Editor at Large Natalie Shapero judged last year’s Patricia Grodd Poetry Prize for Young Writers, an award that recognizes outstanding young poets and is open to high school sophomores and juniors throughout the world. The contest winner receives a full scholarship to the Kenyon Review Young Writers workshop. In addition, the winning poem and the poems of the two runners-up are published in the Kenyon Review, one of the country’s most widely read literary magazines. All of the winning poems from last year can be found in the Sept/Oct 2015 issue of the Kenyon Review.
What should young poets keep in mind as they submit for this award? If a poet has a full notebook, what qualities should he or she look for in this body of work to find the right piece to submit?
I would say, to start, that we look for poems that can speak to a wide audience. We want poems that would appeal to a reader who doesn’t know the poet, who has never met the poet, who arrives at the poem previously unfamiliar with the poet’s obsessions and concerns. We want a poem that stands on its own, that doesn’t need the poet’s explanation or other pieces of poet’s writing go with it. On top of that, we look for poems that have striking, evocative language—for poems that make us think about something we haven’t thought about before, or that might make us think about something familiar in a new way. Breadth, depth, compelling language, material that is significant to the poet and that the poet then makes significant to the reader—it’s a lot to ask for, but we go ahead and ask anyway.
In your introduction for this year’s award, you wrote, “A poem has two lives: one on the page, and one in the air.” Would you talk a bit about what a poem needs to be successful “in the air”? Do you ever read the submissions out loud as you go through them?
Yes, we absolutely read submissions out loud as we go through them. A really great poem will always give attention to the music of the words, the cadence of the language. This doesn’t mean that we give special treatment to poems that sound particularly flowery—a terse, choppy poem can be just as effective as a lilting, lyrical one—but simply that we want the poet to be paying attention to whether how the poem sounds suits its larger themes and aims and tone.
In C.K. Williams’s obituary, the New York Times mentioned that he wrote his first poem after a girlfriend at school asked him to. He went on to win a Pulitzer, the National Book Award, and many other distinctions. I’ve been thinking about how he would describe the changes he felt in his work as he became more established. So I have to ask: Are there certain aspects of writing earlier in your career that you miss? Do you think it’s possible, as a young writer, to take risks or try voices you might not try later on?
That’s a great question, and the answer for me is probably yes. At this point in my own writing, working on book projects, I feel like I’m trying to create something larger out of my individual poems. So if I’m inclined to write about something but it doesn’t fit into the bigger project I have in my head, I often nix that particular poem. I never used to think that way when I was younger—instead, I would just go forward and write a poem about whatever it was that was grabbing me that day, regardless of whether or not it seemed to be in conversation with other things I was making. One of the great things about being a new writer, just starting out, is getting to feel disinhibited in your exploration of whatever takes hold of your imagination.
The poems that have won this prize are terrific pieces of writing, as are many of the poems that haven’t ended up winning, but that did catch our attention during the selection process and stayed with us long after the conclusion of each year’s contest. Here’s just one that’s on my mind: Terra Incognita.