The Denise Gess Awards is an undergraduate and graduate student competition by the Rowan Writing Arts Department in the Ric Edelman College of Communication and Creative Arts. It happens annually around spring semester and is named in the honor of the late Writing Arts Associate Professor Denise Gess. There are three categories, The Rowan University Award for Poetry, The Edward J. Czwartacki Award for Short Fiction, and The Pat B. Tweedie Award for Creative Nonfiction. The winners are awarded in each category with cash: $200 for first place, $100 for second, and $50 for third.
This year, I was fortunate enough to attend the ceremony of the Denise Gess Awards, at the Rowan Art Gallery and listened to the stories and poems of the winners. There, the judges presented the winners and talked about their work. The winners then read their pieces out load to the audience.
After the ceremony, I reached out to the winners and judges and asked them question regarding the award. I was very curious to know the inspiration behind the winner's submission and the process of the judges picking the winners. And I've got the answers so without further ado, here is our Q&A -
The Faculty and Judges
Heather Lanier -
(Chair of the Creative Writing Committee, Creative Writing Coordinator, Assistant Professor of Writing Arts Department)
Professor Lanier and her Creative Writing committee run the contest, plan, and execute the awards ceremony. When asked about the process of the award, she says, "Students submit via a Google form. Our administrative assistant anonymizes the entries and sends them to the judges. There are two judges per category. They each independently decide on the best pieces, and then convene to discuss the winners and honorable mentions". When asked about her thoughts on the award, she says, "It's a vital opportunity for us to celebrate the amazing creative writing here at Rowan. For the winners, it also serves as major validation for their efforts, something burgeoning writers really appreciate".
Katie Budris -
(Senior Lecturer of Writing Arts Department, Program Coordinator of M.A. in Writing, Editor in Chief of Glassworks)
Professor Budris was the judge for Poetry category with Professor Ron Block. They had entries of 46 students with 3 poems submitted per entry. When asked about what she look for in that genre, she said, "Personally, I'm looking for poems that demonstrate intentionality and a strong sense of voice. In other words, I hope to see that the student writer is crafting poems that aren't just an outpouring of emotion or a carbon copy of a poetic form everyone is familiar with. That means really conveying something meaningful to the reader through careful word choice, strong imagery and figurative language, and a form with line breaks that help support the overall themes of the poem. Since students are asked to submit three poems for this award, we're also looking to see if the poems work together in some way and are judging them as a group, so all three need to be strong for a submission to win an award".
She said it was heartwarming for many students submitting for poetry, it was often seen as a less popular genre which intimidated students but, for the judges, it was a difficult decision to pick winners because of strong entries. "I love being able to celebrate the winners for their hard work and their bravery in sharing their words with others. The awards ceremony and reading has become a favorite event of mine each year", she said.
Catherine Romano -
(Lecturer of Writing Arts Department)
Professor Romano was the judge for Fiction category with Professor Cherita Harrell. They had 40 entries. When asked about what she look for in that genre, she said, "I look for stories that move me; take risks; have at least one interesting/dynamic character; have an unexpected or otherwise intriguing point of view; haven't already been hashed and rehashed to death; and use language in creative/original ways". She said they read and choose their favorites separately and then come together to compare notes, "We usually agree easily on what should be in the top 3 or 5 (including honorable mentions) and then we just have to come up with the exact order together".
The Award is one of her favorite events at Rowan. "A common stereotype about creating writing is that it doesn't pay much, so it's great that Rowan students have an opportunity every year to win monetary prizes for their creative writing, especially since it's always evident that the winners have put a lot of effort and time into their pieces. It's a wonderful way to build young writers' confidence in themselves, foster a community of writers on campus, and showcase Rowan students' amazing talent. I'm so thankful to the Gess family for providing this opportunity and for joining us at the awards ceremony to remember and honor Denise", she said.
Doreen Fera -
(Lecturer of Writing Arts Department)
Professor Fera was the judge for Creative Nonfiction category with Professor Lisa Jahn-Clough. They had 28 entries, "The talent this year was extraordinary which made the judging process challenging. With so many wonderful writers sharing so many extraordinary personal stories, we took our time carefully reading each entry", she said.
