Professor Wins Prestigious Spanish Poetry Prize

As the millennium anxiously waned in New York City and the baby inside her belly grew, Tina Escaja wrote consistently, and as her personal feelings and outside observations blurred, the intimate become epic and a volume of poetry began to emerge.

After finishing her sabbatical year and returning to Vermont, the associate professor of romance languages continued work on Caida Libre (a Spanish phrase that roughly translates to “free-falling”). The collection of about 60 poems, which was published last week, recently won the Dulce Mar?_a Loynaz Poetry Prize, which is given by the Spanish Canary Islands Government. The award, one of the largest for poetry in the Spanish world, has a cash component of about $12,000.

The prize is named for the legendary Cuban-Canarian poet, who died in 1997 at the age of 94. The judging panel described Escaja’s book as using “language full of authenticity and force.” It also lauded her for describing pregnancy with language that is “steely but not cutting.” The judges also called her work “very beautiful” and realistic.

“The book has to do with the strange process of pregnancy and delivery, and describes it in terms of Manhattan at the end of the millennium,” Escaja says. “I wanted to trace those anxieties both in terms of myself and the city.”

Later, back in Vermont, Escaja delivered her second child a month before Sept. 11. The roiling emotions of the moment, her personal joy for her baby and deep sorrow for those lost to violence in a city where she had once lived, compelled her to revise the manuscript, adding reflections on events after 2000.

Escaja is a scholar of literature and has published several books of criticism, but Caida Libre is her first full paper volume of poetry in print. She has written widely under the pseudonym “Alma Perez,” both in print and on the Internet. Her previous works include two e-books, a novel and a collection of “hypertextual poems,” published by the Spanish firm Badosa.

Her award-winning poetry collection was originally intended to be part of the “Alma Perez” oeuvre, but a clerical mistake led to the manuscript being publicly attributed to Escaja. She decided not to correct the mistake, she says, and “ended up being myself.”

With her college and colleagues strongly supportive of her creative writing, Escaja feels as much herself now as she has in her decade in UVM.

“When I first came her in 1993, the message was that I needed to devote myself to academic work,” Escaja says. “The other stuff I did on the side. It was secondary, to my regret. Now I’m being encouraged to see creative writing as part of my job, and that has helped me. I can put more energy to creative work.”