Master of Fine Arts candidate Julian Randall was awarded the 2017 Cave Canem Poetry Prize, which honors “exceptional manuscripts by black poets of African descent.”
Describing himself as “black on both sides — but of two different flavors,” Randall’s winning manuscript “Refuse” draws on his identity and the invisibility he felt growing up. Randall said the manuscript took him three years to complete.
“Shows like ‘That’s So Raven’ and ‘Deanna’ each told half of my story when I was young,” he said. “And they were never allowed to touch. So I began to look for manifestations of myself in different places. But at the bookstores, there were no books that represented me: half-black and half-Dominican.”
When his friend Noel Quiñones introduced him to slam poetry during his freshman year at Swarthmore College, Randall knew he could use it to tell his story.
What began as a rare night during which he had done all his homework and had time to go to a random poetry slam led to a lifelong passion. Randall has received fellowships from Callaloo, BOAAT and the Watering Hole, won the 2015 National College Slam and the Cave Canem Poetry Prize and ended up at the University of Mississippi.
“I’m grateful for my mentors and peers,” Randall said. “They have influenced my poetry and taught me how to be honest in my work. There’s not a day that goes by that I’m not thankful for all the people that have taken a chance on me.”
The university, he said, has also proved to be a large influence.
“Here, I’ve had time more than anything else — before this I was working with the Philly Youth Poetry Movement and basically living in the back of a Megabus. Here, I’ve had time to refine ‘Refuse’ and think about the imprint I want to leave on the world.”
At the university, Randall has also met several more mentors who have each influenced his work, especially Derrick A. Harriell, director of the M.F.A. program.
“Julian is an outstanding poet and writer,” Harriell said. “He pays extreme attention to the poetic line and writes through a powerful and unapologetic voice. I can’t tell you how proud of him we all are.”
Randall remains grateful to the university, his mentors and peers, noting that winning the Cave Canem award has been a dream of his.
“Ever since I felt I couldn’t find my narrative in the shelves of a bookstore, I’ve dreamed of having something in Barnes and Noble that other people can pick up and know that I was here – that we, people like me, were here. We had a voice,” Randall said.
According to Harriell, the Cave Canem Poetry Prize remains one of the most prestigious awards of its kind.
“It’s a phenomenal accomplishment for a second-year M.F.A. student to be awarded such a prestigious prize,” Harriell said. “It’s a testament to Julian’s hard work and tireless determination and commitment to his craft.”
Fellow recipients of the Cave Canem Prize include winners of the Pulitzer Prize for Poetry and the National Book Award. Besides the title, Randall will receive a monetary award, publication by the University of Pittsburgh Press next fall and a feature reading in New York City.