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“Winning this contest was a bit of a fluke,” Hillsdale graduate Serena Howe ’12 said after winning the 2016 Princemere Poetry Contest. “I don’t apply to con­tests often, par­tic­u­larly since I haven’t written much lately. I was shocked when I won the prize.”

Alumnae Serena Howe won the 2016 Princemere Prize for a poem. | Courtesy

The English major won $500 for her poem, “After a Certain Age Everyone Wears the Face They Deserve.” The Princemere Poetry Journal is a lit­erary mag­azine of Gordon College, located in Wenham, Mass­a­chu­setts, and the poem will be pub­lished on its website. 

Pro­fessor of English John Somerville said he is in no way sur­prised that she won the award: “Serena is extremely gifted, both as a student and a poet. And she’s a diligent worker. This is the result of much hard work.”

Junior English and French major Mark Naida said he believes the final line of Howe’s poem accom­plishes a dif­ficult task.

“This poem expresses the beauty of cor­po­re­ality and the beauty inherent in the trans­mission of our­selves,” Naida said. “After thinking of her con­ception, growth in the womb, and the inter­ference inherent in that rela­tionship, the speaker sees her mother in the mirror, or at least an inti­mation of her mother’s face. The poem comes full circle in a short amount of space. A true virtue of the poem’s tech­nique is the use of strong spe­cific verbs, which provide clarity to many of the images.”

Naida argues that though the poem is short, it demon­strates a lyrical ele­gance that makes it deserving of the Princemere Poetry Prize.

Pro­fessor of English Justin Jackson said a poet always offers some­thing of herself in her work, and he believes Howe has a lot to offer the reader.

“I remember Serena very well and fondly,” Jackson said. “She and I still keep in contact. Serena had a great sense of humor, was intel­ligent, and supremely humane. She was the ideal student: smart, curious, diligent, but didn’t take herself too seri­ously. She’s one of those stu­dents whom you miss imme­di­ately upon grad­u­ation.”

Jackson said he is delighted for his former student and he hopes she con­tinues to write and publish poetry.  

“I love this won­derful line: ‘I hol­lowed her, / And heal her, and she still bears me / Every­where.’ And there’s that nice con­cluding rhyme: ‘interfere’ and ‘mirror,’” Somerville said.  

Jackson said Howe’s poem demon­strates a won­derful mixture of the physical and the spir­itual, sci­en­tific med­i­ta­tions com­bined with a sense of inef­fable givenness.

“It most cer­tainly doesn’t sur­prise me to see Serena med­itate on inter-sub­jec­tivity — that one is never really one’s own self, but is always simul­ta­ne­ously being gifted and offering oneself as a gift, a sort of ongoing rec­i­p­rocal gesture of both affection and raw exis­tence. It’s a treat to be able to read Serena’s work again,” Jackson said.

As a freshman, Howe began exper­i­menting with her own poetry. These works she calls “self-indulgent crap.” Nonetheless, Howe sub­mitted her works to the campus lit­erary pub­li­cation, The Tower Light. Howe claims that the feedback she received helped shape her as a writer.

“A kind senior on the board had the grace to ask me if I wanted some tutoring, and she was so gentle with my garbage,” Howe said. “She taught me that my writing wasn’t very good, but that that was okay, and that I had some nice turns of phrase and could keep learning. I’m thankful to her for that.”

Howe con­tinued on to spend four semesters on The Tower Light edi­torial board and served as editor-in-chief one semester.

“Those meetings were some of the best fun I had in college,” Howe said.   

She also worked at the Writing Center and was student director of Aca­demic Ser­vices for two years, which is how she realized that she wanted to become a teacher.

Howe said one of the things she misses most about Hillsdale is the Vis­iting Writers Program, orga­nized by Somerville. Many of the vis­iting writers from this program inspired Howe to be the writer she is today, she said.  

“I still think a lot about Wilmer Mills, who visited Hillsdale while I was there and died soon after,” Howe said. “He was a beau­tiful man and his humility and clarity chal­lenged me to be serious about words.”

After Howe grad­uated, she and some of her friends created a private poetry blog where they kept up the com­munity of crit­icism.  When she started attending the Uni­versity of Dallas, she said that she found a group of writers there who pro­vided many oppor­tu­nities for public reading and pub­li­cation.  Howe said over the past two years she has hardly written at all, though she strives to be involved in the com­munity still.

Howe now teaches algebra, history, Latin, and lit­er­ature at The Saint Timothy School in Dallas, Texas. This is her fourth year at the small parochial middle and high school.  

To all budding poets and aspiring writers, Howe dis­cussed some things she has learned along the journey to being a writer.

“I guess my advice to those who want to write is to be humble and to not be pre­cious about your work,” Howe said.

She said it is important for stu­dents to let others cri­tique their work, and tell them their poems are not good at all, but to remain deter­mined. She urges writers to asso­ciate them­selves with people who write as long as they want to improve and learn. She warned against seeking out people who will only give pos­itive feedback.

And read the works of others, she advised.

“I always expe­rience writing a poem as being given a gift, some­thing I didn’t earn even if I had to put in the hours,” Howe said. “I think all art is like that. The effort may be a nec­essary cause, but it cer­tainly isn’t the suf­fi­cient cause.”