English graduate student Caleb Nichols (San Luis Obispo, CA) has won Cal Poly’s Academy of American Poets Contest for his poem “Ken,” which considers how to maintain awareness and connection in this moment of virtual interaction. He will receive a $100 award from the Academy. 

Former Cal Poly professor and current SLO county poet laureate, Kevin Clark, judged this year’s contest. Of Nichols’ poem, Clark said, “Ken’ serves as a dazzling caution-note urging readers to separate themselves from contemporary life’s empty diversions and to find succor in the natural world. Proffering a kind of perception akin to dream-pursuit and sounding out an imperative for healthy survival, the crisp nine-line poem plays on the word ‘ken,’ which suggests not simply knowledge but depth of vision. Nichols advises that true vision is only possible if we ‘unfollow’ every day's myriad incoming distractions. A model of concision, ‘Ken’ is deeply inventive in sound, imagery, and approach.”

First honorable mention goes to English major Maya Stahler for “Hide ‘n Seek.” Clark noted the poem’s “startling exploration of the manner in which anxiety can lead to personal disorientation. By examining how the psyche under pressure may further its own fright, the poet persuasively renders the inevitable path into further anxiety. Arranged in four irregular stanzas, Stahler’s poem smartly employs tactile imagery to depict an intangible state, that is, an agitated mind.”

Second honorable mention goes to Art & Design major Joshua Ronda for his poem “Weed of Grass.” “Among other things,” Clark said, “Ronda’s poem can be read as a verse eco-warning spoken in the voice of plants. Deft in its imaginative word choice and its lilting sound, the poem reminds us that human beings are responsible for our natural locale. Should we continue to misapprehend our effect on the land, earth’s flora will be forced to isolate us from the benefits it offers—and perhaps from life itself.”

Kevin Clark’s Self-Portrait with Expletives won the Lena-Miles Wever Todd Poetry Series Book Competition, and a new collection, The Consecrations, is forthcoming in 2021. His textbook on writing poetry is used in classrooms across the U.S. Recently, his chapbook rendering the scars of war, The Wanting, won the Five Oaks Press chapbook prize. He is the current Poet Laureate of San Luis Obispo County.

The Cal Poly English Department and the Academy of American Poets, which is a longstanding advocate for the art of poetry and is located in New York City, sponsor the contest. The winning poem will appear on the University & College Poetry Prize page of

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