On Feb. 20, Professor Cindy Ok, a visiting lecturer in English at Wellesley College was announced as the 2023 winner of the Yale Younger Poets Prize. Awarded by Yale University Press, the prize includes a publication contract for the debut work of a “promising new American poet.” Founded in 1918, it is the United States’ longest running annual literary prize.
Ok’s winning collection is titled “Ward Toward” and will be published by Yale University Press sometime in April 2024. She describes the text as being about wards and the ways they are enacted as well as their impact.
“It focuses on different wards that are imposed on individuals, including particular rooms and institutions, as well as on words and on the languages of those places and people and the impacts that they have. It moves through experiences I’ve had as well as concerns that I share with others about how these wards can potentially be constraining or unjust,” said Ok.
Ok highlighted the excitement and enthusiasm they felt when submitting the manuscript and how they “felt it was ready,” but also expressed concern over the centrality of these competitions to success in the field of poetry.
“Unfortunately, the poetry world is set up with this model, relying on contests, so a lot of poets who are emerging submit manuscripts, whether they are chapbook manuscripts or full length manuscripts, as mine was, to these contests where many, many people submit, and often, there’s only one winner. It’s unfortunate that it has this set-up because there are so many amazing manuscripts that people want to read and that should be published,” said Ok.
When considering her career as a poet, Ok describes their choice to become one as not necessarily deliberate but rather more of an organic transition arising from their long-held passion for reading.
“It doesn’t feel like it was too conscious a decision. I was certainly always interested in reading, and read from a very young age, and I think that for a lot of writers, an interest in reading leads to a willingness as well as the capacity to add to that which can be read,” said Ok.
As a teacher, Ok explains that many poets are unable to support themselves solely on their works, but that many poets find great meaning and joy in their work as teachers, herself included.
“There is a loving history of teachers of poetry being writers of poetry and wanting to facilitate spaces for students to commune, particularly around poetry. So, I feel grateful to be a part of that context … I used to be a high school physics teacher in Los Angeles … And teaching creative writing is a bit different and at the same time there are a lot of lessons that have carried over for me,” said Ok. “I feel excited and fulfilled and creatively generous through teaching. I read more widely as I teach because I want to imagine more around what my students are interested in, and reading between genres and in periods I don’t typically read in has helped me be interested in a larger body of work through empathizing with my students.”
Ok is currently working on new poetry, as well as a book of translated poems, but said they spend most of their time during the semester on student work. This summer, Ok will be participating in an artist residency in Oregon and said they “hope that having that space might lead to new experiments of the mind or of language.” Ok noted that she will be back in Cambridge next spring doing readings during the publication of their book. Looking forward, Ok expressed a desire to begin the practice of sharing their work more with people in their personal life.
“I have a few very close friends who are also writers and those relationships are very supportive for me and remind me to celebrate and mourn the things that we have in common … I haven’t had a lot of readers for my work in my social life. I hope that in the future, I will have friends that I share work with more directly,” said Ok. “I feel grateful for the support that I do have and the friends who can understand the types of decisions or confusions that I may face in terms of directly exchanging work. It’s not a presence in my life and I hope it will be one day.”