IWU Professor’s poetry wins Brittingham Prize

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Emily Considine

Illinois Wesleyan University professor Joanne Diaz’s collection of poems has been named the winner of a prestigious poetry award. Diaz’s collection of poems, My Favorite Tyrants, was chosen out of 600 submissions by guest judge Naomi Shihab Nye.

The Brittingham Prize in Poetry is awarded annually to the best book-length manuscript of original poetry submitted in an open competition. The University of Wisconsin–Madison English Department administers the award. A nationally recognized poet chooses the winner.

My Favorite Tyrants has an interesting explanation behind it and differs from Diaz’s first collection of poems. “These tyrants emerge in familial relationships, in erotic relationships, the way we demand things of each other, and the way we try to control each other,” said Diaz. “I also try to examine how the speaker of the poems can be a kind of tyrant, too.” The Lessons, Diaz’s first collection of poems, was the recipient of the Gerald Cable Book Award in 2009.

Diaz’s love for poetry emerged from her first fiction-writing workshop. “Every time the professor, Morse Hamilton, would provide us with an in-class writing prompt, I’d write something that felt like a poem. So, for my second workshop he recommended that I enroll in a poetry class,” said Diaz.

After earning a doctorate in English literature from Northwestern University, Diaz joined the English faculty at Illinois Wesleyan in 2008. Her poetry has appeared in AGNI, The American Poetry Review and Prairie Schooner. She is also a past recipient of writing fellowships from the Illinois Arts Council and the National Endowment for the Arts.

Diaz, Assistant Professor of English, is known for her works of poetry but also for her passion for poetry in the classroom.

“In Professor Diaz’s class, she was always so enthusiastic about whatever we were studying. She truly wants her students to push themselves and dive into the text,” said junior Erica Kucharski.

After her fiction class, Diaz joined her first poetry class where she was instantly hooked. “My first poetry teacher was Marie Howe. She had wild hair, wore an engagement ring even though she wasn’t married and read poems is a husky voice that commanded everyone’s attention. She had a big effect on how I read poetry to this day,” Diaz said.

Diaz encourages her students’ works and gives them confidence. “It’s a rare thing to be excited to go to class, but with professor Diaz it didn’t even feel like class,” said Kucharski. “It felt like a relaxed, intellectual conversation that she fostered with her great intelligence, and I felt incredibly lucky to have the opportunity to participate.”

Diaz is writing a series of poems on electricity for her next collection, after writing about the histories of various diseases and their cures, political despots and tyranny and her Boston upbringing in her first two books. The name of the next series is called The Electric Dress. Professor Diaz has her own website of poems at joanne-diaz.com.