Even before internationally acclaimed poet Nikki Giovanni joined the Virginia Tech faculty three decades ago, poetry has been an enduring strength of the university, surprising and delighting generations of Hokies.
This fall, Virginia Tech poets are continuing to shine, with a range of recent honors.
Earlier this month, Carmen Giménez Smith’s most recent poetry collection, Be Recorder, was named one of just five finalists for the 2019 National Book Award for poetry. Winners for the competition will be announced Nov. 20.
Giménez Smith’s other published poetry collections include Odalisque in Pieces, The City She Was, Cruel Futures, and Goodbye, Flicker, which won the Juniper Prize for Poetry in 2012. Milk and Filth was a finalist for the 2014 National Book Critics Circle award in poetry. Giménez Smith is also the author of a lyric memoir, Bring Down the Little Birds, which won an American Book Award, and coeditor of Angels of the Americlypse: New Latin@ Writing.
Earlier this year, Giménez Smith received a Guggenheim Fellowship for a work in progress, Nostalgia Has Such a Short Half-Life.
Hicok, who once owned an automotive die design business in his native Michigan before turning to poetry, is now a professor of English. His nomination was based on his 10th poetry collection, Hold.
His first book of poetry, The Legend of Light, received the Felix Pollak Prize in Poetry and was named a 1997 ALA Booklist Notable Book of the Year. His other poetry collections include Animal Soul, a finalist for the National Book Critics Circle Award; This Clumsy Living, winner of the 2008 Bobbitt Prize from the Library of Congress; and Sex & Love &.
Hicok’s poems have appeared in The Southern Review, The New Yorker, Poetry Magazine, The Paris Review, and The American Poetry Review, as well as in eight volumes of The Best American Poetry and six times in the Pushcart Prize anthology.
Meitner, an associate professor of English, directs the university’s MFA in creative writing program, which Poets and Writers consistently ranks among the top 30 programs nationally. She is the author of five books of poems, including Ideal Cities, which was a 2009 National Poetry series winner; Copia; Makeshift Instructions for Vigilant Girls; and Inventory at the All-Night Drugstore.
Meitner received the Library of Virginia Literary Award nomination for her most recent collection, Holy Moly Carry Me, which won the 2018 National Jewish Book Award in poetry and was a finalist for the National Book Critics Circle Award.
Meitner’s other honors include fellowships from the MacDowell Colony, the Wisconsin Institute for Creative Writing, the Virginia Center for the Creative Arts, the Hermitage Foundation, and Blue Mountain Center. She was also the 2015 US-UK Fulbright Distinguished Scholar in Creative Writing at the Seamus Heaney Centre for Poetry at Queen’s University Belfast.
Other celebrated bards at Virginia Tech include Lucinda Roy, a novelist, poet, and nonfiction writer who has authored six books, including, most recently, the poetry collection Fabric. Among her literary awards are the Eighth Mountain Poetry Prize, the Commonwealth of Virginia’s statewide Outstanding Faculty Award, and a Discover Great New Writers selection from Barnes and Noble. In 2000, she was awarded an honorary doctorate from the University of Richmond.
In her fiction and poetry, Roy draws upon her experience teaching on three different continents and explores the challenges and rewards of communicating across different cultures. She is currently working on a novel and a series of oil paintings depicting the Middle Passage, the forced transport of millions of Africans to the New World as part of the Atlantic slave trade.
The latest book from Ed Falco, an English professor who has taught at Virginia Tech since 1984, is a poetry collection, Wolf Moon Blood Moon. Recent novels include Toughs and The Family Corleone. The latter, developed from a screenplay by the late crime novelist Mario Puzo, spent several weeks on The New York Times Best Seller and Extended Best Seller lists.
His most recent short story collection is Burning Man; previous short story collections include Sabbath Night in the Church of the Piranha: New and Selected Stories, Acid, and Plato at Scratch Daniel’s and Other Stories. He is also the author of four novels: Saint John of the Five Boroughs, Wolf Point, A Dream with Demons, and Winter in Florida, as well as a collection of literary and experimental short fictions, In the Park of Culture, and a collection of hypertext short fictions, Sea Island.
