Since its founding in 2005, the annual Steger Poetry Prize competition has culminated each spring in a celebration that opens with a series of poetry readings by student finalists and invited guests, continues with the announcement of three winners, and then concludes with a champagne toast by internationally acclaimed poet Nikki Giovanni.

This year, the announcement came in the form of a quiet, home-recorded video of Giovanni reading the three winning poems. At the end of the recitation, Giovanni looks up at the camera and says, with a sad smile, “I’m so sorry about this illness that is keeping us apart. I’m sorry that we’re not able to be together for the entire reading.”

Giovanni, a University Distinguished Professor of English, established the poetry competition and named it for its first benefactor, the late Charles W. Steger, who served as the university’s president at the time.

This year’s competition marked the renaming of the prize to the Giovanni-Steger Poetry Prize. The event itself was renamed the Nikki Giovanni Celebration of Poetry several years ago.

“Nikki Giovanni is a legend in the world of arts and letters — and at Virginia Tech,” said Laura Belmonte, dean of the College of Liberal Arts and Human Sciences. “I can think of no better way to commemorate the indelible imprint that she has left upon the university and thousands of students than naming this remarkable award after her.”

This year’s finalists represented majors ranging from creative writing to biology, animal and poultry science, multimedia journalism, and civil engineering.

Awarded first place was Elia Chaves, a junior majoring in creative writing in the College of Liberal Arts and Human Sciences, for her poem, “Death: A Vacation.”

As first-place winner, Chaves receives $1,100, the most generous award for undergraduate poetry in the Western Hemisphere.

The second-place, $500 prize was awarded to Kathleen Walker for her poem, “And & And & And.” Walker is a sophomore majoring in creative writing.

Anna Tan, a first-year student majoring in biology in the College of Science, won the third-place, $300 prize for her poem, “I Don’t Need Friends, Just You.”

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

  • Brandon Alimanestiano, a junior majoring in multimedia journalism in the College of Liberal Arts and Human Sciences, for “Atlantis.”
  • Tessa Batterton, a junior majoring in animal and poultry science in the College of Agriculture and Life Sciences, for “Birdwatching.”
  • Nick Hughes, a senior majoring in creative writing in the College of Liberal Arts and Human Sciences, for “Aren’t Old Men a Lot Like Old Dogs?.”
  • Nat Nasr, a senior majoring in mathematics in the College of Science, for “Piety.”
  • Molly Sayles, a junior double majoring in civil engineering in the College of Engineering and classical studies in the College of Liberal Arts and Human Sciences, for “Low Tide in Pearisburg.”
  • Stephanie Sheets, a first-year student majoring in English in the College of Liberal Arts and Human Sciences, for “Little Bird of the Sea.”
  • Mia Toser, a sophomore majoring in public relations in the College of Liberal Arts and Human Sciences, for “Just Sixteen.”

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

In addition to Giovanni, Murphy, and Scallorns, the 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 associate professor in the Department of Sociology; and seven other faculty members in the Department of English: Robin Allnutt, a senior instructor; Lissa Bloomer, a senior instructor; Gena Chandler-Smith, an associate professor; Virginia Fowler, a professor; Thomas Gardner, an Alumni Distinguished Professor; Lucinda Roy, an Alumni Distinguished Professor (on leave this year); and Gyorgyi Voros, a senior instructor.

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

“What I love about poetry is that it’s storytelling,” Giovanni said, “and one of the great things about stories is they’re always with you. You may remember a line you’ve heard, and it becomes something you carry with you, like a song. Some days you might be walking down a street feeling dejected, but then you start humming a song. We carry poetry with us in the same way.”

Giovanni noted that although she looks forward to the poetry celebration every year, she won’t be dwelling on her disappointment about this year’s lost opportunity.

“Even though we weren’t together physically, we were together emotionally,” Giovanni said. “That’s what’s so wonderful: Poetry gives us that comfort. It’s about our souls and our hearts. And it’s about what we give each other.”

Written by Paula Byron

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