It’s truly the greatest act of a poet and poem to move oneself through what appears empty.” In the work and life of Allison Adelle Hedge Coke, we are given the deep gift and invitation to tell our own stories, no matter how painful and complex, and to use the act of telling to help others find their own luminous voice.

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History of the Thomas Wolfe Prize and Lecture

The Thomas Wolfe Prize and Lecture honor the memory of one of The University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill’s most famous alumni, Thomas Clayton Wolfe (Class of 1920). Established in 1999 with an endowed gift to the Department of English, the program recognizes contemporary writers with distinguished bodies of work. And in doing so, the program seeks to give University students and the surrounding community the opportunity to hear important writers of their time.

The Department of English bestows this prize each fall, around the time of Wolfe’s October 3 birthday. In addition to receiving prize money and a medal, the honored writer comes to campus as the University’s guest and delivers a lecture, which is free and open to the public. This event is a well-attended major campus and community occasion.

Thomas Wolfe is best known for his novel Look Homeward, Angel, which was published to rave reviews in 1929. Before his death in 1938, Wolfe also published Of Time and the River (1935). His novels The Web and the Rock (1939) and You Can’t Go Home Again (1940) were published posthumously. Wolfe’s writings reflect a largeness of spirit and an expansive vision of life, while anchored in geographic place.

Sponsors of the 2018 Thomas Wolfe Lecture are alumnus John Skipper (BA English 1978), The Thomas Wolfe Society, and the Department of English and Comparative Literature. The prize money comes from the Thomas Wolfe Endowment Fund. UNC Alumnus Ben Jones (class of 1950) gave the medals that each recipient receives.

Previous Thomas Wolfe Prize and Lecture Recipients

collage of previous recepients