By Clara Turnage
University of Mississippi
A University of Mississippi professor and a professor emerita will be honored for their literary and community work next month when they receive the Mississippi Arts Commission’s 35th annual Governor’s Arts Awards.
The commission is awarding Ann Fisher-Wirth, retired UM English professor, the 2023 Excellence in Literature and Poetry Award, and Ralph Eubanks, visiting English professor and writer-in-residence for the Center for the Study of Southern Culture, the Excellence in Literature and Cultural Ambassador award.
The office of Gov. Tate Reeves will present the awards in a ceremony Feb. 2 at the Two Mississippi Museums in Jackson.
The seven recipients of the 2023 awards are chosen both for the mastery of their field and the impact their art has made in their community, said Ellie Banks, communications director for the Mississippi Arts Commission.
“The awards recognize individuals and organizations who have made noteworthy contributions or achieved artistic excellence in Mississippi,” Banks said. “Ann Fisher-Wirth and Ralph Eubanks have shown excellence in their disciplines. MAC is pleased to honor them this year.”
Throughout his career, Eubanks, an Ole Miss alumnus who grew up in Mount Olive, has extensively covered life and racism in the Deep South, specifically in Mississippi. His work has been lauded by critics in national publications.
He served as director of publishing for the Library of Congress between 1995 and 2013. Eubanks’ career is dotted with publications in the Washington Post, the New Yorker, Vanity Fair, The Chicago Tribune, WIRED and on National Public Radio.
He also has published four books, including his most recent “A Place Like Mississippi: A Journey Through a Real and Imagined Literary Landscape” (Timber Press), which was published last year. He served as a fellow for the John Simon Guggenheim Foundation, as the Carl and Lily Pforzheimer Foundation Fellow at Harvard University and for the New America Foundation.
“If there is a hope that I have, it is that there will be someone growing up today in my hometown of Mount Olive who will be inspired by knowing someone who grew up there was recognized in this way,” Eubanks said.
“That young person does not necessarily need to be inspired to become a writer. Yet, I hope that person will recognize that being from a little town in the heart of the Piney Woods of Mississippi can be a source of inspiration to accomplish whatever it is you want to do in life. That has certainly been the case for me.”
Fisher-Wirth, who retired this year after 50 years of educating, is in the process of publishing her seventh book of poetry, “Paradise is Jagged.” Throughout her career, Fisher-Wirth has been lauded with achievements and awards, served as a senior scholar and educator in Switzerland and Sweden, and given lectures across the United States and in Canada, England, Scotland and Taiwan.
She was named the university’s Elsie M. Hood Outstanding Teacher of the Year in 2014 and in 2006, named the Mississippi Humanities Teacher of the Year and College of Liberal Arts Teacher of the Year. She is a senior fellow and board member of the Black Earth Institute, and a longtime member and former president of the Association for the Study of Literature and Environment.
She’s edited and co-edited numerous journals and publications and helped to raise generations of poets and scholars. She taught in Parchman, the Mississippi State Penitentiary’s prison, and championed social and environmental justice causes for decades.
But Fisher-Wirth said her most important work is the creation and direction of the university’s environmental studies minor.
“It’s the only program at the university that combines humanities, social sciences and natural sciences,” said Fisher-Wirth, who directed the program from its inception until her retirement. “You have to think about how damaged the environment is and how that’s tied to race and poverty, to opportunity and resources.”
Fisher-Wirth said she appreciates the university allowing her to pursue her interests, saying that Ole Miss allowed her to redefine herself.
“I believe in the power of education,” she said. “I believe in the power of literature. I believe these things can take you out of the confines of your own experience.
“That’s how the university impacted me; they let me teach about what I was passionate about, the bridge of creative writing and environmental studies. That’s why I stayed 10 years past my retirement date.”