One of the world’s oldest art forms was recently celebrated in one of the most technologically advanced performance spaces, when the ceremony honoring Steger Poetry Prize winners was, for the first time, held in the Cube at the Moss Arts Center.

Now in its 13th year, Virginia Tech’s annual poetry event is held every April, during National Poetry Month. Nikki Giovanni, University Distinguished Professor of English, established the poetry competition for undergraduates and named it for its first benefactor, Charles W. Steger, the university’s president at the time.

Although the event was rechristened the Nikki Giovanni Celebration of Poetry last year, Giovanni has insisted that the Steger Poetry Prize retain its original name, noting, “We had a president who had the vision to say poetry at Virginia Tech is one of the most important things.”

This year’s competition, which garnered more than a hundred entries, was so competitive that the judges chose 12 student finalists instead of their usual 10. The finalists represent five colleges across the university, in majors ranging from creative writing to industrial design to animal and poultry sciences.

In her introductory remarks, Giovanni reflected on the inaugural year of the competition.

“Our first winner of the poetry prize was a physics major, a brilliant young man who studied light and how long it takes light to fall into darkness,” Giovanni said. “We’re all beginning to wonder, how long does it take for light to fall into darkness? We have to learn that. How long does it take hatred to fall into love? How long does it take stupidity to fall into intelligence? These are all questions we have to ask.”

A range of profound questions were explored throughout the ceremony, as finalists read their entries, alternating with poems chosen and read by Department of English faculty members and invited guests.

This year, Jillian Mouton of Loudoun County, Virginia — a senior triple majoring in literature and language, creative writing, and professional and technical writing in the College of Liberal Arts and Human Sciences — won the competition for her poem, “Bayeux.”

As first-place winner, Mouton received $1,100, the largest monetary award of any university-sponsored poetry competition in the Western Hemisphere. Mouton also accepted a piece of handcrafted art by local jeweler Faith Capone. Known as “the Steger,” the artwork — a sterling-silver cylinder — has an inset magnifying glass to symbolize the power of poetry to enlarge our understanding of the world.

The second-place, $500 prize was awarded to Katherine Louis of Norfolk, Virginia, for her poem, “Clouds in the Sky.” Louis is a junior majoring in Spanish in the College of Liberal Arts and Human Sciences.

Shalini Rana of Vienna, Virginia, a senior double majoring in creative writing and professional and technical writing in the College of Liberal Arts and Human Sciences, won the third-place, $300 prize for her poem, “Scenes/Funeral Day.”

In addition to the winners, nine students received honorable mentions:

  • Allison Lee Craft of Blacksburg, Virginia, a junior majoring in theatre arts/cinema in the College of Liberal Arts and Human Sciences, for “Rural Retreat, Virginia”;
  • Mara DePena of Virginia Beach, Virginia, a senior majoring in animal and poultry sciences in the College of Agriculture and Life Sciences, for “America’s Not Beautiful”;
  • AnnRea Fowler of Suffolk, Virginia, a junior majoring in professional and technical writing and creative writing in the College of Liberal Arts and Human Sciences, for “Food for Thought”;
  • H. H. Hsueh of Taipei, Taiwan, a senior majoring in industrial design in the College of Architecture and Urban Studies, for “Morphoses”;
  • Fintan Kelly of Purcellville, Virginia, a senior majoring in creative writing in the College of Liberal Arts and Human Sciences, for “La Pietà in Reverse: Birth Day”;
  • Jessica Mardian of Lynchburg, Virginia, a first-year student majoring in creative writing in the College of Liberal Arts and Human Sciences, for “The Origin of Our Small Disasters”;
  • Alison Miller of Arlington, Virginia, a junior triple majoring in creative writing, literature and language, and professional and technical writing in the College of Liberal Arts and Human Sciences, for “Girls With Secrets”;
  • Taylor Thackaberry of Purcellville, Virginia, a sophomore majoring in computer science in the College of Engineering, for “Along the Edge of Waimea Canyon, 2018”; and
  • Nima Trivedi of Roanoke, Virginia, a junior majoring in biology and clinical neuroscience in the College of Science, for “Saris.”

The competition is administered by Giovanni; co-directed by Aileen Murphy, a senior instructor, and Joe Scallorns, an advanced instructor, both in the Department of English; and organized and judged by the Steger Committee.

In addition to Giovanni, Murphy, and Scallorns, this year’s committee members include Sharon Johnson, an associate professor of French and francophone studies in the Department of Modern and Classical Languages and Literatures; Christine Labuski, an assistant professor in the Department of Sociology; and Gena Chandler-Smith, an associate professor; Virginia Fowler, a professor; Thomas Gardner, an Alumni Distinguished Professor; Ennis McCrery, an adjunct instructor; Lucinda Roy, an Alumni Distinguished Professor; and Gyorgyi Voros, a senior instructor, all in the Department of English.

Support for the award competition and the second annual Nikki Giovanni Celebration of Poetry was provided by the Donna and Dennis Treacy Endowment for the Arts, Charles and Janet Steger, the Department of English, A.M. Squires Trust, and Union Bank.

Written by Paula Byron and photographed by Richard Allnutt

Nikki Giovanni, who has taught at Virginia Tech since 1989, has been highly celebrated for both her poetry and her advocacy. She has received seven NAACP Image Awards, the Langston Hughes Award for Distinguished Contributions to Arts and Letters, the Rosa Parks Women of Courage Award, and, most recently, the 2016 Literary Lifetime Achievement Award from the Library of Virginia. She has also been nominated for a Grammy, been named a finalist for the National Book Award, and authored several New York Times bestsellers.
Nikki Giovanni makes introductory remarks in the Cube, a four-story-high, state-of-the-art performance space and high-tech laboratory housed in the Moss Arts Center. Seated in the first row in front of the podium are Charles and Janet Steger, long-time supporters of the Steger Poetry Prize competition.
Jillian Mouton, who took first place for her poem, “Bayeux,” talks with Nikki Giovanni following the ceremony.
Katherine Louis reads her poem, “Clouds in the Sky,” which garnered second place.
Shalini Rana, who earned third place for her poem, “Scenes/Funeral Day,” accepts her award from Nikki Giovanni.
Cyril Clarke, the university’s interim executive vice president and provost, chose to read “Late Morning in Autumn” by Douglas Livingstone.
Bernice Hausman, chair of the Department of English, read an excerpt from “Diving into the Wreck” by Adrienne Rich.
During the reception following the program, Rosemary Blieszner (center), dean of the College of Liberal Arts and Human Sciences, talks with Daniel Cleveland, assistant dean of advancement for the college, and Sharon Johnson, an associate professor of French and francophone studies and a member of the Steger Committee.
“How could we go through this time here without poetry?” Nikki Giovanni asks. “It comforts our soul at each stage of our adventure. We at Virginia Tech teach science, engineering, and needed thoughts of industry and government. We hold The Steger in our hearts to remind our faculty and students why we struggle with truth and beauty.”