Students read their award-winning poems, share their inspiration, and explain what draws them to poetry
By Katie Neitz
Lafayette’s English Department celebrated student poets at the College’s annual H. MacKnight Black Poetry Competition in April.
The competition, which recognizes the work of graduating seniors, is named in honor of MacKnight Black, an American poet who graduated from Lafayette in 1916. At the time of his death in 1931, Black was regarded as one of America’s most significant poets. The generosity of the family of H. MacKnight Black 1916 enables the College to award prizes to student winners, selected by a poet of distinction.
Acclaimed poet Alex Dimitrov served as the guest judge and joined students for this year’s virtual celebration. Dimitrov, whose poems have appeared in The New Yorker, The New York Times, and the Paris Review, and author of “Together and by Ourselves” and Begging for It, was introduced by Megan Fernandes, assistant professor of English and writer-in-residence, who moderated the celebratory event.
Event winner Mario Sanchez Castillo ’21 and runners-up Kaitlin McNamara ’21 and Aidan Wood ’21 read their poems. Dimitrov followed with readings of a few of his works, including “Sunset on 14th Street” and “June.” He provided insights about his writing process, reader responses to his work, capturing memories, and when he knows a poem is complete.
Here, we hear from the three contest winners and get more insight on their winning entries and what poetry means to them.
What inspired your poem? I always find myself writing about different bodies of water: rivers, sea, lakes, even the rain. But I craved to go deeper with it in my writing. I wanted to recall a time in which I myself became one with the river by nearly drowning, and the eerie bliss one may feel when we slowly descend toward something beyond our bodies—something rather unexplainable once experiencing it. “The River (Body) Speaks” was a response to my obsession with rivers and disembodiment of the self. Additionally, Natalie Diaz’s collection Postcolonial Love Poem heavily inspired me to start the poem. Her writing concerns itself with the spirituality of water, and I felt innately compelled to go deeper in my study of water.
What draws you to poetry? I can’t quite explain why I’m so drawn to writing poetry. And to be honest, poetry isn’t always the medium I choose to analyze my circumstances or express myself. I’d say I have a love/hate relationship with writing and reading poetry. But when I do find myself in the state where I crave to be engulfed completely by poetry, I treat it as though I am roaming into a forest trying to find something tangible and full of meaning beyond me. In poetry, I get to say things I can’t quite say out loud or in a group of friends. And I also get to use language that is considered nonsensical and baffling, yet impactful. Really, poetry is like a mask—you get to tell the truth and embody something or someone else.
What did you take away from your interaction with Alex Dimitrov? I thought he was incredibly cool. I loved his nonchalant attitude and tenderness. His recent collection Love and Other Poems was heavily inspired by Frank O’Hara, who was a New York poet and who I look up to very much. I’m very honored Dimitrov chose me for the MacKnight Black Competition.
How has Prof. Megan Fernandes inspired you?Honestly I just really trust Prof. Fernandes’ judgment. She gives the best critiques and is incredibly thoughtful. She’s also a very gifted writer whose work has such an honest and sophisticated quality to it, it is hard to look away. She inspired me every day to be a better writer and more detail orientated. I hope her career grows even further from here, and I just know it will.
Castillo also won the Jean Corrie Poetry Prize as a first-year student in 2018.
What inspired your poem? This was a poetry assignment for my class with Prof. Fernandes. It was a student-submitted prompt from my classmate Henry Hughes; the prompt was as follows: “Many of us have experienced some aspect of love by now in our lives. In no more than fourteen lines, write a short love story that must end badly. This can be whatever ‘badly’ means to you. This poem must be written in two stanzas split however you would like and must include an anaphora. This poem must also include the name of a famous person/celebrity. You must also use one question mark in the poem. Enjoy:)”
I’m someone who really thrives on overly specific prompts, I think focusing on making all the aspects of the poem fit helps distract me so that I can let the poem come out in the way that it needs to. The poem would not have been able to exist without the prompt. I ended up losing some aspects of the prompt due to lineation choices in editing, but overall the requirements fit perfectly within the context of the poem that you wouldn’t really be able to tell it was a prompt at all! This experience was something I had known was poetic enough to write about and had been meaning to but either didn’t have the right words or never felt particularly inspired to write about it. I also feel like the more space you have between an experience and writing about it, the more insight you’ll have on it. Poetry is so often about memory, and the space, time, and dedication needed to process or fully understand something.
What draws you to poetry? It’s something I never get sick or tired of. If I’m feeling down it’s a great way to dump out and process something that I’m feeling. It’s one of the ways I feel most creative. It’s one of the things I have been most proud of.
What did you take away from your interaction with Alex Dimitrov? That he was a really cool guy, but also just a regular one. I feel myself sometimes putting writers on a pedestal and being able to meet him made him more attainable. As someone who has the utmost respect for his poetry, I am deeply honored that he chose one of my poems for an honorable mention.
How has Prof. Megan Fernandes inspired you? I really appreciate the effort and intellect she puts into workshopping everyone’s poetry in the class: striking a perfect balance between understanding and preserving each student’s unique style with knowing where the weak points of a poem are and how to fix them. She’s not afraid to tell someone that something isn’t working and knows exactly how to tell you something is working in a way that makes you feel like you can do it again. I really appreciate the wealth of knowledge she brings to each of her classes, from breaking down the ‘beloved’ in a poem to dissecting triple flow in modern rap.
She also climbed through a window in the middle of our class once after she accidentally locked herself out of her office—pretty badass if you ask me.
What inspired your poem? I wrote “How to Tell a Mother” from my experience while studying in Oxford. I never successfully answered the question in the title because there really is no way to tell a mother her son has killed himself amongst strangers while she was a thousand miles away. In the days after, I found myself falling into a void of remorse and the constant ‘I should have seen it coming and done something.’ When someone chooses to exit this world, they leave behind innumerable little details about their life that no one else will ever know or appreciate: the order they fold their laundry, the purported purpose of unused journals, their preference for different sizes of nail clippers. In “How to Tell a Mother,” I try to capture some of that latent, leftover beauty and weave together a song of the dead and the alive, the here and the then. Love your friends because everyone, every day, is making a choice to be alive.
What draws you to poetry? Poetry, for me, has two primary draws. First, poetry has the ability to communicate complex, emotional ideas through the same language we use at the gas station, in the workplace, everywhere. It’s genuinely amazing, and until we figure out a way to hook up our brains with a wire and provide perfect empathy, it is the only vehicle we have to disseminate our humanity to others. Second, I love music and rhythm, and it’s so much fun to play with sounds and beats inside a poem. For me, reading and hearing poetry is equally important to reading and writing it!
What did you take away from your interaction with Alex Dimitrov? Alex Dimitrov was a wonderful person to experience at the poetry reading. I loved reading his poems and hearing them brought to life in his voice was just terrific. I had the opportunity to ask him a question about Frank O’Hara’s personism manifesto, and Alex certainly gave me a lot to think about within the intersection of traditional poetic devices and the simple act of having a conversation with someone else.
How has Prof. Megan Fernandes inspired you? If I hadn’t taken Prof. Fernandes’ intro to creative writing class last semester, I would not be writing poetry today. Her energy, brilliance, and exquisite knowledge are put on show every single class I have with her. She’s been so incredibly supportive, and I wish I were not graduating so that I could continue taking classes with her and other professors in the English Department. If you’re ever curious about taking a creative writing class at Lafayette College, I highly recommend Prof. Fernandes!