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2023 President’s Award Winner Finds Creativity Through Darkness

Annie Przypyszny is recipient of AU’s highest undergraduate honor, the 2023 President's Award.President Sylvia Burwell and poet Annie Przypyszny, the 2023 President's Award recipient. (Jeffrey Watts/AU)

By Jonathan Heeter 

Poet Annie Przypyszny, CAS/BA ’22, is an open book when it comes to her mental health. The McLean, Virginia, native explores her struggles in her creative work and hopes her vulnerability and honesty inspire others in similar situations. 

“I try to write poetry that can matter to people,” said Przypyszny, the 2023 President’s Award winner. “I want people to connect with it. If they’re struggling, I want people to know that you can always bounce back from struggles to succeed.” 

Przypyszny’s path led her from Gettysburg College to American University. After arriving in Pennsylvania at the start of her college career, she felt isolated and wanted to be closer to home. Returning to Northern Virginia gave Przypyszny a chance to start fresh at AU. 

She discovered a community of professors and peers who pushed her to develop her writing talent and refine her creativity. CAS professors Melissa Scholes Young, David Keplinger, and Kyle Dargan—the latter two poets—were particularly supportive, Przypyszny said, inspiring her to pursue teaching. The founder of AU’s Creative Writing Club, Przypyszny, will teach a class on reimagining the love poem at the Writer’s Center in Bethesda this summer.  

“As a student, she is diligent and devoted to her work,” Scholes-Young said. “As a peer, she leads with a healthy sense of humor. As a research assistant and editor, she is organized, flexible, and reliable. As a person, Annie is moral, honest, and creative. In the three years I’ve worked with Annie, I’ve grown to admire her conviction, ambition, and talent. Annie simply makes everything better.” 

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Przypyszny, who’s enrolling this fall in an MFA program at the University of Maryland, has been published in journals from Mississippi to North Dakota.  

“Annie is not only an accomplished scholar and talented writer, but she’s also focused on building community during her time at AU,” said President Sylvia Burwell. “As someone who excelled in academic pursuits and worked to create a welcoming place for fellowship and creativity, Annie embodies the changemaking spirit that is part of our DNA. I know she will have incredible impact in the years to come.”

Here, on the eve of commencement, the 2023 President’s Award winner talks about her craft: 

How did you start writing poetry? 

I’m not good at any other art form. I love art. I love music [but] I don’t think I showed outstanding skill in either of those. I just needed a creative outlet. Writing was what I felt I had the most control over. I started writing when I was 16. Those poems are so bad, but they were so cathartic. Poetry became the perfect outlet for expressing how I felt. You can get something on paper and make something of it. And it can matter to you. 

Some of your poems are quite short. Why don’t you find the format constrictive? 

Constriction is an opportunity to express myself. When dealing with mental illness, you have intense feelings, working with a lot of energy and passion. Sometimes it’s how the form works against the subject that can make the most meaning. The restriction of meter or short lines allows you to express the feeling of being pent up and full of energy you can’t release. Restriction of the form can create a potency. 

I’ve had poems about a feeling of immense anger, and it’s in couplets or shorter stanzas. I have to contain vast emotion into tiny, two-line stanzas. It creates a resistance, a back-and-forth pull that shows complexity. 

How has AU fostered your creative growth? 

Everybody who [undertakes] creative writing has the chance to be a good writer. The university can give you the tools to [tap into] your creativity with clarity and in a way that successfully expresses what you're trying to say. I got to experiment more than I ever would if I taught myself. Sometimes it just takes a professor to tell you, ‘Oh, no, that’s good. You need to try that more. You’re restricting yourself there.’ There’s somebody to encourage you, and that meant a lot to me. 

How do you find inspiration? 

Other writers—because I write a lot based on books. I write to a character in a book or write about a trope using epigraphs. A great way to start is by using a quote or passage from a book. And I just meditate on it. I’m interested right now in the concept of the adolescent girl as a misaligned and trivialized demographic. I’ve been looking to Victorian literature because many characters who are often villainized are teenage girls, which is interesting. 

An idea often comes from focusing on a moment. I write a lot of narrative poetry. For me, it’s not sitting and thinking about what I’m writing today. As an example, I've been trying to write this poem for a long time from this weird memory. When I was eight, we were on the airport tram. I used to tie knots in my hair when I was nervous. My mom would always cut them. This woman next to us on the tram said she used to do that as a kid, and she knew who to untie them. For some reason, my parents let this stranger untie the knot. I just keep thinking I need to write about that. It’s a memory—pleasant or unpleasant—that creates a spark. I don’t know how it turns out—that woman may not even be in it—but there’s something there. 

The following poem was originally published in North Dakota Quarterly.

Hello Lightheaded Day

Hello pristine puddles, hello cloud-in-palm. 

Don’t mind me if I walk like a seasick lamb,  

I have more balance than meets the eye. 

The well-postured rainfall reminds me not 

to drop.  

I’m trying to recognize the neighborhood 

I live in every day, and I’m succeeding. See,  

that's the house that looks like a ski lodge. See,  

that’s the house with a stone angel on its lawn. 

Hello angel.  

That’s the house with a faux balcony. And that’s  

the one where Flash the black cat lives, also  

with a faux balcony. There’s the house that burned  

down when I was little, ashes cloaking the grass 

like snow. 

Hello pear tree, hello clean gray sky. Hello mailbox  

after mailbox. The street stretches on like a long,  

serene yawn. I’m starting to feel a bit 

deathless. The rain is gentle, then strong, then 

gentle again.