UNT's 2021 Rilke Prize winner explores Black heritage through latest poetic work

Monday, February 8, 2021 - 08:33
Kiki Petrosino
Kiki Petrosino

MEDIA: Download photos of Kiki Petrosino and her book cover.

DENTON (UNT), Texas — Poet Kiki Petrosino has been named the winner of the 2021 University of North Texas Rilke Prize for a poetry collection she penned about what it means to be Black in America and to search for one’s ancestors.

In 2015, following the death of her maternal grandmother, the University of Virginia professor embarked on a powerful journey to understand more about her ancestors. She took a DNA test and combed through archival documents in search for answers.

White Blood: A Lyric of Virginia, is a culmination of that ancestral research. In it, Petrosino weaves together a variety of poetic forms — villanelles, a heroic crown and erasure — to explore her Black heritage and larger societal issues with the legacy of slavery and race relations in America.

“I'm thrilled by this recognition, and delighted to help celebrate the 10th year of the UNT Rilke Prize. I wrote White Blood for my family, to honor the legacies of my ancestors, and the fact that readers are holding this book close to their hearts means more to me than I can say. I'm filled with wonder and gratitude for this chance to connect,” Petrosino said.

White Blood is Petrosino’s fourth book. Her previous works include Witch Wife (2017), Hymn for the Black Terrific (2013) and Fort Red Border (2009), all from Sarabande Books. She holds graduate degrees from the University of Chicago and the University of Iowa Writer's Workshop. Her poems and essays have appeared in Poetry, Best American Poetry, The Nation, The New York Times, FENCE, Gulf Coast, Jubilat, Tin House and online at Ploughshares. Petrosino is also the recipient of a Pushcart Prize, a Fellowship in Creative Writing from the National Endowment for the Arts and an Al Smith Fellowship Award from the Kentucky Arts Council.

Since 2012, UNT’s Department of English has awarded the annual $10,000 Rilke Prize to recognize exceptional artistry and vision by a mid-career poet. The prize is named after the German poet Rainer Maria Rilke (1875-1926), a writer whose work embodies the qualities of ambition, intellectual and imaginative scope, and technical mastery.

From the beginning, the award has been focused on supporting the careers of emerging poets. Past Rilke Prize winners have gone on to achieve further career success with nearly all publishing additional works of poetry and receiving other accolades in the field. The 2013 UNT Rilke Prize winner Paisley Rekdal is the current Utah Poet Laureate.

“Over the past 10 years, the UNT Rilke Prize has helped call attention to the work of remarkable poets deserving wider acclaim, and I'm thrilled by our list of winners and their continued successes,” said Corey Marks, Distinguished Teaching Professor and director of creative writing in UNT’s English department.

The judges also selected three finalists for this year’s UNT Rilke Prize: Amaud Jamaul Johnson’s Imperial Liquor (University of Pittsburgh Press), Joanna Klink’s The Nightfields (Penguin Books) and Shane McCrae’s Sometimes I Never Suffered (Farrar, Straus, and Giroux).

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