The ancient Greek city of Byzantium was a hub of flourishing culture and literature, from poetry to song, that kept the art of creativity alive through the dark Middle Ages.
So it’s only fitting that Cal Poly’s annual literary magazine, titled “Byzantium,” showcases what English professor Kevin Clark calls “an expert use of imaginative language by folks who, for their ages, are advanced users of our tongue.”
Since 1990, students of all majors submit fiction stories and poetry to the annual Al Landwehr Creative Writing Contest in hopes of being picked for publication in “Byzantium.”
This year, more than 100 poems and 50 fiction pieces were submitted to the contest, but it was English junior Whitney Lenet and English senior Ian Delaney who won first place and $100 each for their poetry and fiction entries, respectively.
Delaney’s piece, titled “Madrid Story,” centers around the tale of a man in Spain heading on a train to Madrid. During the ride, his girlfriend calls with the news that she is pregnant. The story continues to document the man’s trials through generational and racial differences.
Delaney, who drew inspiration for the setting from his own experience studying abroad in Madrid, called “Madrid Story” the “only story I’ve ever written that I really liked.”
While he wrote most of the story last summer, Delaney said he did not get feedback on his work until the day before it was due, and even then, turned in the story mostly as-written, with not many edits, which is why he was surprised to win.
“I’m not a super prolific writer or anything,” Delaney said. “I just tried out everything and decided to go big. It was unique, and I thought of certain storylines, and drew them all together.”
Delaney said before entering the contest, he “never before considered writing fiction to be a viable possibility for the future, but now … it might be.”
A sentiment made possible by Al Landwehr, the former English professor that started the contest. Clark, who still sees Landwehr often, called the professor “an inspirational, distinguished teacher” and Clark’s mentor when he first began teaching at Cal Poly.
“He elevated creative writing at Cal Poly from a kind of avocational discipline to a vocational discipline — from a hobby to taking it seriously,” Clark said. “And with his arrival, we went from professors who loved creative writing to professional creative writers.”
With a strong creative writing presence now on campus, it’s no surprise that Clark described the winning pieces as almost always having strong voices themselves.
“You read them, and this voice, this person speaking, overtakes you and persuades you,” Clark said. “This isn’t some kind of distant, echoing essay, this is real. And in poetry, not only is this voice real, but there’s this kind of free-verse musicality that is subtle and, like fiction, persuasive. And the subjects are really compelling. There is often a kind of personal crisis at the heart of the story, and in poetry, what you have is a series of surprises in the language of the poem, and the ending is usually delightful because the reader sees it as a surprise.”
While typically English professors who do not teach creative writing act as judges in the contest, there is also a team of two student editors who pick their favorite entries.
Two of English senior Cate Harkins’ pieces, a short story and a poem titled “Queer Theory,” won editor’s choice awards this year and will be published in the 2013 “Byzantium.”
Even though this was Harkins’ third year published in “Byzantium,” she said seeing her work in a bound book is always a “thrilling experience.”
Harkins’ short story, titled “First Wave,” was the first short story she had ever written.
“I was really surprised,” she said. “I usually only write poetry.”
Harkins said the story, which imagined the birth, life and death of a person with a cognitive disability in the future, was originally written for a class that focused on cognitive disabilities and mental illnesses.
“It took me weeks to write it,” she said. “It was really hard to get started, because I’m used to the format of poetry, and it took me time to get myself into this mindset of fiction. I also take a long time to share my work and opinions with other people.”
While Harkins said she plans to go into a more business-related field after graduating, she is focusing her senior project on creative writing and now plans to continue to work on writing and publishing her short stories post-graduation.
For now, her achievements in the Al Landwehr Creative Writing Contest make Harkins “proud and grateful, because it’s something I want to put a lot of work into, and it’s fantastic to be recognized.”