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English Grad Student Wins Cal Poly’s Academy of American Poets Prize

English Master's student Marissa Ahmadkhani (Gilroy, Calif.) won Cal Poly’s Academy of American Poets Contest for her poem “Only Half,” which investigates her Iranian heritage. Ahmadkhani will receive a $100 award from the Academy.

Cal Poly English AAP Winner 2017
Marissa Ahmadkhani


“Through precise description and gentle repetition, Marissa Ahmadkhani has made a deeply moving poem of origins,” said Maggie Anderson, nationally recognized poet and judge for this year’s contest. “The delicate fruit of the pomegranate (apple of many seeds) is a brilliantly realized metaphor for the poet’s half-heritage.”

Cal Poly English professor Mira Rosenthal said, “In Marissa’s finely tuned short poems, I hear the sorrow of strained relationship, but always tempered by the individual’s belief in connection, as much with others as with the self.”

First honorable mention goes to English major Morgan Condict from Paso Robles, Calif. for “The Shimmer of the Turning Rabbit,” a poem that renders our own mortality through the metaphor of a rabbit turning on a spit over an open flame. Anderson said that Condict’s poem “creates a strange and somewhat unsettling atmosphere. The image is of a rabbit cooking over a campfire; yet, when the poet enters the poem, we are led skillfully from that image to a surprising metaphor for our own ‘mortal’ (and ‘axial’) coil.”

Second honorable mention goes to Jacob Lopez from Huntington Beach, Calif. for his poem “Light on Breathing,” depicting the experience of exploring underwater reefs. “What I admire in this poem,” said the judge, “is the music created by its internal rhyme, alliteration, and phrasing that vividly recreates the act of breathing underwater.”

The Cal Poly English Department and the Academy of American Poets (AAP) sponsored the contest. AAP was founded in 1934 to support American poets at all stages of their careers and to foster the appreciation of contemporary poetry. The University and College Poetry Prize program began with ten schools in 1955 and now sponsors more than 200 annual poetry prizes at U.S. colleges and universities. Ahmadkhani is one of the nearly ten thousand prize-winning student poets since the program’s inception.

Contest entries were judged by nationally renowned poet Maggie Anderson, author of four books of poetry, including Windfall: New and Selected Poems, A Space Filled with Moving, and Cold Comfort. Her awards include two fellowships from the National Endowment for the Arts, fellowships from the Ohio, West Virginia and Pennsylvania Councils on the Arts, and the Ohioana Library Award for contributions to the literary arts in Ohio. The founding director of the Wick Poetry Center and of the Wick Poetry Series of the Kent State University Press, Anderson is Professor Emerita of English at Kent State University.


Marissa Ahmadkhani
Academy of American Poets Prize Winner—Cal Poly, San Luis Obispo

Only Half

Pomegranates are native to Iran.

Much like my father—

who peeled them on our kitchen counter,

liquid pooling, thinner than

the blood-

red you’d expect.

Much like my blood—

half-steeped in that same soil

and somehow not thick enough.

And I run my fingers through

my coarse hair, half-curly,

and I think about those pomegranate trees.

How they

dig those deep roots,

how I half-cling to those

thin branches.

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