Fresno State’s Master of Fine Arts program in creative writing presented its first Creative Writing Prize Showcase on Saturday, Sept. 25 to recognize this year’s award-winning writers.
The showcase featured the works of 10 Fresno State students who explored themes of identity, loss and belonging through poetry, fiction and nonfiction.
“We wanted to give students a platform to share and celebrate their powerful and amazing work,” said Brynn Saito, Fresno State English professor and host of the event. “We also wanted to give audience members, our community, their friends and family, an opportunity to hear these very moving, important and intimate stories.”
Hermelinda “Ceci” Hernandez Monjaras gained the attention of judges and guests with her works about the plight of being a Latin immigrant in the United States.
Her poem “Roma / City Limit / Pop 9765” won the undergraduate Mireyda Barraza Martinez Prize for Social Justice Writing.
The aforementioned prize is awarded annually to students who use their talent to be advocates for equality. The prize is named after Mireyda “Mia” Barraza Martinez, the late Fresno State alumna, teacher, poet and activist.
Hernandez Monjaras was also recognized for her personal story that left listeners teary-eyed.
“Mujeres de las Nubes,” which won the undergraduate Fresno Nonfiction Prize, follows Ceci and her abuela from Oaxaca to the U.S. and explores the heartache of deportation.
Amber L. Carpenter was awarded the graduate level prize for her essay “The Cartography of Shame and Womanhood.” In this essay she explores the parallels that both bond and divide mothers and daughters.
Caleigh Camara also wrote about family and emotion in her story “Ugly-Shaped Tomatoes.” This undergraduate Fresno Fiction Prize winner explores the quirks of grieving, and leaves the reader grappling with the diverse and dynamic emotions of sentimentality.
“When I see those lumpy tomatoes on my coffee table… I feel her comforting presence, like she’s there beside me, reliving the summer days of my youth,” Camara wrote.
Camara also received the Larry Levis Poetry Prize for her poem “A Story from My Father, Age 16, as Told While Sitting in the Hot Tub Drinking Coffee.”
Steven Kleinman, the winner of the 2019 Philip Levine Prize for Poetry, judged the award. Levine was a U.S. Poet Laureate and Pulitzer Prize recipient who taught English at Fresno State. Award-winning poets Larry Levis and Ernesto Trejo were among his students.
Like Levis, Trejo also had a prize dedicated to his name this year. Aidan Castro won for his poem, “I anesthetic back from ten.” Castro also received the graduate Mireyda Barraza Martinez Prize for Social Justice Writing for the poem “The Revision of Section 1557.” This piece explores the dehumanization that is transphobia.
Following in the footsteps of Levine, Levis and Trejo, Soul Vang was also a Fresno State student and influential poet. His annual prize is dedicated to poets that reflect on the Hmong or Asian American cultural experience.
Gaoyong Yang-Vang received this year’s prize for her poem “My Will” which explores how she translates and makes sense of her Hmong ancestral traditions.
“Do not sacrifice an animal / to give me a spirit guide… Let me hear sounds of poetry,” Yang-Vang wrote.
Yang-Vang said she began to contemplate her own spiritual identity after a family friend and poet passed away.
“[Pos Moua] didn’t do the typical Hmong funeral. He asked to be cremated and to have his ashes spread across like waterfalls,” she said. “[Like him], I’ll establish my own path.”
Mialise Carney also touched upon themes of forging one’s own path in her story, “The Hydrangea Fairy.” The fairy in this graduate Fresno Fiction Prize winner’s tale personifies the extensional dread that can come when confronting the monotonous day-in-and-day-out routine of working in corporate America.
“I came up with this piece when I was working in customer service,” Carney said. “I had this sort of conflict between value and labor. So I started thinking about the value of work and whether we don’t work, what are we really worth?”
Saito has taught many of these student writers in her classes. However, she says she is often herself the student, learning from her pupils.
“As I get older, I feel like I think too much and self-censor a little more, but when I was younger and writing in my twenties, like my students, there was just this kind of rush of feeling and memory and insight,” she said. “I think my students have really taught me to stay true to that part of myself that is open to that kind of vulnerability and bravery in writing.”
Tony Vang was runner up for the Larry Levis Poetry Prize. Michelle Ferrer Alvarez, Sadie Gleason and James Thomas Morrison received honorable mentions. A recording of the event will be made available within a few weeks on the Fresno State MFA YouTube account.