Falco’s plays include The Center, Possum Dreams, and Sabbath Night in the Church of the Piranha. He also edits The New River, an online journal of new media writing.
Jeff Mann, an associate professor of English, has published his poetry, fiction, and essays broadly, including in Arts and Letters, Prairie Schooner, Shenandoah, Willow Springs, The Gay and Lesbian Review Worldwide, Crab Orchard Review, and Appalachian Heritage. He has published three award-winning poetry chapbooks, five full-length books of poetry, two collections of personal essays, three novellas, five novels, three volumes of short fiction, and a memoir. Most recently, he coedited LGBTQ Fiction and Poetry from Appalachia.
Among his many honors are Pauline Réage Novel Awards for both Fog: A Novel of Desire and Reprisal and Salvation: A Novel of the Civil War; a Rainbow Award for Purgatory: A Novel of the Civil War; and Lambda Literary Awards for Salvation and A History of Barbed Wire. In 2013, he was inducted into the Saints and Sinners Literary Festival Hall of Fame.
Other creative writing faculty members in the Department of English also occasionally delve into poetry, including Evan Lavender-Smith, an assistant professor; Aileen Murphy, a senior instructor; Matthew Vollmer, an associate professor; and Gyorgyi Voros, a senior instructor.
Both Lavender-Smith and Vollmer are primarily prose writers, for example, yet their books of hybrid lyric creative nonfiction straddle genres and use poetic elements.
Lavender-Smith’s From Old Notebooks — regarded as a memoir, a novel, a poem, and an essay — was named a NewPages Noteworthy Book, a Small Press Distribution Recommended Book, a finalist for the Fence Modern Poets Series, and a best book of the year by Biblioklept, Dzanc Books, 32 Poems, and others.
Vollmer’s most recent book, Permanent Exhibit, uses collage-style faux Facebook status updates to explore the line between public and private, ephemera and art.
One of Virginia Tech’s longest-standing poets is, of course, Nikki Giovanni, a University Distinguished Professor of English who has published more than two dozen volumes of poetry, essays, and edited anthologies, as well as 11 illustrated children’s books, including Rosa, an award-winning biography of Rosa Parks. Giovanni’s autobiography, Gemini, was a finalist for the 1973 National Book Award. In 2004, her album, The Nikki Giovanni Poetry Collection, was a Grammy finalist for the Best Spoken Word Album.
Giovanni has long used her literary gifts to raise awareness of social issues, particularly those of gender and race. She has received numerous awards, including the inaugural Rosa L. Parks Woman of Courage Award, the American Book Award, the Langston Hughes Award, the Virginia Governor’s Award for the Arts, the Emily Couric Leadership Award, and the Literary Lifetime Achievement Award from the Library of Virginia. She is also a seven-time recipient of the NAACP Image Award.
Giovanni has also worked to nurture new generations of Virginia Tech poets, not just through her classes, but through the Steger Poetry Prize.
For the past 14 years, the poetry competition and celebration is held every April, during National Poetry Month. Giovanni established the competition for Virginia Tech undergraduates and named it for its first benefactor, Charles Steger, the university’s president at the time.
In 2017, Steger helped turn the tables on the Giovanni when he and the organizers named the annual event the Nikki Giovanni Celebration of Poetry.
At least 10 finalists are named each year, with the first-place prize of $1,100 believed to be the largest monetary award of any university-sponsored poetry competition in the Western Hemisphere.
“When we think of poetry, we think of the soul of humankind,” Giovanni said during her annual toast at a recent poetry celebration. “Today, we have lifted that to the heavens.”
Photographed by Adam Fitzgerald/Krista Kahl (Carmen Giménez Smith); Kelsey Kradel (Bob Hicok); Toya Earley (Erika Meitner); John McCormick (Lucinda Roy and Matthew Vollmer); Jim Stroup (Ed Falco); Leslie King (Jeff Mann); and Joshua Bowen (Evan Lavender-Smith)