Carnegie Mellon University

Prized Poets

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And the Awards Go to...

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Winners of the ninth annual Martin Luther King Jr. Day Writing Awards at Carnegie Mellon honored the civil rights leader's vision and sacrifice with narratives they read in front of a packed auditorium.

Students from Carnegie Mellon and several Pittsburgh-area high schools submitted essays or poetry reflecting on the role that race has played in their lives. Awards were given in the categories of prose — fiction and nonfiction — and poetry.

"When we learn each other's stories, the barriers between us begin to break down," said Jim Daniels, who is director of the creative writing program at Carnegie Mellon and creator of the contest. This year's contest was coordinated by creative writing faculty members Terrance Hayes and Yona Harvey.

Carnegie Mellon students taking first prize for poetry were Zeb Girouard (MCS '09), Sally Mao (HSS '09) and Joella Still (HSS '09).

"I think the most vital purpose of writing — and what I regard as most important in my own — is to evoke empathy and the human experience, all that's vibrant, strange and squalid about it," said Mao.

A math major, Girouard says he writes to balance himself.

"Human beings aren't meant to be calculators, but I don't think they're meant to be fountains of emotion either," he said. "That's kind of why I like Carnegie Mellon; everyone does their own thing, but there is an aspect of balance in the cooperation between schools."

High school poetry and prose winners were reprinted in the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette. Winners also received cash prizes.

"Bringing high school students from across the city to campus to read their winning entries makes the event a very moving experience," said Daniels, who noted some of the high school winners have also ended up attending Carnegie Mellon.

The winning works are published annually in a book distributed at the event. Daniels' intention is for the archive of those books to keep the discussion going by making narratives accessible to an even larger audience. 

Related Links: MLK Writing Contest Archives  |  Read Post-Gazette Article