It’s not often you are given a gift on behalf of someone you idolize… And it is especially rare for that gift to be given 35 years after that person’s death. This is what happened to Angela Barton in December 2022 when she was awarded first place in the James M. Kirkwood Literary Competition.
The competition, which just celebrated 30 years, celebrates the life of the Tony Award- and Pulitzer Prize-winning author best known for his hit musical, “A Chorus Line.” As a UCLA Extension Writer’s Program student, Kirkwood said his life changed when his instructor, the late Robert Kirsch, referred Kirkwood’s work, saying, “once in a blue moon someone turns in something so original, so — I’m going to say it — brilliant, that it makes it all worthwhile.” This led to Kirkwood devoting his time to writing, which the award’s founder and benefactor Andrew Morse said was Kirkwood’s “absolute joy.”
“It’s been a tremendous privilege hosting this award over the years, and it has grown into something far better than I could have possibly imagined,” Morse said. “I think that Jimmy would be tickled - he would be very pleased - that he was being remembered this way.”
Barton, a self-proclaimed “James Kirkwood freak,” was heavily influenced by the author and was honored just to be among the 41 nominees named by UCLA Extension Writer’s Program instructors teaching intermediate or advanced fiction.
“The prize money is a bonus, a means to set aside time to focus on my writing,” said Barton. “I plan to use the generous award for writing-related retreats and residencies, which I have dreamed about but couldn’t afford.”
Barton has been taking writing courses at UCLA Extension on-and-off for 15 years. She was inspired by a friend to join her first class, as a place to write the things she wanted to write – not what she felt she needed to write.
“I sincerely feel that UCLA Extension has the best instructors and students,” she said. “The writing is taken seriously and respected. There is not a feeling of competition, and everyone seems to go into it with a serious, but kind, attitude. I genuinely felt that with each class I was learning and becoming a better writer.”
Barton’s writing, she says, has been influenced by Kirkwood’s combo of dark comedy and sweet humanity, she even notes that she has identified structural patterns in her writing that unintentionally match Kirkwood’s works. Even Morse, who knew James Kirkwood well, told Barton that he saw some of the same humanity echoed in her work that he saw in Kirkwood’s.
“The tone of the story sounds like something Jimmy would have written or would have told me about,” He said. “It was such a strange thing, it’s the 30th anniversary and Angela submits this story that sounded so much like Jimmy’s writing.”
The Kirkwood Prize was established in 1991, by Kirkwood’s friends, loved ones and admirers. Starting with a single award, it has now blossomed to three awardees each year. The 2022 winners include Barton, for an excerpt of her story “Manatees;” Elisa De Jesus, for an excerpt from her book “Bamboo Shoot;” and Chelsea Tokuno-Lynk, for her story “Our Cecelia.” Winners receive a cash prize and are invited as honored guests to events, such as a luncheon, where they can network with instructors, previous winners and Morse. To celebrate the 30th year, an evening anniversary event also took place in 2022.
“I am grateful to the writer’s program for being so receptive to this idea,” said Morse. “I can’t tell you how happy it makes me to see people thriving with the little bit of help I provide.”