Like most people living in a pandemic world, Anuradha Bhowmik works from her home in Philadelphia, using technology to communicate and complete her daily tasks.
One afternoon in early January, during a midweek work-related call, she received an email from the director of the University of Pittsburgh Press with “Starrett Prize” in the subject line. A full-time student advisor by day and a writer by night, Bhowmik had submitted a collection of her poetry by ella to the publisher in hopes of winning the Agnes Lynch Starrett Poetry Prize.
In the past, many emails regarding her writing submissions had served as rejection letters for her.
Not this time.
Bhowmik, who earned a master of fine arts from Virginia Tech’s College of Liberal Arts and Human Sciences in 2018, was selected as the winner of the 2021 Agnes Lynch Starrett Poetry Prize — an award that goes to a poet writing in English who hasn’t had a full-length book of poetry published. Her collection of her, entitled “Brown Girl Chromatography,” was selected by Aaron Smith, an award-winning poet and former winner of the Agnes Lynch Starrett Poetry Prize who served as the judge for this year’s competition.
“I definitely wasn’t expecting it,” she said, “but it made my year.”
The award was not the first for Bhowmik, who earned her undergraduate degree in women’s and gender studies from the University of North Carolina (UNC) in 2015. Her poetry has won her awards and fellowships from the Kimmel Harding Nelson Center for the Arts, the Community of Writers, the New York State Summer Writers Institute, the Fine Arts Work Center in Provincetown, Frost Place, and the Indiana University Writers’ Conference, among others. Also, her poetry and her prose have appeared in numerous nationwide publications.
But this award probably ranks as the most prestigious. She won a $5,000 grand prize, and the University of Pittsburgh Press plans to publish her collection of her as part of its Pitt Poetry Series later this fall.
“I’m not surprised Anuradha won because she was unbelievably talented and successful even as an MFA student,” said Erika Meitner, a poet and a professor in Virginia Tech’s Department of English who was Bhowmik’s thesis director. “The average in our field is about seven years past graduation to get a first book published. She is ahead of the game, and she had a ton of publications as a graduate student when she was here. She published more work in her time as an MFA student than any other student we’ve had come through the program. She’s always been super successful, really driven, and very talented.”
Bhowmik mostly writes autobiographically, focusing on life experiences that shaped her as a Bangladeshi-born American girl growing up in South Jersey. “Brown Girl Chromatography” examines issues such as race, class, gender, and sexuality in a post-9/11 world.
“Hers is an interesting manuscript in that it didn’t shy away from addressing intense issues around family history and dynamics, immigration, acculturation, race, class, and gender,” Meitner said. “She just writes really intensely and beautifully in a compelling way about all of these things.”
Bhowmik started writing around the age of 9. She described herself as being “really nerdy,” wearing glasses and braces, and that, along with being from Bangladesh and living in a mostly white community, left her feeling isolated. The Sept. 11 attacks created a common enemy for Americans, but those attacks negatively impacted Bhowmik’s world from her. People mistakenly viewed her and her family de ella unfavorably because of their immigrant roots, even though they had received political asylum to come to the United States from Bangladesh in the late 1990s.
An introverted person by nature, Bhowmik started writing as an escape.