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A Poetic Undergraduate Wins a Prestigious Prize

Jenny Mathis, an English major from Garden Grove, began writing — science fiction — in the eighth grade. She wrote her first poem when she was a freshman in high school.

A USC undergraduate has captured the University of Kent at Canterbury’s prestigious T.S. Eliot Poetry Prize.

Jenny Mathis, 20, an English major from Garden Grove, won first place in the 1998 award competition while studying at UKC through USC’s junior year abroad program. The winners were chosen by a panel of UKC English literature faculty members headed by Irish poet Matthew Sweeney.

Established in the early 1970s, the Eliot Prize was endowed by Valerie Eliot, widow of British poet T.S. Eliot, to honor the most outstanding published poets at UKC each year. Past winners of the prize include British poet and short story writer Fred d’Aiguar, whose latest collection is Bill of Rights.

Several of Mathis’ prize-winning poems describe the poet’s experiences as a student in England. In “Evolution,” she scoffs at American tourists, having evolved from one of them herself to become a temporary resident armed with a green card. “We are no longer distinctly American/and we cannot hope ever to be British. Distinctly in between, we are ambassadors/ acquiring an ability/to enlighten/to enrapture/and to entertain,” she writes.

“The experience of living abroad has been great for my poetry,” Mathis said. “It has taught me different ways of seeing things and given me new insights to U.S. culture. There are so many more ways of looking at the world than I had imagined!”

Describing herself as “the creative type,” Mathis said her love of writing began in eighth grade when she started to draft her first novel – a work of science fiction. In 10th grade, she launched a romance novel. Now she reads it every so often to help mark her progress.

“If you’ve written something a few years ago and you can’t find some way to improve it now, you have a problem,” she said.

Mathis wrote her first poem as a freshman at Garden Grove High School. Some of her early poems, she says, were “rather scary.”

But the school faculty saw something in her work to like. Mathis won first-place awards for short fiction, poetry and autobiographical incident in the school’s creative writing contest in 1995. Her other awards include: Most Worthy Argonaut Runner-Up, from Garden Grove High School, 1995; first-place poetry award in UC Irvine’s Cultural Diversity Rainbow Festival, 1994; the International Order of the Rainbow for Girls State Essay Contest, 1994; and the Girl Scout Gold Award, 1995, for writing and producing a play about the dangers of drinking and driving.

Mathis plans to graduate from USC in 1999, earning a degree in English with an emphasis in creative writing, as well as a preliminary teaching credential. She hopes to teach high school English while attending graduate school.

A Poetic Undergraduate Wins a Prestigious Prize

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