Wellesley Alum Awarded Inaugural Prize from Academy of American Poets for Her "Vibrant Observation and Compelling Connection"

September 4, 2014
granite sculpture by Wendy Chen

Among the laurels offered in 2014 by the Academy of American Poets to the nation’s best poets, the newest prize went to a Wellesley alumna. Wendy Chen ’14 received the Aliki Perrotti and Seth Frank Most Promising Young Poet Award for her poem, They Sail Across the Mirrored Sea.

The Most Promising Young Poet prize is open to the winners of the current year’s University & College Poetry Prizes, also given by the Academy of American Poets to students that are 23 years old or younger. The Academy of American Poets sponsors more than 200 annual University & College Poetry Prizes, distributing close to $25,000 each year. According to the Academy website, many of America’s most esteemed poets won their first recognition through this program, including Louise Glück, Sylvia Plath, Joy Harjo, this year’s Wallace Stevens Award-winner Robert Hass, and former Wellesley professor Robert Pinsky.

Wendy Chen grew up in Massachusetts and came to Wellesley with intertwined interests in art and literature. “The work I make in studio art and poetry are constantly in conversation with one another,” she explains. “During my time at Wellesley, I developed my voice and gained a better understanding of my strengths and weaknesses through poetry workshops with Frank Bidart and Dan Chiasson.” (Bidart is the Andrew W. Mellon Professor of Humanities and Professor of English, and Chiasson is an associate professor of English.) “My senior year, I completed a creative poetry thesis under Dan's guidance and encouragement. Professors at Wellesley are so incredibly generous with their time and devoted to their students, and I'm grateful to both the English and Studio Art departments for encouraging me in my creative endeavors.”

Chen completed not one but two honors theses during her senior year. Her English thesis was a contemporary poetic adaptation of the classic Chinese novel Journey to the West, while her studio art thesis explored similar themes through a collection of marble and bronze sculpture.

"Wendy's work is gripping, strange, and utterly her own,” says Chiasson. “'Teaching' her amounted to going 'Wow' every time she showed up in my office with more extraordinary work.”

Chen wrote the poem that would earn her the American Academy of Poets award during her junior year while taking a poetry seminar with Bidart. She was inspired by the stories her grandmother had told about her own childhood in China, decades past. “There is so much love and suffering passed down that way through storytelling—in a sense, being inherited by the listener,” she says. “I wanted to capture that magical and surreal sense of nearness to family history in my poem.”

The national competition was judged by Alberto Ríos. Ríos described They Sail Across the Mirrored Sea as “... poetry of genuine maturity, whose imagery and circumstance are constructed from patience, with a particularly demonstrable talent for turning the slowness of this story’s time into vibrant observation and compelling connection—in that way reaching from the depths of the poem out to us who are reading it.”

“I'm so honored to have won this award and humbled by Alberto Ríos' kind and generous words,” says Chen. “There is nothing more meaningful to a young artist than affirmation of her work.”

Chen graduated from Wellesley in May and now pursues an M.F.A. in poetry at Syracuse University, where she received a highly competitive University Fellowship to fund her studies.

“She's a vector headed who knows where, " says Chiasson of his student. We can’t wait to find out.

… And what did they think of her small net?
She often wondered what it looked like to them.
A fibrous constellation pulled out of the sky,
descending, penetrating the defenseless water with ease,
carrying them towards the edge of the unknown.
The constant pressure of water—suddenly gone:
a strange lightness unbearable….

From They Sail Across the Mirrored Sea