I was making dinner with my friend when I got the email that I was a top 10 finalist,” said creative writing major, Kaitlyn Grube. “My friend dropped everything she was doing, as safely as possible, to celebrate with me.” For many others just like Grube, this is a time to celebrate. 

The Giovanni-Steger Poetry Prize, which includes first, second, and third awards, are presented to undergraduate students for their excellent writing in poetry. These awards are both monetary and come with specially designed trophies. This competition is one of the most revered in the United States and offers the largest amount of prize money for an undergraduate poetry competition. 

Submissions vary in topics, styles, and even in majors. A committee of faculty selects 10 finalists, and this year, six honorable mention recipients. In its seventeenth year, the award ceremony was held Feb. 21, 2023, at the Moss Arts Center.  

These esteemed students show that there is a lot more to poetry than just rhythm and rhyme, but that it is a living art form. 

“Poetry is a conversation between the elements and the poet, and that’s what the Giovanni-Steger awards celebrate to me,” said Joe Hughes, a creative writing and professional and technical writing major, and one of this year’s top 10 finalists. Hughes was also a top 10 finalist last year and said his approach to this year’s award ceremony is to chill and let the poetry do what it does. 

The top 10 finalists and honorable mention recipients have a lot to be proud of. 

“Being recognized for this award makes me feel validated as a writer,” said honorable mention recipient, Calvin Brown, an aerospace engineering student. For many writers like Brown, they feel as though this award leads them into the next step in their writing journey. 

Brown’s poem focused on the many sleepless nights that she faced in Russia and said that it was cathartic putting them all into one piece. She hopes to one day publish a book and thinks this is just the beginning of her writing career. 

Emelia Delaporte, a double major in professional and technical writing and multimedia journalism and an honorable mention recipient, said she will continue to enter the competition, and hopes to eventually release her own anthology. Delaporte started writing poetry this past summer after she realized she did not have to follow the confines of standard poetry forms. She wants to remind everyone that poetry is whatever form the writer wants it to be. 

A smiling man in mid-stride moves to the left in front for three young women, who are seated and smile up at him.
The moment when Joshua Ward first learned he was the first-place winner. Photo by Leslie King for Virginia Tech.

While many of the recognized students are majoring in subjects within the Department of English, some have majors outside of the liberal arts. Joshua Ward, the first prize winner, studied fisheries and wildlife conservation. 

“I draw a lot of my inspiration from nature — from the individual animal and the facets that surround it,” he said.

He likes to take his readers through a journey of how the animal looks or acts, and through the details of the environment around them. One of his favorite pieces, for example, is about a snake sitting next to him on the edge of a stream. Ward also mentioned the importance of reading what interests you, not necessarily what you think you should. While the classics are important, he can’t help but find himself drawn back to nature poems. 

Maria Ziu, a physics major and a top 10 finalist, said that since she is a STEM student, she doesn’t get to use her writing skills as much as she would like. 

“To be recognized for work in a very different field means a lot to me,” she said.

When asked if the students had any advice to give to aspiring writers, Grace Whang-Daniels, an English literature, creative writing, and professional and technical writing major, suggested to just let yourself write if you feel compelled.

“Poetry is worthwhile because at some point, you felt inspiration and were bold enough to honor it,” said Whang-Daniels, an honorable mention recipient. She mentioned how it can be disheartening to never hear back from some awards or publications, especially when she puts her heart into her work. She is thrilled to receive this nomination and to see that someone has found value in her work. 

Fellow honorable mention recipient, Cassandra Cogan recommends trying writing in different environments. 

“I have to intentionally sit down and concentrate on making art,” Cogan said. She suggests trying a quiet space while listening to a certain genre of music, which happens to be her preferred environment. While it may just be a hobby for Cogan, this is not the first time her writing has been recognized. Cogan won first prize in poetry at the 2022 Undergraduate Creative Writing Awards, which gave her the confidence to apply to the Giovanni-Steger Poetry Prize. 

While everyone’s techniques and advice may be different, one theme remained the same throughout: don’t conform to one style. Reading and writing different styles allows the writer to find what works best for them. The recognized students encouraged others to not let the “rules” of writing confine them to a certain style. 

“It doesn’t have to be good,” said Grube “Let yourself write cheesy, melodramatic garbage if it makes you happy. Letting yourself practice by being bad at something lets you get the rare nugget of something profound over time.” 

When asked if they were nervous about the award ceremony, the students’ answers were typically a simple “yes, but also no” with a bit of a laugh behind it. They felt as though above all else it was an honor to even have the chance to read their work. Prior to the ceremony, no one seemed to be focused on winning, but instead seemed excited to celebrate their love of poetry, which is truly what the Giovanni-Steger award is all about. 

By Madison Frazier, Literature and Creative Writing Major