You could say a third of CUNY’s best writers attend BMCC—two of the six winners of the inaugural CUNY Undergraduate Poetry (CUP) Awards are BMCC students Shara Concepcion and Ricci Niles.
The CUP competition was born, appropriately enough, on a sunset walk across Brooklyn Bridge.
Members of the BMCC community had joined a Poet’s House event in which dozens of people cross the famous bridge—which has inspired poems by Hart Crane, Elizabeth Bishop and others—and listen to Walt Whitman’s "Crossing Brooklyn Ferry," on the other side.
Among the walkers that evening were BMCC poet and professor of English James Tolan, and life-long poetry fan, BMCC President Antonio Pérez. Naturally, the conversation turned to student writing, and student poets.
The resulting Pérez initiative, the first annual CUP award competition, was open to undergraduate writers, CUNY-wide.
“Poetry is one of those activities students do on their own,” says Tolan. “We have very few outlets affirming their work, so I think this is huge.”
CUP winner Shara Concepcion also just won a Kaplan Scholarship—up to $20,000 per year for tuition in a four-year college, once she graduates from BMCC.
She plans someday, to be a clinical psychologist. “I took time off from BMCC to be an Americorps member, and did disaster relief in Texas, after Hurricane Ike in 2009,” she says. “I realized then, how devastating disasters can be, to people’s mental health.”
What does this have to with poetry? “That’s where poetry comes from,” she says, “experience, struggle and triumph.”
Her CUP-winning poem, “Contemporary Physics,” she says, “is a mix of psychology and poetry.” Concepcion grew up in the Bronx and wrote her first poem at age seven; recent inspiration comes from BMCC English professor Robert Lapides.
“He tells us to go into the deep water with our writing,” she says. “For me, that meant putting my poems forward for scrutiny, stepping outside my comfort zone.”
Myth of the starving artist
“I was literally folding a pile of clothing and the words came pouring from me,” says Ricci Niles of her award-winning poem, “Up South.”
Niles grew up in Manhattan, but feels influenced by the literature and history of the American South.
“On my mother’s side,” she says, “my roots hail from Texas. Any great writer, they’re also prodigious readers. The history and words of what you read stay with you, until they come out as your own.”
Her family, she says, has always supported her writing. “Our mom made being a professional artist seem like a viable thing,” Niles says. “That myth of the starving artist—she made it seem like a myth.”
A winner of the BMCC Writing and Literature Faculty Awards last year, Niles is considering different paths, once she graduates from BMCC.
“I would like to try my hand at journalism,” she says. “It’s not entirely creative, but as you progress in your career, you can seek out the stories you want to do.”
She’s also interested in law; not practicing, necessarily, but working as a community advocate.
Lyrical, dramatic and traditional winners
This inaugural CUP competition is judged “blind”—entries remain anonymous, throughout the reading process—and drew over 200 submissions from across the CUNY colleges and universities.
Sponsored by the President’s Office at BMCC, the annual awards will continue to recognize student poetry in the categories of lyric poetry, dramatic monologues, and closed/traditional forms.
This year’s preliminary judges were Elizabeth Berlinger, Catherine Cammilleri, Aimee Record and Marguerite Rivas, all of whom are poets and BMCC faculty.
The final judge was poet Estha Weiner, author of The Mistress Manuscripts, Transfiguration Begins at Home and (forthcoming from Salmon Press), In the Weather of the World.
“My deepest hope for competitions is that, at their best, they provide external affirmation, which we all need,” says Weiner. “Though internal affirmation is the most vital, we all need external, also.”¿
An award ceremony, held in BMCC’s Hudson Room honored all six winning student poets—Ricci Niles (BMCC), Mary Williams and Rachel Cartee (both from Hunter College), for lyric poetry; Shara Concepcion (BMCC), for closed/traditional form poetry, and Becky McFalls and Jordan Elizabeth Franklin (both from Brooklyn College), for dramatic monologues.
Click here to read their award-winning work.