Emily Skaja, a 2002 graduate of Huntley High School, has been named the winner of the 2018 Walt Whitman Award from the Academy of American Poets. The honor recognizes an outstanding first book from a poet and carries a $5,000 prize.
Skaja was recognized for her manuscript, Brute, which will be published by Graywolf Press in April 2019. The judge for the award was Joy Harjo, internationally acclaimed poet, author, and musician who currently is Professor and Chair of Excellence in Creative Writing at the University of Tennessee, Knoxville.
For Skaja, an accomplished poet who currently is completing a PhD in creative writing at the University of Cincinnati, the award is continued validation of a professional pursuit that she traces back to her youth in Huntley.
“I was always a writer, but I got really into writing poetry at 17. I was working at Culver’s on Route 47 in Huntley, and I remember I used to walk out and sit on the hood of my car during my breaks and write tons of poems—they were terrible, just really awful, highly dramatic, overwrought poems about my feelings. Feeling alone and misunderstood is basically a condition of being 17, so of course, as you might have guessed, I had a lot of material,” she said.
While Skaja says she began studying writing seriously as an undergraduate at Millikin University, she cites two Huntley 158 teachers as encouragers of her work.
“At every stage of my development as a writer, I was lucky to have a teacher who challenged and encouraged me. In Huntley, that was Mr. Iddings! I was 10 when I was in his class, and I remember I wrote these very long, involved short stories about the adventures of mystery-solving triplet cats. Mr. Iddings read my stories out loud to the class as if I were a real writer, which meant a lot to me,” she said. “In high school, Mr. Brown was the teacher who held my writing to a high standard and taught me to be competitive with myself.”
During her time in Huntley, Sjaka says, the town and school were very small, which gave her an opportunity to “be involved in everything,” including school musicals. She originally enrolled at Millikin on a musical theater scholarship, but quickly decided that her greater passion was for English. After college, she went on to earn a master’s degree at Temple University and a Master of Fine Arts degree in creative writing at Purdue.
It was during her time at Purdue, she says, that she started to produce poems she was proud of and began to send them out for publication. Since then she has received The Russell Prize for emerging poets, the Gulf Coast Poetry Prize, an Academy of American Poets College Prize, an AWP Intro Award, and a Taft Research Fellowship from the University of Cincinnati.
But for all that success, crafting her award-winning book has been long and difficult experience.
“It took me five years to write my book, Brute, which is based on my experience of getting away from an abusive relationship,” she said. “When I first started writing those poems, my feelings about that time in my life were all tangled up in shame and secrecy, and I was writing for myself, to heal from that experience. I couldn’t believe it had happened to me, that somebody could threaten or control me—I was devastated and angry, and I felt like I had to build up an entirely different self, a self who would be strong enough to have survived that.”
Over time, the work transformed as she came to terms with her experience.
“Gradually, it became clear to me that lots of women share a history like this, and so the book took on another layer of meaning, and it became more political in tone as I tried to connect what I knew to what other women knew. In that way, I think the book is in dialogue with the #MeToo movement,” she said.
“The more I wrote about my experience of feeling afraid of the person I was with, the more I saw how complex the problem was. For a long time, I felt compelled to stay silent about it, but talking about what happened robbed it of its power, I noticed, and that brought such relief to me. Putting something like that into language contains it, puts it into a narrative order, and anchors it firmly in the past, which helps when you’re trying to get over it,” she said. “The poems partially process the trauma of that experience, and partially work as an effort to set the record straight, to take back ownership of the story.”
Skaja currently is finishing a PhD in Creative Writing and Literature with a certificate in Women’s, Gender, and Sexuality Studies and plans to pursue a professorship in creative writing. In the interim, she is looking forward to the publication of her book in April 2019 and continuing to write, including a six-week all-expenses-paid residency at the Civitella Ranieri Center in Umbria, Italy that is part of the Whitman Prize.
Learn more about Emily and find links to some of her work at https://emilyskaja.net/.