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August 29, 2022

Literary scholar, professor selected for 2023 Roethke Poetry Award

A literary scholar and professor with ties to Michigan has been selected as the winner of the 2023 Theodore Roethke Memorial Poetry Prize from Saginaw Valley State University.   

A trio of judges selected Patricia Jabbeh Wesley, a professor of English, creative writing and African literature at Penn State University-Altoona, for her collection “Praise Song for My Children: New and Selected Poems” (Autumn House Press 2020). She is invited to the SVSU campus in March to accept the award, which includes a $10,000 cash prize, during the triennial Theodore Roethke Poetry & Arts Festival.   

“Wesley’s powerful rhythms are derived both from and deftly combine her Grebo poetry tradition with the Wester​n poetry tradition,” said Pamela Uschuk, one of this year’s judges. “Always, there is a profound spirituality and humanity as well as a ferocity of being in this world as evinced by her fearless activism. Not only do her poems display an incredibly large range, but they are beautifully crafted and intellectually brilliant.”   

The other judges were T.R. Hummer and Octavio Quintanilla.

A literary scholar and professor, Wesley immigrated to the United States from Liberia, West Africa, during that country’s first civil war. Her experiences in Liberia helped shape her writing, which explores themes of motherhood, home and displacement, among others. She has authored several collections of poetry, and her work has been extensively reviewed and widely recognized.  

Wesley holds a Ph.D. from Western Michigan University, a master’s degree from Indiana University and a bachelor’s degree from the University of Liberia.     

When notified of the award, Wesley said, “It will be my honor to come home to a state that gave our family sanctuary as refugees of war during the civil war years in our original home country of Liberia, West Africa. Michigan is really my home in America; my poetry sings of Michigan still.”

Theodore Roethke (1908-1963) is widely regarded as one of the greatest American poets of the 20th century. Born and raised in Saginaw, Roethke graduated ​from Arthur Hill High School, then entered the University of Michigan in Ann Arbor. He earned ​a Bachelor of Arts (magna cum laude and Phi Beta Kappa) and a Master of Arts degree from U-M and pursued graduate studies at Harvard University.  

Roethke won the Pulitzer Prize for poetry in 1954 for his book “The Waking,” and was twice awarded the annual National Book Award for Poetry. Roethke taught English at several universities, including Michigan State University, Lafayette College (Pennsylvania), Pennsylvania State University, Bennington College (Vermont), and the University of Washington.        

The Theodore Roethke Memorial Poetry Prize has been offered since 1968 on a triennial basis. The Prize is given for a book published in the previous three years that has made an important contribution to American poetry. The recipient must be a living American poet​, and by tradition judges are selected by the Poet Laureate Consultant in Poetry to the United States. The prize is awarded without regard to number of publications, age, gender, place of residence, style or type of poetry, or choice of subject matter; this award is not for total achievement, but for an individual book.  

The judges considered many noteworthy collections of poetry. Wesley was among nine finalists for the award. The other finalists were:  

  • Lorna Dee Cervantes, “April On Olympus,” Marsh Hawk Press 2021   
  • Dorothy Chan, “Revenge of the Asian Woman,” Diode Edition 2019   
  • Linda Hogan, “A History of Kindness,” Torrey House Press 2021   
  • Roger Reeves, “Best Barbarian,” WW Norton 2022   
  • CT Salazar, “Headless John the Baptist Hitchhiking,” Acre Books 2022   
  • Sean Singer, “Today in the Taxi,” Tupelo Press 2022   
  • Michael Torres, “An Incomplete List of Names,” Beacon Press 2020   
  • Michael Wasson, “Swallowed Light,” Copper Canyon Press 2022   

The dates for the six-day Theodore Roethke Poetry & Arts Festival are Friday, March 17, 2023, to Wednesday, March 22, 2023.  The Roethke Poetry Prize Award Ceremony will be the evening of Tuesday, March 21, 2023.