By Sasha Nyary
For almost a century, Mount Holyoke College’s annual Kathryn Irene Glascock ’22 Intercollegiate Poetry Competition has been a rite of passage, or at least a major milestone, for college students seriously engaged in writing poetry.
But whether or not they win, the event is an important occasion for the contestants, said Robert Shaw, a professor in the English department who has served on the prize committee since he began teaching at Mount Holyoke in 1983.
“This is often the first time the students have read their work to a large and informed audience,” Shaw said, “and the first time they have had a chance to meet well-known poets and make the acquaintance of other highly talented poets of their own age.”
Now in its 93rd year, the highly respected Glascock contest is thought to be the oldest intercollegiate poetry competition. This year’s events will be held April 1–2.
Winning the prize has launched the careers of numerous poets and writers over the years, including Robert Lowell, James Merrill, Sylvia Plath, Katha Pollitt, Kenneth Koch, Mark Halperin, James Agee, and Gjertrud Schnackenberg ’75, who won two years in a row.
Every year six students, including one from the College, compete for the prize. The contestant from Mount Holyoke this year is Rachel Schmieder-Gropen ’18, an English and French double major who has been writing poetry since kindergarten.
The College invites a changing roster of five other northeastern colleges and universities to select a contestant for the event. This year’s students are sophomore Nina Shallman from Amherst College; juniors James O’Connell (Emerson College), Peter LaBerge (University of Pennsylvania), and Angela Nelson (University of Rhode Island); and Zoe Bodzas, a senior from Hamilton College.
In addition to its noted winners, the contest is also known for its three judges, who are always well-known poets. Past contest judges have included Robert Frost, Marianne Moore, Louise Bogan, Richard Wilbur, Elizabeth Bishop, Amy Clampitt, Donald Hall, Adrienne Rich, Seamus Heaney, and Audre Lorde.
“The roster of contestants and judges closely tracks the high points in American poetry over the last nine decades,” said Shaw, who plans to retire in May.
The event is a memorable, once-in-a-lifetime experience for most contestants, he noted. But some, including Plath, Merrill, and Schnackenberg, later returned as judges.
This year’s judges are Carl Phillips, who also served in 2004, and first-timers Matthea Harvey and Joshua Mehigan, who said he was extremely honored and a little surprised to be asked to judge the contest.
“The poets associated with the Glascock, whether as contestants or judges, are pretty much unbeatable in the world of American poetry,” Mehigan said. “This is an illustrious and all-around exceptional affair. I’m very excited to dig into the contestants’ poems and I am really looking forward to the event.”
And Schmieder-Gropen is particularly eager to meet the judges, she said.
“I’m excited to talk to them, to ask them a ridiculous number of questions,” she said. “Carl Phillips wrote one of my favorite poems, ‘As from a Quiver of Arrows.’ And I’m excited to meet the other student poets.”
Schmieder-Gropen, who participates in poetry slams and belongs to the student group Conscious Poets Society, has been preparing for the contest by reading her poems out loud. She said it is important to understand that a poet builds a poem word by word, the way an artist paints stroke by stroke, or a builder constructs brick by brick.
“You want to be honest,” said Schmieder-Gropen. “Not necessarily when it comes to the details. But in an overarching, raw way, you need to pour some sort of personal truth into the poem. I want to feel like I’m not using filler words or clearing my throat or stuffing a poem for the sake of having it longer or look impressive. I love words but my goal is never to sacrifice nuance and power for the sake of a particular word.”
The committee of students and faculty who selected Schmieder-Gropen found her writing “forceful and impressive,” Shaw said.
“Rachel’s poems begin quietly, proceed calmly, and move in surprising and sometimes unnerving directions,” he said. “Her words never seem randomly chosen, displaying in fact a fine sense of nuance and imaginative flair.”
Among the half dozen poems she submitted for the contest and will be reading aloud, Schmieder-Gropen said, is one called “On Collier’s Sleeping Beauty.” In it she imagines what the princess would really look like, given how bodies actually work, if she had been asleep for 100 years as the fairy story describes.
“If that actually happened,” she said, “Sleeping Beauty’s fingernails and toenails would be long. Her hair would be coiling down to the floor and she would have spiders building their webs in her mouth. I was thinking about what would be necessary to actually make this story a reality.”
Founded by the parents of a promising poet who died the year after she graduated from Mount Holyoke, the two-day Kathryn Irene Glascock ’22 Intercollegiate Poetry Competition is free and open to the public. The festivities begin Friday, April 1, at 3:00 pm in the Stimson Room, Williston Library, with a conversation with the judges. The students will read their poetry that evening at 8:00 pm in Gamble Auditorium.
At 10:30 am the next morning, Saturday, April 2, the judges will read their own poetry in the Stimson Room and announce this year’s winner.
The contest is sponsored by the Mount Holyoke College English department.
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