SAGES fellow wins poetry award, book publication

Brad Ricca, a SAGES Fellow at Case Western Reserve University who teaches classes on comic books and biography, is earning accolades for a more traditional form of literature: poetry.

Among those accolades is the honor of having Garrison Keillor personally select his poem “The Beautiful Sandwich” to read Thursday, Jan. 26, on his national NPR show The Writer’s Almanac.

His first book of verse, American Mastodon, won the St. Lawrence Book Award. The prize is awarded yearly to an unpublished collection of poems or short stories, which is then published by Black Lawrence Press.

Ricca is well acquainted with superheroes both past and present, but it was another larger-than-life figure that inspired his book’s title. American Mastodon refers to a grand, shaggy mastodon with 15-foot curving tusks at the Cleveland Museum of Natural History. The prehistoric creature loomed large for Ricca, who visited the museum both as a child and as an adult.

His reaction, he said, was: “Here’s this massive animal that once freely roamed Earth and now doesn’t move an inch in the museum.”

Its “real-surreal” existence elicited an emotional reaction from Ricca, which he voiced in his book’s title poem. He wrote:

The eye floating twelve feet high,
single and blue
Of the American Mastodon

Ricca’s foray into poetry began as he completed his PhD in English at Case Western Reserve under the guidance of key mentors Gary Stonum and the late Robert Wallace, who left him with the message that all writing is creative.

Ricca began to write with a phrase here and a thought there. He turned his attention to it from time to time over roughly 10 years to shape the words into poems.

He says he let go of his fear that his work wouldn’t be liked, and his work began to appear in publications. The first was a small regional magazine named Monkeyspank and, later, national journals such as The Kerf, The Coe Review, 6ix, The White Pelican Review, Luna Negra, Caesura, Black Dirt, Albatross and others.

Two years ago, he collected all those poems and answered Black Lawrence Press’ call for book entries from poets, novelists and playwrights. Ricca is the 2009 winner of the award, although the prize is awarded upon publication of the book. American Mastodon was printed in late 2011.

Ricca said he didn’t take the traditional route to become a poet; he simply started recording his thoughts and entering poetry contests. So when acceptance of his book arrived, he recalled, “It nearly knocked me over.”

His poems tell stories about subjects such as a teen’s desire for a date with Madonna and an imaginary Bigfoot adventure in a department store. Of course, the superheroes with which he is so familiar make an appearance in his poetry as well.

Ricca connects broad topics in his poetry, including geology, anthropology, culture and the sciences, by using emotions and personal insight to leave readers searching for new answers.

When teaching his courses, Ricca attempts to impart the lessons he’s learned from his own writing journey.

“I tell them just let go and write,” he said, adding that the writer will find an audience and an audience will find the writer.