Hunched forward in his seat, Joshua Ward waited with hands clasped as Nikki Giovanni read the names of the night’s winners. When she called his name, he looked surprised. Then, he burst into a smile as he rose to collect his prize and shake the hand of a legend.

Ward took first place for his poem “The Drawing Night” at the 17th annual Giovanni-Steger Poetry Prize Ceremony held Feb. 21 in the Anne and Ellen Fife Theatre in Moss Arts Center.

Ward graduated with a bachelor’s degree in fish and wildlife conservation and a minor in creative writing in December. He was awarded $1,500 and will receive “The Steger,” a piece of art that this year was crafted by Virginia Tech students at the Kroehling Advanced Materials Foundry on campus.

“It blows me away, to be honest,” he said of his win. “At first, I was very hesitant to submit a poem. Like a lot of people, I didn't think I would get very far. But I just thought, let's do one last wild thing. Let’s just shoot for the moon.”

Ward said he has loved the outdoors since he was a child and hopes to become a nature writer.

His award-winning poem was inspired by a night that he spent meditating in Caldwell Fields, a camping and recreation area near Blacksburg.

“To say to say that I was influenced by my major and by my passions is an understatement,” Ward said. “Nature needs assistance. It needs help. And it needs that in all fields of work. If a piece of nature poetry can win a competition like this — that’s another step.”

The $800 second-place prize was awarded to Makenna DeTorres, a creative writing major, for “Read. Unread.” Rowan Lacey, a psychology major, and Kayla Bourret, a creative writing major, tied for third place with their poems “Seaweed Green” and “Doing and Undoing,” respectively. Both were awarded $500.

Nikki Giovanni gives her remarks during the 17th annual Giovanni-Steger Poetry Prize Ceremony held Feb. 21. Photo by Leslie King for Virginia Tech.

Giovanni used her voice as a renowned author and University Distinguished Professor Emerita to advocate for the importance of poetry and she shared her wish for the competition to grow nationally. This year, the competition teamed with Artemis Journal, a poetry publication that will publish the winning poems in an upcoming edition.

“We want to be number one,” Giovanni said. “And in order to be a national poetry prize, we have to have a national view. And in order for that to happen, we have to keep reaching out.”

She ended the evening with “A Toast to Poetry,” an ode to the ways poetry helps readers feel less alone and celebrate the wonders of life.

“Let’s raise our glasses for how wonderful it is that poems take such good care of us,” Giovanni concluded.

Other finalists included:

  • Kaitlyn Grube, a creative writing major, for “Softer this Time”
  • Joe Hughes III, a creative writing major, for “I die on your screen”
  • Shruthi Manimaran, an English, creative writing, and professional and technical writing major, for “Refugees in Martha’s Vineyard”
  • Nya Nesbit, a psychology major, for “Fifth Chair”
  • Grace Turner, a creative writing major, for “Intrauterine by Design”
  • Maria Ziu, a physics major, for “Bunu”

Honorable mentions went to:

  • Calvin Brown, an aerospace engineering major, for “Sleep Evades Me”
  • Reid Burton, a marketing major, for “The Lake Isle of Tennessee”
  • Eira Calderon, an industrial design major, for “The Glass Door in My Kitchen”
  • Cassandra Cogan, an international relations major, for “Blacksburg, September”
  • Grace Daniels, an English, creative writing, and professional and technical writing major, for “My Mother’s Quilt”
  • Emelia Delaporte, a professional and technical writing and multimedia journalism major, for “Strawberry Plains”
Nikki Giovanni with finalists of the 2023 Giovanni-Steger Poetry Prize Ceremony. Photo by Leslie King for Virginia Tech.

The competition was founded by Giovanni in 2006 and named in part for its first benefactor and late Virginia Tech President Charles W. Steger. The event was directed by Aileen Murphy, a senior English instructor. Steering Committee members responsible for choosing the night’s winning poems included Murphy, Lucinda Roy, Lissa Bloomer, Gena Chandler, Robin Allnutt, Christine Labuski, Joe Scallorns, Mike Rosenweig, and Sharon Johnson.

The competition offers the largest monetary award of any university-sponsored poetry prize in the Western Hemisphere. It is open to undergraduate students of all majors.

Written by Kelsey Bartlett