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UNM alumna creates poetry contest with donation

Karen McKinnon, a UNM alumna from the class of 1960, has donated funds to create a poetry competition that will be run by the English Department.

There will be a $1,000 dollar first prize, with second and third place prizes for $500 and $250 dollars respectively, McKinnon said. The endowment also includes funds for advertising the competition, compensating the organizing faculty member(s) and arranging an award ceremony for the contest.

McKinnon, who will be part of a panel of judges that will include English department faculty, said she is looking for fresh work with an individual voice.

In the fall semester McKinnon said she will meet with Professor Diane Thiel, the new head of Creative Writing, to set up the panel of judges for the competition.

The competition will be open to all UNM students, any grade who are taking at least six credit hours and maintaining a B average, she said, and any grade level is eligible to compete.

The contest will be open for submissions in January, Mckinnon said. Winners will be selected in March, and awarded in April.

“It means a lot to me to have it in April,” McKinnon said when discussing the merits of scheduling a poetry competition award ceremony in National Poetry Month.

McKinnon herself won the Lena Todd Award, which recognizes UNM students for outstanding writing every year and offers money and recognition for fiction, poetry and creative nonfiction pieces. She received the award two years in a row during her time at UNM in 1958 and 1959.

McKinnon said more than the monetary prize, the recognition was extremely important to her as a student and a writer.

“Recognition as a writer meant so much to me,” she said, Adding that winning the Lena Todd Award during her time as an undergraduate is what inspired her to create the Karen McKinnon Poetry Awards Endowed Fund.

“I just am glad I’m doing it. It feels good to be giving back something that meant a lot to me at the time,” McKinnon said.

When she first graduated, she said she expected to continue writing short stories, but after life became busy with marriage and children McKinnon discovered that she could finish a poem in only three or four days, so began focusing her energy on poetry instead.

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After publishing four poetry books and many individual poems, McKinnon said it seems clear that her energy was well spent.

She describes her poetic work as both contemporary and free form with a reliance on internal rhyme.

For McKinnon, the high point of her career as a poet was her 2009 memoir Set in Motion, she said, as it was well reviewed both locally and nationally, in part because it was a combination of poetry and prose that is unique within the genre of memoir.

In 1977 McKinnon returned to UNM for her masters in secondary education.

She also taught poetry in Santa Fe schools thanks to the Poet-in-the-Classroom project, funded by the National Endowment for the Arts, she said.

Teaching affected the way she went about composing.

She said some of the prompts she created for students, such as list the ten chapter titles to your autobiography, inspired her own work.

Dr. Anita Obermeier, the current Department of English chair, said it is important within our culture to value poetry, and this new competition will do that.

“I just would like to say that it is an amazing opportunity for the English department and the students of creative writing, and we are all incredibly grateful for the wonderfully generous donation of a prize for people who like poetry,” Obermeier said.

McKinnon’s own favorite poets are Mary Oliver and Billy Collins.

“I love his wit and irony,” she says of Collins.

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