Westminster native Reilly D. Cox is the 2016 winner of the Sophie Kerr prize from Washington College.
Westminster native Reilly D. Cox is the 2016 winner of the Sophie Kerr prize from Washington College. (HANDOUT)

A Westminster native whose poetry explores the emotional wounds within families is this year's winner of the Sophie Kerr Prize, awarded to promising writers graduating from Washington College in Chestertown.

Reilly D. Cox was chosen for his portfolio of poems, essays and two thesis works on playwriting and a type of poetry that involves erasing words from an existing text. He will be given a $65,770 prize.

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The honor, which officials say is the highest-paying literary prize for undergraduates in the nation, was established 40 years ago with an endowment that Kerr, a novelist and Eastern Shore native, left to the college in her will.

Cox, 22, plans to refine his writing his while living and working in Baltimore as a copy editor and in the theater. He will attend a three-week poetry seminar at Bucknell and travel to Tucson, Ariz., to start a play about his mother.

Much of his work focuses on familial absence, usually of a father figure, and the grief it can bring.

"It's a means of me hanging on to them, and bringing them close while also understanding them better and sometimes working out many of the issues we encountered in life," Cox said.

The Kerr prize committee described Cox as "daring and lively" and "not afraid to go out on a limb."

"Reilly Cox is a writer who combines formal innovation with lush musicality, tempering both with narrative situation and analytical impulse," James Allen Hall, an associate professor of English at the college, said in a statement.

Though Cox started out as a chemistry major, he switched his focus to English and drama.

Cox said he was influenced in childhood by Antoine de Saint-Exupéry's "The Little Prince" and more recently by William Shakespeare's "Hamlet."

In one poem in Cox's portfolio, "Shooting My Sister by the Inner Harbor," a narrator describes talking to his sister, a photographer, about her first conversation with her biological father.

"In Baltimore, in the darkroom, my sister lets her face swim in solution until she is nothing but light," the poem ends.

Cox is a 2012 graduate of Winters Mill High School in Westminster. Washington College has previously given Cox several writing honors, including the William W. Warner Prize for Creative Writing on Nature and the Environment, the Jude and Miriam Pfister Poetry Prize, a Jacoby Endowment Grant and a Sophie Kerr scholarship.

Along with Cox, a committee including English faculty and the college's president chose four finalists from a pool of 20 portfolio submissions: Grace O'Connor, Alexandria Smythe, Rachel Brown and Nicolas Anstett.

The prize's purse is half of the annual returns from Kerr's endowment; the other half goes toward library books, a lecture series and literary events on the Chestertown campus.

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