When asked what she look in that genre, Fera says, "Strong creative nonfiction uses the craft of storytelling in ways that engage a reader and bring a true story to life. This means that the writer shares memories or experiences not just accurately but creatively, using creative writing techniques borrowed from fiction, poetry, and any creative writing combinations you can think of to make the work sing. This could be combining any number of creative choices or just a few, including various points of view, braiding or weaving unexpected elements together, shaking up structure, adding vivid details, crafting powerful scenes, dialogue, insights, embedding research -- anything that makes sense for the story, really. Clarity, pace, voice, and tone all are important, as well". Professor Fera and Professor Jahn-Clough note when the writers take risk either that is using language beautifully or moved the readers with new ideas or universal truths. "The best of the entries leave the reader changed in some way". she says.
Grace McGory -
(Sophomore, double major in Theatre with concentration in Acting and Writing Arts with concentration in Creative Writing)
Grace won 1st place for Poetry with her submission called "Love letters to the Artist". Her submission was a collection of ekphrastic poetry, that is poems inspired by or based off of other art pieces. She says, "I like to write poetry about complex feelings that I struggle to put into words in a logical way. Poetry allows me to express my thoughts and feelings through imagery, and that's what I wanted to do with the art I used as inspiration". The pieces she chose were the sculpture Untitled (Portrait of Ross in L.A) by Félix González-Torres, the slam poem - 14 Lines from Love Letters or Suicide Notes by Doc Luben, and the exhibit Can't Help Myself by Sun Yuan & Peng Yu. She added, "I titled the collection "Love Letters to the Artist" because that's exactly what these poems are: my love letters to these talented people whose work I deeply admire, and which provokes deep, powerful feelings within me. I felt this was the best tribute I could give to these pieces that touched me so profoundly".
Rebecca Green -
(MA in Writing Arts, Adjunct Instructor in Writing Arts, Class of 2023)
Rebecca won 2nd place for Poetry with her submission called, "Self-Portrait in Fragments". When asked about her inspiration behind her poetry, she says, "I enjoy writing about identity in my poems. I use snapshots of past experiences to frame each poem. Each poem is usually a blend of narrative and lyric poetry". Rebecca's inspiration can come from many different things, even by poetry written by other people.
Tara Grier -
(MA in Writing Arts, Class of 2023)
Tara won 1st place for Edward Czwartacki Prize for Fiction with her submission called "Mt. Ursula". Her inspiration for her short story came from a documentary called, "Fire of Love" which Tara and her roommate watched. She says the documentary follows two scientists who love each other and volcanoes so much that they often explored them together despite the danger. She said, "It made me wonder about a person's capacity for love even in the face of life-threatening danger".
Stephanie Ciecierski -
(MA in Writing Arts, Graduate Instructor of Composition, Class of 2023)
Stephanie won 2nd place for Edward Czwartacki Prize for Fiction with her submission called "Barry", which is a flash fiction. Stephanie says, "I work as a bartender at Braddock's Tavern in Medford. I grew up in Medford, a conservative town, and am rather liberal. I often have conversations with conservative or Republican-minded customers that more or less go one of two ways: really well or really terrible. "Barry" is a depiction of a person that goes really well. It's magical realism in which the bartender/narrator gives him a concoction in a wine glass that allows him to live a second life".
Katelyn Sullivan -
(MA in Writing Arts, Editing & Publishing for Writing Certificate of Graduate Study, International Student Adviser, Class of 2025)
Katelyn won 3rd place in Edward Czwartacki Prize for Fiction with her submission called "In Space".
She actually wrote her short story as an assignment for the Horror unit of Megan Atwood’s Genre Fiction class. She says, "I had never written a horror story prior to this, so before starting, I reflected on my own favorite horror stories. I wanted to examine the foundations that make them succeed above and beyond the stereotypical jump scare fare. Under the spooky fantasy or science fiction elements, I believe the best horror tells a story of real-world trauma in a compelling and honest way that respects and connects with the audience". She added that The Babadook and Get Out films (having written script) do a fantastic job at it as well as the best of Stephen King’s novels. She aspires to achieve something similar with her story. "In my own life, the worst trauma, the thing that has kept me up at night, the thing that never truly leaves my subconscious, the fear that overshadows all other fears, is watching a loved one struggle with addiction and wondering if they will always be on the losing side", she says. "Unfortunately, I know I am far from alone in this experience. My story is based in part on these personal experiences and the experiences of others I know going through similar situations, though the characters themselves and the fantastical horror elements are what make it fiction". Katelyn is hopeful that her work can connect with other people who have loved ones battling addiction and make them feel less alone in their feelings.
