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NC State English Alumna Wins 2020 Walt Whitman Award

headshot of Threa Almontaser

Poet Threa Almontaser begins most days on the road. Not on four wheels — but two. Her bike serves as the perfect vehicle to collect her thoughts and observations.

“I can sometimes use them in my poems,” Almontaser says. “I don’t write every day, but I do edit constantly, whether it’s in my head or on the page.”

Up until a few years ago, Almontaser wrote for herself — and herself alone.

“I didn’t even know magazines, workshops, conferences, retreats and submission prizes were a possibility,” Almontaser says.

Now the winner of the prestigious 2020 Walt Whitman Award for her first manuscript, The Wild Fox of Yemen, she finds herself in the national spotlight.

“It’s recognition that I’m on the right path, that doing what I’m passionate about works,” Almontaser says.

A Top Prize

Presented by the Academy of American Poets, the Walt Whitman Award was established in 1975 to encourage the work of emerging poets. As this year’s winner, Almontaser will receive a six-week residency in Umbria, Italy, and $5,000. 

“The spirit of Whitman lives in these poems that sing and celebrate a vibrant, rebellious body with all its physical and spiritual entanglements,” award judge Harryette Mullen says.

Almontaser describes The Wild Fox of Yemen, which will be published by Graywolf Press in April 2021, as three parts:

  • A love letter to the country and people of Yemen.
  • A portrait of young, Muslim womanhood in New York City after 9/11.
  • An examination of what it means to carry in the body the echoes of what came before.

Almontaser, the eldest child in an immigrant family, grew up in New York City before moving to North Carolina at the age of 19. She says her poetry is a form of “documentation and provocation.”

“I’ve worn the hijab since the fifth grade,” Almonstaser says. “The results and actions I’ve witnessed have greatly impacted my narrative.

“Each poem teaches me how to see and what to do, inspired by the phenomena of the world around me, vivid and personal in a way we’re not used to.”

Some of the poems in The Wild Fox of Yemen got their start at NC State, where Almontaser earned a bachelor’s degree in English and an MFA in creative writing. It’s where she began carving out the shape of the book, she says.

“The writing process I used there and the feedback that was given helped me clarify the sensations or experiences in my work that were once opaque to me,” Almontaser says. 

She also left campus with a new drive — and focus.

“I could not only better understand the work I was doing, but also how to properly present that force into the literary world,” Almontaser says.

Taking On New Roles

These days are quiet but busy for Almontaser. When she isn’t writing — or biking — she can often be found in front of her computer, teaching English to immigrants and refugees.

“I’ve always been the designated translator growing up,” Almontaser says. “It’s a title that fell into my lap effortlessly, and in doing so, I was able to perceive these language barriers and fragmented interactions first-hand.”

She says she helps students overcome setbacks while they integrate into their new communities.

“They teach me as much as I teach them, and it brings me joy seeing their confidence in their communication skills grow,” Almontaser says.

Almontaser hopes that by clarifying misconceptions and bringing out the impactful voices of ESL learners, she can inspire others to pursue their passions — just like her.

“I want to engage in more outreach events, not only with disaster aid, but also in the creative arts among my Muslim peers,” Almontaser says. “I might even dip my toes into the novel, see where it takes me.”

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