Meet Professor and Poet Rigoberto González, This Year’s Recipient of the PEN/Voelcker Award for Poetry

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For those who already know (and for those who don’t, welcome), the PEN/Voelcker Award for Poetry is a prestigious honor and incredible recognition that is given out every two years to a poet with inspirational talent. The award recognizes a poet who has accomplished significant and impactful presence in American literature through his or her growing body of work. It is an impressive honor, it is extremely hard to earn, and it is an important award for literary culture and poetic talent in our country. And this year, in 2020, the award is being given to Professor and Poet Rigoberto Gonzalez, a Latino poet whose work is influenced by and deeply connected to his roots as the son of undocumented Mexican immigrants and farm workers. 

Professor Rigoberto González, Director of Rutgers University–Newark’s MFA in Creative Writing Program, is being honored for his accomplished presence in American literature and his expansive body of work, which includes over 15 books of poetry and prose, including his most recent book of poetry entitled The Book of Ruin and everything from novels to memoirs and even bilingual children’s books.

In addition to his literary works, González has also edited Camino del Sol: Fifteen Years of Latina and Latino Writing, Alurista’s new and selected volume Xicano Duende: A Select Anthology, and a 2019 issue of Ploughshares.

He has served as a Faculty Member of CantoMundo; is a Founding Member of the Advisory Circle of Con Tinta, a collective of Chicanx/Latinx writers; and is a monthly columnist on Latinx literature for NBC Latino online as well as critic-at-large for The Los Angeles Times. He also currently serves as a member of the Writers Council for the Center for Fiction, and sits on the boards of two national literary organizations: Zoeglossia: A Community for Writers with Disabilities, and the Poetry Society of America (PSA). 

Needless to say, based on his resumé alone, González is incredibly talented, dedicated, accomplished and worthy of this prestigious award. But his merit goes well beyond his long list of published work and professional commitments. 

According to the PEN America website, the PEN/Voelcker Award for Poetry is given to a recipient “who has expanded the scope of American poetry and continues to mature with each successive volume of poetry.”

While this is far from the first award or recognition granted to González — he has been honored with other prestigious awards over the course of his career including the Guggenheim, NEA and USA Rolón fellowships, American Book Award, the Lambda Literary Award for Poetry and he was a finalist for the National Book Critics Circle Award — it’s still an honor he is extremely proud of. 

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“I’m extremely honored to be celebrated by this prestigious organization that has fought on behalf of incarcerated and silenced writers and journalists around the world, and that has defended freedom of expression in our country,” expressed González on the Rutgers School of Arts & Sciences-Newark website. And he’s even more proud that his award-winning work is so intimately inspired by his family history, his Latino roots, and his upbringing. “I’m especially touched that my work, with its focus on migration, working-class lives and the borderlands, is being recognized in such a significant way,” said González. “I’m the son of undocumented, illiterate Mexican farm workers. My upbringing has not hindered my success and ambition. On the contrary, it has inspired me to be as dedicated, proud and hard working as my parents.”

This year’s panel of judges was clearly captivated by his works, noting in the PEN America press release that González has “devoted his writing life not only to the development of his astonishing voice as a poet and non-fiction writer but to his astute and discerning craft as a reviewer and steadfast advocate for other Latinx voices.” They continue to say, “Rigoberto González is one of our great mythmakers, cutting to the core of historical narratives and present-day calamities, exposing the faultlines of greed and violence, love and hunger, cruelty and corruption, family and tribe that pattern human experience. The son and grandson of migrant farm workers, and claiming a cultural heritage of lyricism and activism, he is attuned to the voices of the dead and the living, and he counsels us ‘To reach the dead // walk toward the structures still standing, / their windows still looking in.’”

González, and all poets who receive this biennial award, will receive a stipend of $5,000 in addition to recognition of his momentous career achievement during a live 2020 PEN America Literary Awards Ceremony hosted by Seth Meyers in NYC on March 2 at The Town Hall.