Visiting Assistant Professor of English, Matt Rasmussen (’98), has been chosen by poet Jane Hirshfield as the recipient of the 2012 Walt Whitman Award, presented by the Academy of American Poets.
The Walt Whitman Award “was established in 1975 to encourage the work of emerging poets and to enable the publication of a poet’s first book,” according to Poets.org.
This award publishes a first collection by an American poet and comes with a 5,000 dollar cash prize and one-month residency at the Vermont Studio Center. Published by the Louisiana State University press, the book will be distributed to thousands of members of the Academy.
Rasmussen’s first full-length book, a collection of poems titled Black Aperture, will be published in spring of 2013.
Rasmussen learned the good news while checking his email in an airport bathroom.
“I walked out of the bathroom and told my wife, ‘I just won the Walt Whitman Award,’ still not really believing it myself,” Rasmussen said. “It was a little strange and surreal, as we had to board a plane in a few minutes. I called a few friends and then had to turn my phone off.”
Rasmussen didn’t show much of his poetry to his teachers in high school, and was rather shy about his work while at Gustavus, but credits the English department as being very encouraging and supportive.
“Joyce Sutphen, Phil Bryant and John Rezmerski encouraged me and inspired me to pursue writing,” Rasmussen said.
Now, the same people who were once Rasmussen’s professors are his colleagues.
“It’s a great thing for Matt to be awarded this very important national poetry prize. You can’t get any bigger than this. He always had many fine stories to tell and poems to write, from the very beginning as a student,” Professor of English Phil Bryant (’73), Rasmussen’s former professor and now colleague, said.
Another former professor and current colleague of his, Professor of English Joyce Sutphen, kept in touch with Rasmussen throughout his journey after Gustavus.
“I looked through emails from the years and saw that we were always talking about poetry: writing it, sending it to places, readings,” Sutphen said. “Matt has worked hard at his craft, and he keeps growing as a poet and a teacher; he’s also a great reader—really in touch with his audience. I’m one of his all-time fans.”
Back when Bryant and Sutphen were his professors at Gustavus, Rasmussen was one of the many students who came back from Spring Break in 1998 to a campus in ruins.
“Matt was among those intrepid, brave students who came back right after the 1998 Tornado to finish out the year, literally coming to class in ruins, wreck, rubble and a campus that afterwards was a virtual construction zone,” Bryant said.
Like his classmates, Matt showed incredible courage and a strong will to get through everything and finish off the school year, according to Bryant.
“I saw that courage and iron will of Matt’s when he applied and was accepted to go to the Peace Corp in New Guinea; then later, when he applied and was accepted to The Emerson College MFA program. He further developed and honed his creative talents and skills as a poet there in Boston, and later here when he came back to the hill to teach for us,” Bryant said.
One of Rasmussen’s students, Sophomore English Major Bethany Schulz, has been considering writing as a profession and is thankful to have Matt to guide her.
“Matt took the time to sit down with me and really encouraged me to go for it. I have definitely become a better writer since being in his class and I am really proud to be his student,” Schulz said. “Matt is a fabulous teacher. He creates an energetic, dynamic classroom experience that I think few teachers are able to create.”
Rasmussen has had a love of poetry from a young age.
“I remember reading and loving Shel Silverstein and other books that used poetic techniques, like ‘The Giant Jam Sandwich’ but I didn’t write poetry until I was in high school,” Rasmussen said.
Rasmussen listened to rap when he was a kid and likes to think that is what influenced him to start writing poetry.
“I think it was rap’s focus on metaphor, rhythm and rhyme, which drew me in and led to me eventually reading and writing poetry,” Rasmussen said.
Among Rasmussen’s influences are well known poets such as John Berryman, James Wright, Elizabeth Bishop and Sylvia Plath, as well as many others. But the work of Rasmussen’s friends has perhaps influenced him the most.
Rasmussen has already accomplished much, but Bryant believes this is only the beginning of a great and exciting future for him.
“Matt I believe, has many, many more fine poems in him to write. This first book of his, Black Aperture, is a very auspicious beginning indeed, but only the beginning of great things from him still to come,” Bryant said.