Poetry Prize Winners

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Announcing 2018 Hillary Gravendyk Poetry Prizes

National Prize: Michelle Peñaloza

Regional Prize: Elizabeth Cantwell

In Former Possessions of the Spanish Empire, Michelle Peñaloza asks: How do children born of empire once removed possess the history of their naming?

In this astonishing debut poetry collection, winner of Inlandia Books’ 2018 Hillary Gravendyk Prize, the phrase Former Possessions of the Spanish Empire becomes “a kind of shorthand for some of the shared reverberations of colonization: lost family names, lost languages, lost spirits and gods—and the need I felt to reclaim and remake those for myself, ”says Peñaloza.

Simultaneously culturally specific and universal, with a scope ambitious and emotionally complex, Former Possessions of the Spanish Empire explores questions of grief and violence, and negotiates loss across landscapes and spans of time. It engages with the intersections of race, gender, and sexuality and the complications of desire.

In an interview with Peñaloza, she states, “To be a child of empire is to never be wholly of the site of conquest nor of the conquering force and yet to also be of both. To be ‘once removed,’ is to constantly negotiate between spaces and identities without a defined guide for those negotiations. In my writing process, I’m engaging with those contradictions and reimagining what histories, what ways of being and naming, were/are possible. I’m working with what isn’t necessarily recoverable, with what I am unable to access, even as I try to do just that: recover, access, and, ultimately, possess, if you will, my own naming, my own history. ”

Praise for Former Possessions of the Spanish Empire

Aimee Nezhukumatathil, author of Oceanic, calls Former Possessions of the Spanish Empire “ambitious” and “remarkable” and says “Of this I am certain: I’ll be celebrating this poet for many years to come.… These poems read mythic yet contemporary in their burst of bloom-song and bright blood stroke … [t]he result is electric—giving us a kind of poetry more alive, more filled with lava and lyric.”

Barbara Jane Reyes, author of Diwata, writes, Former Possessions of the Spanish Empire “is filled with so much care and kapwa, a deep understanding of shared humanity, between generations of Filipina women and girls … grounded in details, textures, and aromas, rose petals, coffee, garlic, smoothed rosary beads, old prayer books, the tangle of mangrove roots. This is an emotionally complex work, in which grief, and immigrant, diasporic confusion and rage are handled with so much wisdom. I love this book.”

Garrett Hongo, author of Coral Road, declares “The book is a colorful and complex mosaic of re-possession, a repairing of an uprooted history, and Peñaloza’s own passionate monody of praise for all that was lost.”

Michelle Peñaloza

The proud daughter of Filipino immigrants, Michelle Peñaloza is a Kundiman Fellow, and the recipient of many awards including the 2019 Scotti Merrill Emerging Writer Award for Poetry from The Key West Literary Seminar. Michelle has also received support from Artist Trust, Caldera, 4Culture, Literary Arts, VONA/Voices, and the Bread Loaf Writers’ Conference, among others. She is the author of two chapbooks, landscape/heartbreak (Two Sylvias, 2015), and Last Night I Dreamt of Volcanoes (Organic Weapon Arts, 2015).

All the Emergency-Type Structures is a poetic survival manual for those in need of shelter from climate change, American life, motherhood, technology, death, and extinction.

Take for example Cantwell’s poem, “Situations of Casual Danger,”
So few carefree places
remain: the smart phones could catch fire,
the bookshelves could peel from the walls, the snap peas
could harbor e. coli, the car tires
could begin rolling without warning.

These poems navigate both cultural anxieties—climate change, American consumerism, technological creep—and personal anxieties—motherhood, apocalyptic thinking, suburban complacency. What does it mean to face a future in which building emergency-type structures may be necessary for our survival, and what materials can we use to insulate those structures?

All the Emergency-Type Structures confronts the traditional “nature poem” from a new perspective—in this case, the perspective of climate change and mass extinction (including human extinction). This lens arises from a voice that is both personal/confessional and expansively inclusive, and is a unique presence in the field of contemporary poetry. Themes of motherhood also emerge, but wrapped in a thin film of anxiety, pain, and raw realism about the world the speaker’s children will inherit and, nevertheless, find ways to inhabit.

Formally, All The Emergency-Type Structures walks a tightrope of poetic craft, surreality, abstraction, and accessibility. The language and structure of the book invites rather than excludes readers, while also confronting complex and nuanced themes of contemporary life head-on. Before winning the Hillary Gravendyk Prize, All the Emergency-Type Structures was a finalist for the 2018 National Poetry Series.

Praise for All The Emergency-Type Structures

Elizabeth Cantwell’s All the Emergency Type Structures . . . feels like a direct transcription of the hellish beauty of living. Humans measure time by the pauses between disasters, and Cantwell’s poems register quotidian disappointments and the slow catastrophe of the epoch equally well. When everything is on fire, what do we choose to save? What do we choose to say? Cantwell tells us “you may erect/a shelter using only carefully chosen language,” but she never pretends living in it is easy. —Rebecca Hazelton

The poems of Elizabeth Cantwell’s breathtaking second collection, All the Emergency-Type Structures, are brilliant—cries and acts of defiance against what seems to be our inevitable erasure from this planet. These poignant elegies-in-advance of apocalypse expose the ways even science has failed us, failed to provide the necessary paradigm to understand our own mortal recklessness. Underneath the expansive canopy of space, earthly landscapes grow increasingly inhospitable to human kind and our presence seems increasingly irrelevant, even banal. Elizabeth Cantwell’s luminous intelligence and signature, angular wit reverberate through this poetic survival manual for our own futures. As we ricochet between cosmic and evolutionary angst, we may perhaps be consoled by this stunning book of both ancient times and end times. —David St. John

Elizabeth Cantwell

Elizabeth Cantwell is a poet and teacher living in Claremont, California. Her work has been published in such journals as The Los Angeles Review, DIAGRAM, and The Georgia Review. She is the author of one previous full-length book of poetry, Nights I Let The Tiger Get You (Black Lawrence Press), a finalist for the 2012 Hudson Prize, and one chapbook, Premonitions (Grey Book Press). Cantwell’s other distinctions include receiving the 2016 McMillin Teaching Prize at her institution, The Webb Schools of California.

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