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WMU Instructor, PhD Student Wins National Poetry Prize

Donald Hall Poetry Prize Winner Iliana Rocha reading her poetry at the WMUK studio
Rebecca Thiele, WMUK

Western Michigan University PhD student and creative writing instructor IlianaRocha has won the Association for Writers and Writing Programs’ Donald Hall Prize for Poetry. Rocha says in the poetry world, it’s a pretty big deal.

“I would say it’s not the American Idol, but maybe the X-Factor of poetry prizes,” she says.

Rocha will receive a cash prize and have her manuscript Karankawa published by the University of Pittsburgh Press. There are several themes floating around in Karankawa. The title itself refers to a Native American tribe who used to live in the part of Texas Rocha is from. Theirs is a mystery that can never be solved.

“A lot of their history has been lost," Rocha says. "So I guess the natural impulse is to fill the gaps, right? Cause we’re afraid of the mystery behind those omissions.”

But the majority of the book focuses on how grief and desire are linked. Rocha says she made this connection after her aunt passed away from colon cancer.

“And it was really interesting to me because I was living in Arizona at the time and my family there, they’re all in Texas. So I was kind of in a unique position to see the way that each of the family members constructed and acted, performed or internalized their grief. So that was kind of the impetuse for the book.”

In her poem “La Estrella,” Rocha describes the way her grandmother mourned her aunt. For her, it was more of a performance.

“She wore all black. She didn’t leave the house. She didn’t answer the phone. She didn’t have any company for about a year," says Rocha. "So the way that she grieved was very much not just about her own personal experience but she also wanted the family as a community to see her performing her grief. And in a way that makes it more authentic for her.”

But the book isn’t all about grief, it’s also about desire. Rocha says desire is in some ways very much like grief.

“Because both of those emotions rest on the fact that those are things that you can no longer possess or you can’t have," she says. "So there’s a lot of grief in the book, there’s also a lot of eroticism that’s positioned…that I wanted to position close to the grief. There’s a lot of gender issues, sexuality.”

Rocha says everyone handles grief and desire differently. The important thing is to accept everyone’s process. Rocha says her way of coping is through humor. In her poem “Hot Mess,” Rocha makes light of her best friend’s double mastectomy after they found cancer in her breasts last year. Here’s an excerpt:

How did you say goodbye to them? Did you light a candle at their altar? Was it more like flowers or a note of condolence? I can’t imagine you—Miss Thang—getting the news or being rolled into the O.R. All the talk of deformities and motherhood and bodies turning against us. And no man, no man here. Isn’t it sad?

Donald Hall Poetry Prize Winner IlianaRocha is a PhD student at WMU and is the assistant director at Western’s writing center. Her book Karankawa will be released next fall. 

Iliana Rocha reads her poem "Self Portrait with Headphones." The audio has been slightly edited for content.

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