Poet Douglas Kearney accepted the 14th SVSU Theodore Roethke Memorial Poetry Prize on Tuesday, March 27, in the Rhea Miller Recital Hall.
The ceremony was part of the 2018 Roethke Poetry & Arts Festival, a triennial festival that celebrates the work and legacy of Pulitzer-prize winning poet and Saginaw native Theodore Roethke.
This year marked the 50th anniversary of the Prize. The winner, Kearney, was presented the $10,000 award for his 2016 poetry collection “Buck Studies.”
Kearney is a poet, writer and performer who currently teaches at the California Institute of Arts. His work has appeared in anthologies and won several awards.
In “Buck Studies,” Kearney uses historical figures and characters such as Stagger Lee and Brer Rabbit to explore themes of grief, suffering, escape and racial injustices.
Kearney thanked the community and the university for the award and explained how Roethke influenced his own work. He then shared readings from his winning collection, “Buck Studies.” At the end of the event, Kearney was presented with the prize.
For the Theodore Roethke Memorial Poetry Prize, the United States Poet Laureate selects two or three judges to choose a winner. The award is given every three years for a collection of poems by an American poet published within that three-year period.
Although Roethke had received more poetry awards than any other living American poet by the time of his death, he felt that he was under-appreciated in his hometown. As a result, in 1968, community leaders created the Theodore Roethke Memorial Poetry Prize. The prize was established at $3,000 and was raised to $10,000 in 2011.
Carlos Ramet, the associate dean of the College of Arts and Behavioral Sciences, said that the prize is open to all poetry styles and genres.
“The prize is not supposed to be given for any particular genre, because Theodore Roethke was open to all genres and styles,” Ramet said. “The main rule of thumb is to recognize that Theodore Roethke was alive to multiple art forms, multiple genres and multiple styles.”
SVSU Writing Center Director Helen Raica-Klotz ran this year’s festival.
“(The award ceremony) is the highlight of our festival that celebrates poetry and arts in our region,” said Raica-Klotz.
Several of Kearney’s poems in his collection make use of unusual typography and layouts.
“He talks about sort of being a cartographer of language, sort of mapping language,” Raica-Klotz said. “And one of the things he’s playing with right now is seeing how far he can go with language. He really challenges the reader but allows the reader to enter the poem from multiple points. You can help create meaning, which I think is giving the reader a lot of autonomy, but also a lot of power.”
The celebration of the 50th anniversary of the Theodore Roethke Memorial Poetry Prize was supported by a grant from the Morley Foundation, while the Michigan Humanities Council funded the festival as a whole.
“Lots of people came together to really make this a powerful six-day festival,” Raica-Klotz said.
During his visit in Saginaw, Kearney also performed at various venues in the community, including Counter Culture, the Alice and Jack Wirt Library and H.H. Dow High School in Midland.
Raica-Klotz said she hopes Kearney’s performance helped the public see the world a little differently.
“Because it was a poetry performance, I think it’s about celebrating the power of language, and the power of language to inform us, to excite us, to challenge us, to engage us,” Raica-Klotz said. “It was all about the language. And that to me had some great power.”
Dan Gates, an SVSU English professor, said he came to the event because he wanted to hear a great poet.
“I thought it was terrifically exciting and innovative,” Gates said.
Bria Rivet, a creative writing and literature senior, was one of this year’s winners of the SVSU Theodore Roethke Scholarship for Creative Writing. She helped create a book on the history of the prize and the past 14 winners.
“It was like the culmination, the celebration of seeing that book come to life,” Rivet said. “It was very cool to be able to see that actually put into action.”