NYU will honor Matthew Power with literary reporting award

Power in December at a family party (Photograph by Elizabeth Power Robison)

The spirit of Matthew Power’s writing isn’t easy to define, but his friend and editor Roger Hodge took a stab at it anyway: “strong, character-driven narratives with detailed scene writing, beautiful lyrical description,” the Oxford American’s editor said in a phone call with Poynter.

Despite the seriousness of much of his subject matter, Power — who died last month in Uganda — never took a preachy tone and was always open to “the absurdity of so much of politics and international affairs and really trying to find, as he put it, the human truth beneath the sorry facts,” Hodge said.

Wednesday night at New York University’s Arthur L. Carter Journalism Institute, seven people from Power’s orbit will read from his work. The invitation asks attendees to “bring a check” if they’re so inclined. Donations will support a new Matthew Power Literary Reporting Award, which aims to “invest in and encourage writers who may not be on the radar of editors and publications,” Power’s sister Elizabeth Power Robison said in a phone call.

Robison said that after her brother’s death, people approached her and Matthew’s wife, Jessica Benko, asking if they could make donations in his name. She asked the writer and NYU journalism teacher Ted Conover for advice on creating a tribute, and one idea they kicked around was something modeled on NYU’s Reporting Award. Robison conferred closely with Benko, then asked Conover about the possibility of NYU housing the award. He arranged a meeting with Stephen Solomon, the Carter Institute’s associate director, and Cynthia Young, an assistant dean for development and alumni affairs, and the group began working out details over the next weeks.

Power in Nicaragua (Photograph by Learka Bosnak)

While funding isn’t set, Robison said the award will be established initially with donations from family and friends of Power. She plans to approach institutions, including publications Power wrote for, to get to a $250,000 endowment. As currently envisioned, the award will fund one writer per year, in perpetuity, with a $12,500 stipend to help cover travel and working costs. Winners will get visiting scholar privileges at NYU, which grants them library access and maybe even office space.

Perhaps more valuable is the access applicants will get to the panel of editors, writers and faculty who will make up the selection committee, and the support winners will get from the Carter Institute’s faculty. Applicants won’t be required to have an assignment for their work — in fact, it’s sort of better if they don’t. “They really need to be an independent writer,” Robison said, someone burning to tell an “untold, underreported story.”

“I know in the past we’ve more than once done what we could to get the work in front of the right people,” Conover said. He said the school’s staff would take “an activist approach” to make sure the winner’s story finds a publisher.

Hodge, who will be on the selection committee, said successful applicants will evince the “spirit” of Power’s writing, not just in tone but in “adventuresomeness” as well, to echo the way Power’s work took him around the world. “Matt’s stories were always incredibly fun,” he said. “Even if he’s describing some very desperate situation, there was always a sense of adventure and curiosity, and — I’m not sure how to to put it — there was almost a boyish wonder that infuses all of his writing.”

The committee will not be looking for “carbon copies” of Power, Hodge said, but it will also not look for people who simply want to “go and cover stories.” The grant is “not an investigative reporting award,” he said. “Matt was trying to write literature, ultimately. That was the scope of his ambition.”

Aspiring Power Award recipients might want to show initiative as well. Power “was someone who didn’t stand waiting for things to fall into his lap,” Robison said. “He was memorable, and he was everywhere, and he was a networker,” Conover said. “I think especially in the early years he had to hustle like every freelance writer has to hustle.”

Hodge was an editor at Harper’s when he met Power, who was an intern there, and says they “just clicked.” He remembers how his friend would “blow through town” as he got established, picking up freelance fact-checking work to pay the bills.

Power was living in India when came across a story he thought might work for Harper’s, about a village called Vaninagar near a cashew plant that had become hopelessly polluted from the application of a pesticide called Endosulfan. The pesticide had caused birth defects and cancer in humans and had affected livestock.

“The Poison Stream,” from which Hodge will read at Wedndesday’s event, touched on themes that Power would return to again and again, Hodge said: “The people who have been left behind, the people who have been sacrificed for our material comfort and convenience.” But the story “wasn’t hectoring, it wasn’t self-righteous,” he said. “It was beautiful.”

Power when he was a Knight Wallace Fellow (Photograph by Amber Hunt)

Power is “a pretty great model” for young writers, Conover said. He had “a willingness to talk to anybody, to put yourself out there, despite discomfort.”

Her brother would “probably list many, many mentors,” Robison said. Power “really benefited from votes of confidence, when editors encouraged him and said you are really moving in the right direction.” Later on, Conover said, Power was a frequent guest in his classes, where, he said, “I think it was a treat for students to get to see somebody who really was making it, 100 percent, as a freelancer,” not just someone who was “getting sent cool places to do exciting things.” (Power was “relentlessly generous” and encouraging toward other writers, Outside editor Abe Streep told Kara Bloomgarden-Smoke.)

While the award winners will be expected to work hard on their project, “I don’t see any reason for us to put in a restriction that the recipient is bound to only work on one story for nine months,” Hodge said, adding with a laugh: “I think it would be against the spirit of Matthew Power to be too restrictive.”

The most important point of the award, he said, is “for people to know that the spirit of Matt Power is not dead.”

What Matt Wrote: A Memorial Reading for Matthew Power” will take place Wednesday, April 30, at NYU’s Arthur L. Carter Journalism Institute. Conover, who plans to read from Power’s story “Mississippi Drift,” will be joined by Hodge, Maria Dahvana Headley, Ted Genoways, Amy O’Leary, Mike Benoist and Brad Wieners. If you’d like to donate directly to the fund, here’s a link.

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