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ISU Student Finds Voice Through Poetry, Wins National Honor

Naudia Williams closeup
Illinois State University
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ISU English Major Naudia WIlliams was recently named America’s Best College Poet.";

An Illinois State University student with a gift for words and a heart for equality has been nationally recognized for her poetry skills.

English education major Naudia Williams brought her best content to the stage as she battled it out with students across the country for a cash prize and bragging rights at this year’s America’s Best College Poet competition.

Williams said as time led up to the award, she was doubtful and nervous.

"There were three rounds and every round I'd psych myself out like, 'Oh my god I could've said that better, I could've projected my voice more, what if they don't like the poem, what if it's not as analytical?’" she recalled.

But the feelings subsided soon after. When she was announced as the winner, tears fell from her eyes.

"We got to the final round and they were supposed to announce our scores before the final poet, but they didn't, so I'm praying like, 'God I don't know what 's going on, if I don't win it's okay,'” she said. “Then they announced that I won and tears ran down my face. I had makeup on that day and I was crying so hard."

Most of Williams’s poetry resonates with the African American community. She said one of the reasons she got into poetry is it allows her to express emotions that are often taboo.

“For the majority of my life I was told that little black girls should be quiet,” Williams said. “Little Black girls are meant to be seen but not heard because when you’re an outspoken Black woman they always determine that you’re angry, or you're bitter, or you’re mean. Poetry allows me to be as Black as I need be with no repercussions.” 

Williams said poetry has played a huge role in boosting her confidence.

“Poetry changes how I project my voice,” she explained. “In today’s society, a Black woman expressing herself is dangerous and it’s lethal. Poetry allows me to get away with something that feels illegal.” 

As stereotypes grow as a consequence for challenges faced by members of the Black community, some choose to withdraw from conversations. Williams said growing up it was words from Black women that instilled a sense of hope in her, and that those same voices are needed for the new generation of Black kids today.

"If it wasn't for the words of my mother, if it wasn't for the words of Maya Angelou, shoot if it wasn't for the words of Beyoncé, where would Black women be without inspirational Black women speaking into them?" Williams asked. "There is so much power in words coming from Black women and we see that every time Michelle Obama decides to share with us who she is, being a Black woman from the southside of Chicago."

At one point, Williams almost quit poetry. After coming in third place at a national NAACP competition, she began to feel she wasn't good enough to continue.

"This time around I was really giving up on myself in poetry because I felt like I was so on fire for it in the beginning until the fire began to fizzle out," she said. "The day I won reaffirmed this was something I was supposed to be doing, that my voice was something that needed to be consistently heard.”

In the future, Williams hopes to make a difference in the way poetry is taught.

Williams said she's also considering writing a book of poems, adding she has accomplished a lot within the craft, but there are plenty more milestones to go.

Williams plans to graduate from ISU next year, and intends to get her master's degree in creative writing with a focus on poetry. She wants to become a poetry professor.

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Tiffani Jackson is a reporting intern at WGLT and a student at Illinois State University's School of Communication. She started working at WGLT in summer 2019.