“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.”
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.”