In storied company: Florence resident Marissa Perez wins Glascock Poetry Prize

  • Marissa Perez, a Holyoke Community College student who lives in Florence, is this year’s winner of the Glascock Poetry Prize. HOLYOKE COMMUNITY COLLEGE

Staff Writer
Friday, April 10, 2020

Sylvia Plath won it when she was a student at Smith College. James Merrill snagged one when he attended Amherst College. And among the runner-ups for the prize in past years were James Agee, Robert Lowell, and Katha Pollitt.

Now Florence resident Marissa Perez has joined the ranks of winners of the Glascock Poetry Prize, awarded as part of an intercollegiate poetry contest believed to be the oldest such competition in the U.S., dating back 97 years.

The annual contest, administered by Mount Holyoke College, honors the memory of Kathryn Irene Glascock, a promising young poet who graduated from Mount Holyoke in 1922 and died of pneumonia a year later.

Perez, who studies liberal arts and creative writing at Holyoke Community College, is also the first community college student to win — or even compete for — the Glascock Prize, according to MHC writing teacher Andrea Lawlor (who last week won a Whiting Award for their debut novel “Paul Takes the Form of a Mortal Girl”).

One of Perez’s teachers, English professor Carolyn Zaikowski, nominated her for the competition; she said she knew Perez was an exceptional writer from the first time she shared work in their creative writing course. 

“This is a huge deal,” Zaikowski said in a statement. “The contest is considered a career starter. I hope the academic writing community will get the clear message here — that community college students are amazing and talented and deserve to be taken seriously.”

Perez, who’s written poetry for years and also enjoys writing creative nonfiction, said in an email that she’d been surprised by her nomination. “I remember not knowing anything about it at first, and then becoming nervously excited about the whole ordeal. I've never been in a room with so many poets!”

Each year, six selected college students, from among the many nominated for the prize by their professors, submit some of their work to a three-judge panel of poets; past judges have included Robert Frost, Seamus Heaney, and Adrienne Rich, among others. This year’s judges were Kaveh Akbar (one of Perez’s favorite contemporary poets), Franny Choi, and Erica Hunt.

The judges offered particular praise for Perez’s poem “Pacific Coast Highway,” noting that “its pacing, emotion and its poetics of the winding line (mirror) the winding road of California Route 1 itself…. Perez’s sonic landscapes accrue meaning through accumulated connections.”

Because of the COVID-19 outbreak, the award ceremony did not take place as scheduled in late March. But Perez said she’s thrilled about winning and also “very humbled and honored. I don't actually know about the contents of the prize as the physical event was canceled.” 

She’ll finish her degree at HCC this year and then intends to transfer to one of the Five Colleges, hopefully this fall. And looking further down the road, she said she could envision herself teaching “but then again I can see myself as an archaeologist. However, whatever field I choose, writing will always be at my core, my second (or first) job.”

Steve Pfarrer can be reached at spfarrer@gazettenet.com.