Milena Williamson ’17 Takes Ownership of the Word ‘Poet’

July 12, 2018

Amanda Nagy

Portrait of Milena Williamson standing in front of university
Milena Williamson '17 stands in front of the Seamus Heaney Centre at Queen’s University Belfast, where she is working toward a master's in poetry.
Photo credit: Courtesy of Milena Williamson

If someone had told Milena Williamson as a first-year that she would move from Oberlin to Belfast, she never would have believed it.

This past spring, the 2017 English and creative writing graduate workshopped with Irish poets and performed her own work in public readings through Poetry Ireland Introductions 2018, a series aimed at raising the profile of talented, emerging poets. Following her readings at the International Literature Festival Dublin in June, Williamson was chosen for the annual Mairtín Crawford Poetry Award, an honor given to a writer working toward their first full, published collections in poetry or short story.

A native of Swarthmore, Pennsylvania, Williamson is a master’s student at the Seamus Heaney Centre at Queen’s University Belfast, where she enjoys being a part of several writing communities. She says that receiving the Mairtín Crawford Poetry Award has invited her into the broader Irish poetry community and connects her with contemporary poets.  

“I am both proud and humbled to have the votes of confidence from the judges of the award—Moyra Donaldson, Paul Maddern, and Matt Kirkham. All three judges were present in June when I read some of my poetry and accepted the award,” she says. I am sure that the award will open up new writing opportunities and inspire me to write more poems.”

The award provides a six-month professional mentorship with an established writer and an invitation to read live at a dedicated ceremony during the Belfast Book Festival. Williamson met her mentor, Paul Maddern, while participating in a poetry workshop at the Community Arts Partnership in Belfast.

“When I learned that Paul would be my mentor for the Mairtín Crawford Poetry Award, I was thrilled,” she says. “He has published several collections with Templar Poetry, and this year he opened the River Mill, a writers’ retreat in a rural region of Northern Ireland. We both have homes elsewhere; he is from Bermuda, and I am from Pennsylvania, but we have also made new homes for ourselves in Northern Ireland. I’m so excited to work with him.”

Williamson says the highlight of the Poetry Ireland Introductions Series was working with Sinéad Morrissey, who has published six collections of poetry with Carcanet Press. “She writes about everything from motherhood to the Irish countryside, and all her poems demonstrate a delicacy of language that I so much admire.”

She says the program reminded her to be flexible when revising, but proud when presenting her work. “After participating in Introductions, I feel like I have more ownership over the word ‘poet.’”

At Oberlin, Williamson taught poetry workshops to Langston Middle School students through the Writers in the Schools Program. “The students taught me as much as I taught them. They taught me to abandon my preconceived notions of what poetry is, and they reminded me that as much as I love the solitude that comes with writing, I am also passionate about sharing poems through teaching.”

Williamson says she intends to apply to MFA and PhD programs in English literature in the United States as well as the creative writing PhD program at Queen’s University.

“My primary goal is to continue writing poetry no matter where I am or what I’m doing. Moving to Belfast and studying at Queen’s has taught me that poetry is alive and well beyond Oberlin.”  


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