Iliana Rocha has had a remarkable year. Her work was chosen for the Best New Poets 2014 anthology. While that was big, the drum then rolled on: her first poetry collection, Karankawa, won the Donald Hall Prize in Poetry, one of the most prestigious prizes a poet can receive. That was really big. Karankawa was published by University of Pittsburgh Press and Rocha is now lining up readings to introduce her work to the public.
“Beginning writers really depend on these book prizes,” Rocha says. “I had had this collection out to contests for about a year. I didn’t even know that I was a finalist. I got a phone call as I was getting ready for work and they asked me, 'Are you sitting down?'"
Rocha is currently a Ph.D candidate in English with a creative writing emphasis at Western Michigan University. She earned her MFA in creative writing from Arizona State University, where she was poetry editor for Hayden’s Ferry Review.
Rocha chose the title for the collection, Karankawa, to honor a little-known tribe of Native Americans in her native Texas. “The impetus for the collection was the passing of my aunt,” she says. “She lived in that area of south Texas. So I started to do a little research and found that this tribe was subjected to a lot of false myths. People had filled in the gaps in their history, so I started to think about significant events in my own family: births, deaths. I was a little suspicious of the grand narratives I’d been handed down.”
Karankawa thus became an exploration of personal histories, myths, and creation stories, and the gaps that come between them. Many of the poems explore the rites of passage in being born, coming out, transformations, and dying, as well as the experience of being Mexican-American.
Rocha says poetry helped her deal with being “the other,” feeling that she was a bit on the outside growing up as a Mexican-American. “Poetry to me is kind of a genre of the other,” she says. “So I naturally gravitated to it.”
She found her way to Western Michigan University while researching writing programs. Rocha says she was impressed by the programs she saw at Western, and she credits WMU English professors William Olsen and Nancy Eimers for her early success.
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