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Oregon Book Award winners were announced last week at the annual celebration in Portland, and this year's festivities had a distinctive mid-valley flavor.

Tracy Daugherty and Marjorie Sandor of Corvallis, the husband and wife co-founders of Oregon State University's master of fine arts program in creative writing, won the Stewart H. Holbrook Literacy Legacy Award.

Elena Passarello, an assistant professor of creative writing-nonfiction (and someone who likely wouldn't be in Corvallis if OSU didn't have that MFA program), won the Sarah Winnemucca Award for Creative Nonfiction for "Animals Strike Curious Poses," a collection of essays about animals that become famous.

Daugherty was one of the finalists in the category that Passarello won, for his book "Let Us Build Us A City," but he thinks the judges made the right call: "She wrote the best book of the year."

Daugherty and Sandor were gracious in their acceptance speeches, but Daugherty was a little wary about getting an award that smacked of lifetime achievement, with the implication that his best days were behind him. "I accept (the award) in this spirit: that they've seen in me some untapped potential, and this is their way of nudging me to work a little harder, to do a little better, in the time I have left."

Daugherty's remarks likely were inspired to some degree by the fact that OSU librarians recently hauled away 28 boxes of his papers, documents from the years he and Sandor were making the case for the MFA program at the university. But it's hard to imagine Daugherty, who retired a few years ago from OSU to concentrate full-time on his writing, working any harder: He already has two books in the works.

Sandor said Literary Arts, the Portland nonprofit that oversees the awards, has made an effort recently to reach out beyond Portland — and this year, she said, "They really reached out to Corvallis." (Wayne Harrison of Springfield, who teaches writing at OSU, was a finalist for the Ken Kesey Award for Fiction for his book "Wrench and Other Stories." And the ceremony recognized Oregon authors who died in the past year, including Peter Sears, the Corvallis poet.)

It used to be that OSU's writing program was among the university's best-kept secrets. Nowadays, the secret is getting out — and with high-profile books due in the months ahead from faculty members including John Larison and Nick Dybek, among others, this is shaping up as a banner year for the program.

It's certainly come a long way from the days when Daugherty would return (a little slump-shouldered, as Sandor recollects) from this or that meeting where he again laid out the case for starting an MFA program at OSU. The argument against it basically boiled down to this: Well, the University of Oregon is the humanities college and OSU is the land-grant college.

"We had to prove that we wouldn't be driving students away from the University of Oregon" program, Daugherty recalled.

And that hasn't happened since OSU's program was founded in 2002. In fact, in recent years, Portland State University has launched its own MFA program. "Nobody's competing," Daugherty said. "The more, the merrier."

As for Passarello, she previously was nominated for an Oregon Book Award for her essay collection "Let Me Clear My Throat," but didn't win that year — which perhaps is part of the reason why she didn't prepare a speech for this week's event: "I just babbled at the microphone for three minutes and then ran away," she said.

Witnesses to the speech report otherwise. Daugherty notes that Passarello made a passionate case for the essay as a vital literary form and said words along these lines: "Watch out, poetry and fiction; the essay is coming to steal your girlfriends."

The essay, she said, is a literary form that seems well-suited to the region. "Maybe we can kind of claim the Pacific Northwest as a center of energy for the essay."

In the meantime, "Animals Strike Curious Poses" is in its fourth printing and has been translated into German and Italian with a Mandarin Chinese version on the way. As she ponders her next writing project, she's satisfying her itch to perform with a gig as the announcer and sidekick ("the Ed McMahon role") on "Live Wire," the public radio show that's recorded live in Portland.

The diversity of Passarello's career in some ways is a reflection of how Pacific Northwest literature also is becoming increasingly diverse — a trend you can see at work, Daugherty said, in the different voices in OSU's writing program.

"You can't define Pacific Northwest writing as being one thing," he said.

Sandor sees that as well, as she watches students from the OSU program making their mark in the literary world: "It's a community that's reaching out all over," she said. "They're going places, these kids." (mm)

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