Poetry alumnus receives prestigious award


Erin Dickson

Jacob Saenz, a Columbia alumnus, spoke about winning the 2018 American Poetry Review/Honickman First Book prize Jan 16 at 624 S. Michigan Ave.

By Tessa Brubaker

Jacob Saenz, a 2005 alumnus from what was formerly the Poetry Department, was recently awarded the 2018 American Poetry Review/Honickman First Book Prize for his manuscript of poems, “Throwing the Crown.” 

Saenz, who also works as an acquisitions assistant in the Library, 624 S. Michigan Ave., has been working on “Throwing the Crown” since 2011. Many of the poems in the book are about Saenz growing up in Cicero, Illinois, during the ‘90s and dealing with gang culture, which he said was embedded in his neighborhood. Other poems in the book include themes of family and love,           Saenz said.

Saenz said he never thought he would even come close to winning the American Poetry Review prize.

“When I got the news about it, it sort of took me by surprise and felt completely gratifying to have made it that far and that it’s all happening right now,” Saenz said. 

The first place prize for the 2018 American Poetry Review/Honickman First Book Prize includes $3,000 and publication by Copper Canyon Press. “Throwing the Crown” will be published in September.

Pulitzer Prize winner Gregory Pardlo judged the annual competition of more than 800 manuscript submissions. He said Saenz’s use of language in his work stood out among the competition and led him to choose Saenz. 

“His themes are easily sentimental,” Pardlo said. “There’s a tension in the work that I just find incredibly fresh.”

Pardlo added that Saenz has a clear sense of self in his writing, reflected throughout his poetry work, which he said a lot of poets in these competitions sometimes have trouble with. 

David Trinidad, professor in the English and Creative Writing Department, said he had Saenz as a student and remembered how impressive his poetry and work was even then.

“[It was] personal, and also imaginative and slightly political,” Trinidad said.

Saenz said he had always been interested in writing, but it was not until he took a summer poetry course at Columbia that he realized he wanted to pursue poetry as his future career. 

“It got me out of my comfort zone of writing these very rhythm- type poems that was lust-based,” Saenz said. “It pushed me to see that there’s more to poetry than that and there’s value in things that you live through.”

Saenz will be working this year on getting “Throwing the Crown” published. He is currently editing the manuscript and coordinating design of the cover art.

“I want to go out and show them,” Saenz said, “show the world that I’m here, that I’m for real and that there’s value in my work.”