WMU doctoral student’s poetry book published, wins big award

Release #1516-042; Sept. 3, 2015–Contact: Mark Schwerin, (269) 387-8413

Iliana Rocha

Iliana Rocha

KALAMAZOO, Mich.–A book of poems by a Western Michigan University doctoral student in English has just been published by the University of Pittsburgh Press after winning the 2014 Donald Hall Prize for Poetry.

The award, sponsored by the Association of Writers and Writing Programs and named after American poet, writer, editor and critic Donald Hall, came as a big surprise to author and student Iliana Rocha, who is now entering her fourth year of studies at WMU.

“I was really surprised because, up until that point, I had been submitting to book contests, and I hadn’t been a finalist for anything,” Rocha says. “So it was like, ‘OK, we’ll see how this process goes.’ And then, kind of out of the blue, I was getting ready to go work at the Writing Center on campus and I get a call from AWP and they said, ‘You won!’ I didn’t have a clue, because I didn’t know I was a finalist or that I was on any kind of short list.”

Rocha’s book is titled “Karankawa.” Raised in Victoria, Texas, Rocha was inspired by the Karankawa Indians, who lived along the Texas coast of the Gulf of Mexico. Her aunt lived in the region of Texas generally inhabited by the Karankawa Indians, and her passing was the impetus for the collection.

Her book examines some of the ways people construct or reconstruct their individual histories.

“When I was doing research about them, the discussion surrounding the Karankawa centered around how they were subjected to many false myths–and then I knew I wanted to apply that to the mythos of my family by rewriting significant births (including my own) and deaths,” Rocha says. “Ultimately, my collection is an elegy and love letter to Texas, and I use the Karankawa as a framework to interrogate grand narratives about the self, family and place.”

Winning the award comes with a $5,500 prize in addition to publication. It was a huge accomplishment, especially for a student, says her faculty advisor, Dr. William Olsen, WMU professor of English.

“Iliana is an outstanding poet,” Olsen says. “There is simply no greater honor for an emerging writer than to have won the AWP Prize. The Association of Writers and Writing Programs is the nation’s foremost and largest organization of writers in the nation, and the Poetry Prize guarantees Iliana’s book immediate readership.”

Before coming to WMU, Rocha earned a bachelor’s degree from the University of Houston and a master’s degree in creative writing from Arizona State University in Tempe, where she was poetry editor for Hayden’s Ferry Review. Her work was chosen for the “Best New Poets 2014” anthology and has appeared in Blackbird, Yalobusha Review, Puerto del Sol and Third Coast.

Rocha has been working on her poetry collection for 10 years. She credits working with Olsen and his colleague and fellow poet Dr. Nancy Eimers, professor of English, with honing her book into an award-winner.

“Honestly, I feel my poetry collection was picked up because of the feedback I got back from Bill and Nancy,” Rocha says. “I had shown them an earlier version of the book, and they would meet with me one on one. Just having the time in a Ph.D. program to write is really special.”

Native American poet Joy Harjo selected Rocha for the Hall prize. She says the book “embodies a fresh kind of creation story emerging from the Americas. We are struck by an unabashed presence of a fearless singer.”

Winning the prize is certainly impressive for a student, Eimers says.

“This is a very big deal,” Eimers says. “The contest is open to both published and unpublished poets, so that means that Iliana was in competition not just with young writers, but with established poets. While we have had a number of students with impressive accomplishments, this is the first time one of our current students has won this award.”

Rocha plans to graduate in April 2016 and will apply for various post-doctoral fellowships, as well as travel abroad fellowships. She’ll also be applying for teaching positions.

“Ideally, it would be a job where I could teach poetry full time,” she says. “But those jobs are few and far between. I’m still going to apply and hope for the best.”

— Western Michigan University