In her junior year of high school, Michaela Jenkins ’19 was shopping at Target when her mother called to pass along a message from “a college in Kenya.” Apparently someone there wanted to speak with her.
Jenkins understood that her mom meant Kenyon, a school then mostly unfamiliar to her; she only knew of the College because she had submitted a poem to the Kenyon Review’s Patricia Grodd Poetry Prize for Young Writers, an annual writing contest that welcomes entries from high school sophomores and juniors.
Jenkins returned the Kenyon Review’s call from Target. “That’s when I found out I won,” she said.
Kenyon Review editors and student associates are busy reading this year’s batch of submissions for the poetry contest, one of the most prestigious awards in the country for young poets. Each year, the Grodd winner receives a full scholarship to the Kenyon Review’s Young Writers Workshop, which takes place in two separate sessions over the summer. Two runners-up receive partial scholarships, and all three winning poems are published in the Kenyon Review — a nationally renowned literary magazine with a 0.6-percent general acceptance rate.
For former Grodd winners like Jenkins, this experience often puts Kenyon on the map as a future destination. In the past four years, three Grodd winners have come to Kenyon — and all attended the same high school.
At the South Carolina Governor’s School for the Arts and Humanities, a two-year public arts boarding school in Greenville with a competitive admissions process, all students in the creative writing program receive three hours of writing instruction per day, Jenkins said. In addition, all are required to submit to the Grodd poetry contest.
Emily Nason ’16, another Governor’s School graduate and a runner-up for the Grodd prize in 2011, isn’t surprised students from her high school win so frequently. “It’s really good teaching,” she said. “They expected a lot. And also, Governor’s School students all worked really hard.”
Jenkins attributes the success of the school’s students to the nontraditional education she received there. “I don’t think South Carolina produces particularly good writers,” Jenkins said. “It’s just that not that many high school juniors get three hours of creative writing a day.”
Ian Burnette ’18, the Grodd winner in 2013, remembers almost missing the submission period and being urged by his creative writing teacher to enter a poem on the day of the deadline. “It was just a poem I had brought in to workshop that week,” he said, “about my father’s roots in rural Kentucky and my family who still lives there, in what is a very special and very troubled part of the state.”
Burnette now finds “Full Blood,” his winning poem, “cringe-worthy,” but he said winning was important validation during a trying time in his life, and “some proof that if I chose to focus on writing it might take me somewhere, at least to the next place I needed to go.”
Jenkins still thinks her poem, “indigo sister,” might be the best one she’s ever written, which sometimes makes her mad, she joked. It discusses her introduction to Pearl Cleage’s book Mad at Miles: A Blackwoman’s Guide to Truth. “I wrote it in 30 minutes, I think because it’s something I had been thinking about it for so long,” Jenkins said. “But sometimes I feel like I didn’t write it.”
Jenkins, Burnette and Nason all were accepted as Kenyon Review Associates Program during their first years on campus.
Through the program, they had the opportunity to evaluate submissions to the Grodd contest. “It was really fun,” Jenkins said. “It was funny thinking about people doing that to my poem.”
In fact, Nason said she discovered and upvoted Jenkins’s poem among the submissions that year. Nason takes the reading process very seriously; she is quick to assert that the contest changed her life, because it put her on track to take poetry seriously.
“I think it’s very affirming when you’re 16 to write a poem and have someone tell you it’s good,” Nason said.
After graduating last fall, she has spent the semester working for the Kenyon Review as an administrative assistant and is planning to pursue an M.F.A. in poetry.
“I love Grodd,” she said. “I just love it to pieces. It really does change lives.”