Sun. Apr 14th, 2024

It’s that time of year again  —  the 2023 Iris N. Spencer Awards are open for submissions. In 2005, the poetry contest was created by Kean W. Spencer in honor of his mother. The contest, hosted by the Poetry Center, welcomes unpublished and original poems with prizes up to $1500.

The Iris N. Spencer Awards are a series of awards including the Iris N. Spencer Poetry Award, Villanelle Award, Sonnet Award, Myong Cha Son Haiku Award and the Rhina P. Espaillat Award. It welcomes submissions of traditional poems, sonnet, villanelle, haiku and Spanish poems. Students can submit up to three poems per category and there is no fee required to enter. The poetry contest is open to all undergraduate students nationally.

For the 2022 awards, we had two first place winners here at West Chester University. One of these winners, Cassidy Graham, won the Villanelle Award with her piece “Villanelle of Addiction.” I had the pleasure of speaking with her about her experience.

Cassidy is now a senior here at our university, and she is very grateful for the opportunity given by the Iris N. Spencer Awards. “West Chester has created such an amazing community of writers, and the support I have felt has truly been so great.” It was not until she took a poetry class with Professor Nancy Pearson when she realized poetry was something she wanted to explore. Her winning poem was submitted for a class assignment that she was truly proud of. As for her writing process, “I think when you let go of these expectations, really amazing things happen, and after I did that, the words were just kind of there.”

Cassidy also gives some warm advice to those who don’t feel confident in their writing enough to submit. “I definitely struggled with this myself, but Professor Pearson just kept reiterating that we had nothing to lose by submitting.” She emphasized how important an opportunity like this was, and not just for a first-place prize. “I think getting your work out there is super important to grow as a writer and this is a great chance to do so.”

I also got to speak with our 2022 first-place winner for our Sonnet Award, Ainsley Berg, about her piece “The Dead Deer’s Cry.” On her experience with the awards, Ainsley felt more confident in her writing. Her winning poem was actually a part of a small collection for her final project at school. “…seeing it stand alone and be recognized outside of that context really made me see that my writing can be notable outside of my little bubble.”

Ainsley graduated from Flagler College this past May. She enjoys writing about nature, and for her writing process, that’s where she started. “I knew I wanted to write about a deer at night, so I established that image first and then went from there.” She also included that abiding by poetry constraints helped her in a way. “I wanted it to be a sonnet from the beginning, too, so that gave me a structure to work off of.”

Ainsley also offers some advice for those who are on the fence about submitting. “I feel like if you’re too focused on how a piece of writing will be received, then your writing will suffer for it, as well as your peace of mind. You should have fun with it!”

Even if you don’t consider yourself a writer, these prizes are too big to be ignored. We encourage students to submit as soon as possible to take advantage of this wonderful opportunity. Cassidy left off on this note, “So what I am trying to say, is to just go for it!”

The deadline for the awards is March 15, 2023. You can find more information on the submission process at, and contact if you have any questions.

Emma Dwyer is a third-year English major with a minor in Business and Technical Writing.

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