Jennifer Lendvai-Lintner -
(MA in Writing Arts, First-Year Writing Instructor, B.A. in English with concentration in Journalism and minor in Women's Studies from University of Delaware)
Jennifer won 1st place in Pat B. Tweedie Prize for Creative Nonfiction with her submission called "A Mother’s Prayer". It's a fragmented essay. Jennifer said, "One of the questions at the heart of the essay is "What happens if I revise what I know about the Virgin Mary based on what I know as a mother?". In her essay, she revisits Catholic stories, art, and teachings about Mary and how those impressions impacted her view of her faith and especially herself as a mother. She said, "Something interesting happened when I began to look at Mary, not as some distant, perfect icon, but through the lens of what I had come to know and experience as a mom". She added that the essay was written almost over 3 years. The courses in the M.A. program allowed her to explore the idea and work with the material in many different creative ways, which helped this essay come together. "I didn't set out to write this as a fragmented essay or even plan to incorporate all of the elements that ended up in the final piece, but the projects I completed in my courses allowed me to open up connections that I hadn't seen originally", she says.
Jennifer said that some of the assignments in Professor Lisa Jahn-Clough's courses helped her to engage with the subject matter in creative modes other than writing. In one assignment, she put together a hybrid project combining both writing and visuals. "When she taught Core I, one of her assignments was to do something creative that was not writing. I decided to paint a scene I had been trying to write. I am NOT an artist! But there was something about engaging with the material in these ways that led me to new discoveries on the page. A gem Prof. Lisa Jahn-Clough passed along to me was this one from comics artist Scott McCloud, who we studied in her class: "Learn from everyone. Follow no one. Watch for patterns. Work like hell." I was conferencing with her about early material that would eventually find its way into this essay!", Jennifer says. More of writerly advice came to Jennifer from Professor Heather Lanier. As she was worked on the order of the fragments, Professor Heather Lanier encouraged her to grab scissors and cut out a paper copy of the essay, so Jennifer could play around with the fragments like puzzle pieces to find the best sequence. "The essay was spread out over my carpet for a good few days, but it worked!", Jennifer says.
Katherine Bond -
(M.A. in Writing Arts, Graduate Instructor (M.A. in Writing Teaching Experience Program), First-Year Writing Instructor, Class of 2024)
Katherine won 2nd place in Pat B. Tweedie Prize for Creative Nonfiction with her submission called "Unsettled". When asked about her submission, she said, "For the Denise Gess Awards, I submitted a series of essays from a larger project I'm working on--a memoir-in-essays project that fuses prose, poetry, and history and applies a decolonial lens to my identity construction, relationships, and family history, as well as my experiences as a woman and a mother". Her essay explores the tensions that characterize her self-identity and identity construction as a multiracial woman, while likewise challenging the construct of whiteness.
Megan Kiger -
(M.A. in Writing Arts, Class of 2023)
Megan won 3rd place in Pat B. Tweedie Prize for Creative Nonfiction with her submission called "You Hide, Play Dead, Or You Run". The inspiration behind her essay was learning that one of her closest friends from childhood was 27 weeks pregnant with a daughter that the doctors believed would not survive outside the womb. "Whenever I talked to my friend she’d always say, “I’m just happy to still be with her today.” I braided this into my essay alongside the fact that I am fortunate enough to have healthy children of my own, and yet, parents still must fear for their health and safety, just in a different light. School shootings have forced us to grapple with the idea that I might drop my daughter off to school one morning and never see her again", she says. But Megan is thankful that her friend offerd her a different perspective, "I no longer try to worry about the things I cannot control and think instead, “I’m just happy to still be with her today".
Thank you to those who participated in this Q&A and Congratulation to the Winners and Honorable Mentions. Thank you to the Faculty and Judges for your hard work and giving students a great opportunity and a place to show their colors in their writing.
Also, Congratulations to those who graduated!