Erin Belieu Wins AWP’s 2018 George Garrett Award
English Professor Erin Belieu comes from a family of educators, and she remembers dinners when her father would speak eloquently about the potential nobility of teaching as a calling.
Those mealtime conversations inspired Belieu to study and learn her way from Omaha, Nebraska to Columbus, Ohio to Boston, which eventually led to Tallahassee and Florida State University, where she has been a faculty member teaching poetry since 2003.
As a writer, she has won awards, garnered best-book-of-the-year reviews from the Washington Post and The New York Times, and earned multiple inclusions in the Best American Poetry anthology series. But in March 2018, the Association of Writers and Writing Programs (AWP), the literary world’s national professional organization, recognized Belieu for her contributions outside of her four critically admired collections of poetry.
AWP announced Belieu as the winner of the organization’s prestigious George Garrett Award for Outstanding Community Service in Literature. The award honors those in the profession who have especially donated their time or major funding to support other writers and who have spent their careers mentoring emerging writers.
“It’s really lovely – being told you may have helped someone with your teaching is a profound feeling to me,” Belieu says. “I have hoped to be a ‘good witch’ in this world. If I could pick a superpower, I’d like the ability to spread empathy, justice, humor, and tolerance at superhero levels. And, you know, being able to turn invisible at will. That’d be nice, too.”
She knew she had been nominated, but she also knew AWP receives dozens of nominees for the annual prize, so she didn’t think seriously about winning.
“I know how many worthy souls are considered for this award every year,” Belieu says. “So, when I got the phone call, I was delightfully surprised and deeply touched by the news.”
Keith Kopka, who earned his English Ph.D. in 2016 and who is currently the managing director of the department’s Creative Writing Program, says Belieu creates opportunities for her students to attend literary events and helps them develop conference content and learn the professional side of the writing world. She also balances the macro approach with a micro touch, spending one-on-one time with writers.
“On a personal level, Erin’s dedication to my work and her guidance in helping me navigate the world of professional writing has been invaluable,” Kopka says. “She has spent hours with me editing poems line by line, but she has also been there to help with any kind of questions or concerns I might have while working within the larger writing community.”
Belieu accepted her award at the 2018 AWP conference in Tampa, where she spoke to the conference attendees, which she admits is not one of her superpowers.
Referencing her leadership role in founding two of the most influential literary organizations in recent years (VIDA: Women In Literary Arts and Writers Resist), Belieu noted, “For such a rabble rouser, I’m mortified whenever I have to give a public speech,” she says.
She recounted to the crowd the story of sharing the news of her award with her older brother Dennis, and his “affectionately hilarious” reaction to hearing it.
“The family joke has always been that Dennis is the perfect citizen, with an unbroken record of awards starting all the way back in kindergarten. Until now, my citizenship award count had been exactly zero,” Belieu says. She also shared with the AWP gala audience a story about organizing her first sit-in protest in third grade, designed to overturn the segregated “boys-only” area of the school playground. “From early on, my idea of good citizenship has sometimes had a necessarily thornier edge to it,” she says.
“But my parents defended me when I was hauled into the principal’s office for being ‘disruptive’ and ‘disrespectful’,” she adds. “So I thanked my parents for always having had my back, and teaching me to stand up for what I believe is right, despite the political consequences”
And she told everyone that doing what is right and just and necessary does not mean expecting people to hand out awards for your actions.
“Oftentimes, you get yelled at, or dismissed, or underestimated, or eye rolled,” Belieu says. “But, nonetheless, that kind of activism, being willing to put your money where your mouth is, to take a risk in defying the tactics of various authorities, is very important in affecting change over time.”
She also recognized the many people at the gala – “people I’ve both led and been led by in the literary community” – who were just as worthy to receive the honor, in her opinion.
“I thanked my literary community for also having supported my efforts over the years,” she says. “No woman is an island, to paraphrase the poet.”
Kopka points out that while Belieu’s mentoring takes place in the classroom, a lot of the work she does for the Creative Writing Program is behind the scenes. He mentions specifically her “tireless curation” of the Jerome Stern Distinguished Writers Series, which opens up communications and relationships between a notably diverse group of established and award-winning writers and the English students in the department.
He adds that Belieu cares deeply about the writing her students are producing, spending time outside of the classroom working with students on their poems.
“Erin is the rarest kind of mentor,” Kopka says. “She is selfless and kind, but she is also is able to inspire students through her expectations and clear dedication to their work.”
The award is named for George Garrett (1929-2008), who made exceptional contributions to his fellow writers as a teacher, mentor, editor, friend, board member, and good spirit, according to the AWP website. Belieu says she never met him, but she knows many who did, and “he sounds like someone I would have liked very much. Definitely my kind of guy.”
Belieu is the second English department faculty member in four years to win the award, which has been handed out since 2005. Senior Lecturer Bob Shachocis won the award in 2015.
“I remember thinking, and as I said to Bob later, you shouldn’t expect a gold star for doing the decent thing as you understand it—truthfully, the reward is getting to live within the good community you’ve hopefully helped to make, what you’ve added to the larger effort—but then again, it does feel awfully nice,” Belieu says. “Like, ‘Hey, we see you. We know your heart is in the right place.’”
Belieu’s father would no doubt agree.