Posted: April 20, 2010
Nicole Gervasio expressed genuine surprise at being chosen by a panel of three eminent poets as the winner of the eighty-seventh annual Kathryn Irene Glascock ’22 Intercollegiate Poetry Competition on April 16-17. “I went into this thinking that I didn’t have a chance, so it’s really startling,” said the Bryn Mawr senior after Mount Holyoke Professor of English Robert Shaw announced the results in the Stimson Room of the Williston Library. It was the culmination of an event that started the previous afternoon with a discussion of poetry and then a reading in the evening in which the six contestants presented their submissions to the public.
Shaw, who has been on the Glascock committee since 1983, and who served as chair this year, said this group was among the strongest he has seen.
Mount Holyoke’s representative, environmental studies major and lacrosse player Bianca Young (right), shared a love letter to the ocean as well as an ode to the ackee tree, the fruit of which is part of her native Jamaica’s national dish. Her poem centered on the tree growing on the lawn outside her childhood apartment in Montego Bay. “The ackee tree was my hideout the time I ran away from home. The best part was that I didn’t need to pack any bags. Girls who live in trees don’t need clean clothes,” are some of the lines of the work in which Young describes watching her mother looking for her and then, turning her attention inward, wondering if the resemblance between the color of the bark and her dark skin meant that she was the descendant of a tree.
“Much of my poetry is nature-based,” said Young during a reception in the Willits-Hallowell Center after the reading. “Just going outside is what starts the process for me.”
Gervasio, who grew up in a working-class family in Trenton, New Jersey, described herself as an “urban poet.” Her themes are more somber, and her selections dealt with sickness and death. The contrast between her upbringing and her attendance at an elite college means that she has become accustomed to “code switching,” said Gervasio. As a poet, who in addition to double majoring in English literature and urban studies is pursuing a concentration in Africana studies, Gervasio said that peering across worlds with a foot in each makes her attuned to nuances.
“I feel like the voice in my poetry is kaleidoscopic, which is both good and bad,” Gervasio said. “My poems tend to sound like the same person did not write them, so that can be a problem.” Even within the same poem, she said, her “strong grasp of erudite high-end English” can come into tension with “the language I grew up with.” Her poem “Jazzmeen Autry” has lines such as, “My brother Marcus smashed that slut up behind... the back parking lot.” She navigates questions a woman-child on the cusp of puberty is weighing about sexuality, physical development, race, and friendship. Gervasio describes the nascent and uncomfortable emergence of sensuality with violent images: “Her heart’s like a cylinder rotating between the blanks of love and the bullets... of disaster....”
Terri Witek, one of the judges, said of Gervasio, “I appreciated the ambition of her poetry... [and] her willingness to get out of her own body and talk about other people.”
Another of the judges, Andrew Hudgins, said all six contestants “were terrific writers.” The panel coalesced around Gervasio, he said, because of “the range of material—the range of metrical style”—and because her work is free of clichés. Gervasio’s work constantly offered up surprises, said Hudgins, adding “her poems are very startling.”
The third judge, Myung Mi Kim, said that in choosing a winner she looked for “some correspondence between what the work is concerned with and how that is translated to the actual craft, or the making of the poem.”
Nisa Williams of the University of Maryland and Naomi Sosner of Dartmouth College shared second place. Williams, who grew up on the island nation of Dominica in the Lesser Antilles of the Caribbean, is pursuing a double major in English and history. She had never been to Massachusetts before. Coming to South Hadley had special meaning for her as she had studied Mount Holyoke College as part of her interest in women’s history, and especially the impact Frances Perkins ’02 had on the New Deal as Franklin Roosevelt’s secretary of labor.
Sosner, a senior earning a degree in Middle Eastern studies, said at the end of the event that she was especially gratified by the comments the judges wrote on her manuscript. Witek told her that “the best parts of your poetry are the parts that aren’t so Plath inspired,” Sosner said. Witek was referring to the famous American poet Sylvia Plath, who won the Glascock Prize in 1955 when she was a student at Smith College. “It’s so true,” said Sosner of the critique. “It’s also a really tough thing to hear. But the tough things strike the chord in us.”
Anya Johnson of Syracuse University said the invitation to participate in the Glascock competition took her by surprise. Unbeknownst to her, one of her professors submitted her name. “I got an email one day from the Glascock committee saying ‘congratulations’ and I had no idea on what,” Johnson said. “I thought it was a scam.” She writes out of compulsion. “I think we are all born with a kind of hollow in our soul that needs to be filled by things and writing can ease the ache,” Johnson said, adding that her poems make her mother cry.
“When she hears my work she realizes that I’ve experienced so wide a breadth of things that she had no idea I was experiencing, and that I had suffered without her knowing,” Johnson said. “It’s hard to ever know another human being even if they are your daughter or your mother.”
Gervasio said her mother and father never read her poetry. “My parents weren’t completely supportive of my choice to go to college.... They know that I write it, but they don’t value it,” she said. “I’ve reconciled at this point. It’s mine; it’s something I do. There’s a sense of ownership in that.”
The contestant from Hampshire College was Caroline Georges. She has yet to really think of herself as a poet, she said, even though she has been writing poems since she was a child and started sharing them at the age of 16. “Writing poems is important to me and it’s something I want to keep doing,” she said. “If I don’t do it in a while, it doesn’t feel good.”