By JEANNIE WILEY WOLF
ADA — Rachel Cruea wanted to be a marine biologist when she was in junior high. By the time high school rolled around, she had her sights set on being a fashion designer.
“I was really all over the place,” Cruea said. “But it’s always been more creative thoughts.”
Now the Ohio Northern University junior from Findlay is on her way to becoming an accomplished poet. She recently won the 2016 Adroit Prize in poetry, an international contest for undergraduates and high school students presented by The Adroit Journal, an online literary magazine.
Cruea’s poem, “The Yellow Marrow Doesn’t Matter,” was selected by judge Corey Van Landingham from thousands of entries from around the world.
“This gorgeous, unswerving poem holds great power in its address to an ill sibling,” Van Landingham wrote. “Never florid, never easily sentimental, this poet knows: Illness is not grand.”
“We’re thrilled that Rachel’s work is receiving so much attention,” said Jennifer Moore, assistant professor of creative writing at Ohio Northern and Cruea’s adviser. “It speaks to the successes of the English department, the Getty College of Arts & Sciences and the university on the whole.”
Cruea said she was honored by the award.
“For me, this was the first time anyone who hasn’t been a classmate or a professor has ever said, ‘this is what this poem is doing, and doing well,’ ” she said. “And for me, that was my first moment where I’m like, there are people out there who are noticing what I’m trying to say.”
Becoming a poet
Cruea, 20, is the daughter of two university professors. Her father, Mark Cruea, teaches communications at ONU, while her mother, Susan Cruea, is an English professor at Bowling Green State University.
“I always loved reading from a young age,” Cruea said. “My mom was reading me books every single night before bed. I can never remember not liking reading, but poetry was actually something I wasn’t very familiar with.”
She first tried her hand at writing poems in junior high school.
“They were probably really awful. Like really, really bad,” she laughed. “You have to start with the bad stuff to realize what you do well.”
Cruea later took an introductory creative writing class as a sophomore at Findlay High School.
“That’s when I really on my own kind of started getting poetry,” she said. “And I started writing and realizing that maybe this is what I wanted to do.”
During her senior year, Cruea did post-secondary work at the University of Findlay which included a creative writing course.
“It was all poetry-based,” Cruea said. “That was my main exposure to it for the first time.”
After high school graduation in 2013, she was accepted at Ohio Northern where she is a double major in creative writing and literature. In addition to her classes, she tutors students at the campus writing center and is editor-in-chief of Polaris, ONU’s creative writing magazine.
“I love it so much,” she said. “This school is very small … and the English department here is very intimate. I like that so much. I get so much hands-on attention from my professors. All of them know me by name, even if I haven’t had them in class before, and it’s a very nice, creative environment.”
Poetry is Cruea’s main focus.
“I think poets and fiction writers have very different brains,” she said. “Fiction, you’re focused on plot and character development and narrative and telling a cohesive story, whereas poetry is a lot more reliant on abstract feelings and emotions.”
Poets have to choose their words carefully, she said.
“Every single word in a poem has to be vital. Nothing can be extra,” she explained. “I love the quick intimacy that’s in a poem.”
Cruea works in all forms of poetry, but often uses free verse.
“I can’t ever start a piece and be like, this is what the poem is going to be about, and then write it. Otherwise I feel like you limit yourself a little bit,” she said. “Usually I’ll find, like, an interesting word or an interesting phrase that I start thinking about. I almost become a little bit obsessed with it.”
‘I’ve got to write this down’
She went with something familiar for the topic of her winning poem: her younger brother’s battle with cancer. Conner, who is a senior at Findlay High School, was diagnosed with primary bone lymphoma in 2015.
“At the time when I wrote this in January, I was struggling with this whole thing,” she said.
Cruea said doctors determined that his arm would be “too brittle” after treatment to play baseball.
“He, at the time, his sophomore year, had been playing for varsity on baseball and doing so well,” she said. “And for a 17-year-old boy, that’s your identity, that’s all you have,” she said. “You go to baseball practice. That’s where your friends are. That’s how you grow and learn to be a leader and come into yourself and it was gone.”
Cruea said she found herself wondering why this had happened to her brother.
“This poor kid has so much ahead of him and is spending his high school year going to Columbus every single day to get radiation treatment and is losing the one thing that he found right now that he likes,” she said. “The unfairness of that situation was so ridiculous.”
Conner was successfully treated with three rounds of chemotherapy and three weeks of radiation. He is now in remission, Cruea said.
The title of the poem came from him, she said. Conner plans to major in pre-med and biology at Ohio Northern next year. He hopes to be an oncologist.
“He was explaining, you have red and yellow marrow in your bone. The red is your blood cells, the important stuff. But the yellow marrow is like fat, so it’s stuff you don’t need as much,” Cruea said. “And he said to me, ‘the yellow marrow doesn’t matter, basically.’ And I was like, ‘I’ve got to write this down.’ That’s where it stemmed from.”
Writing the poem happened quickly, but editing it was extremely hard, she said.
“It was already a lot of stuff I was feeling pretty intensely and I was still processing it, I think, myself,” she said.
Cruea worked with Moore on editing to make sure the piece was as clear as possible.
“I wanted to make sure it portrayed what I wanted it, to not only the people who were reading it in general, but what I wanted to say to him (Conner) through the poem itself,” she said.
The poem was one of six submissions she sent to The Adroit Journal.
Founded in 2010 by poet Peter LaBerge, the journal strives to showcase what its global staff sees as the future of poetry, prose and art.
A few days after submitting her entries for general publication, Cruea received an email from LaBerge, telling her the staff liked her pieces and wanted to submit them for consideration in the journal’s annual contest.
“I was like, of course, absolutely. I was really excited. At the time I thought, at least I’m being considered. I was just happy to have that,” she said.
Cruea learned her poem was the winning entry in late February.
“I just wasn’t expecting it whatsoever,” she said. “I remember calling my parents, and it was so exciting and surreal.”
“After reading the comments that the judge wrote about my poem, and reading that thousands of people had submitted to this, that’s when it really started to set in,” she said.
“Out of all these things, I was so lucky to be selected.”
While there’s no monetary award associated with the prize, Cruea said winning will help her when it comes time to apply for graduate school.
“Me winning this was, like, something good came out of a really, really scary, stupid situation,” she said. “It gives me a level of validation and an edge that’s really going to help me for grad school, and I can’t be more grateful for that.”
To read Cruea’s poem and learn more about the prize, visit www.theadroitjournal.org/the-2016-adroit-prizes.
Send an E-mail to Jeannie Wolf