Laurel Radzieski at the 2023 Day of Service.

Director of grants at Alvernia by day, Laurel Radzieski grants herself some poetic license when she’s off the clock.

Already a published author – “Red Mother,” her first collection of poems, was issued by NYQ Books in 2018 – she’s readying the release of a second collection, “Leaf Manifesto.” And that release may come with some significant breeze at her back.

Radzieski has been named one of four finalists for the 2024 Sowell Emerging Writers Prize. This is the second year for the contest, a collaboration between the Sowell Collection at Texas Tech University;, an independent magazine promoting original works tackling climate and justice; and Texas Tech University Press. Contest submissions must be book-length manuscripts focusing on the natural world by writers with no more than one book to their name. The winner, who will receive a $1,000 prize and have his or her book published by Texas Tech University Press, will be announced by March 1.

“I'm thrilled even just to be considered a finalist,” Radzieski said. “I've looked at the other finalists and semi-finalists and there's a lot of heavy hitters in the group.”

Radzieski entered the contest because its parameters aligned so much with the manuscript she recently finished following about four years of writing and rewriting. “Leaf Manifesto” explores the trend of women turning into trees, filtered through the lens of standardized testing.

“It's also about gender,” she said. “It's about what a woman's place is in today's society and also environmentalism. The book right now is around 80 pages, but it's not laid out like a typical poetry book. It's hybrid poetry. So instead of having one piece per page, it's more of a narrative where you're reading a long-form poem.”

If Radzieski is honored for her second poetry collection, that will make her two for two in that regard. In 2020, her debut release received the Whirling Prize from Etchings Press, a student-run publisher at the University of Indianapolis.

Radzieski received a Master of Fine Arts in Creative Writing from Goddard College in 2014 after earning a Bachelor of Arts in Communication Arts & Humanities from Keystone College. So how did she become involved in the polar opposite world of grant writing?

“Ah, well, because poetry, shockingly, doesn't always pay the bills,” she said.

Working at a nonprofit while earning her master’s degree, Radzieski was told by her supervisor that if she learned how to write grants, she’d never have to worry about making a living with her writing. That helped free her from financial stress. And the two professions balance out each other nicely, she said.

“The poetry adds to my grant writing,” Radzieski said. “A lot of grant writing is very, very technical and sometimes people lose the storytelling. So I like writing grants because I can infuse that into it. But I also think that being a grant writer helps me be concise when writing poems. And it's nice because I can separate play and work very easily, you know. I will say it's not an easy flip from one to the other. I don't sit and write a grant and then in the middle go, oh, wait, there's a poem in there."

She makes it a point to carve out time in her schedule to write, taking retreats at least twice a year, where she’ll go away for a week or so by herself to focus on her craft.

“My writing process is kind of a mess,” she said. “I buy the same brand of notebook every year from a big box store in different colors. And I carry that notebook around with me at all times. Everything goes in and then usually once I get through three or four notebooks, that's when I know it's time to harvest. Some of the poems in the manuscript have gone through 20 to 30 revisions. I went on a residency last fall for four days, and when I came out of it, I had fixed one line of one poem. And that was very productive for me.”

Because she already went through the experience of releasing a book, cultivating an audience of fans – mostly undergraduate students – in the process, Radzieski expects the eventual publication of “Leaf Manifesto” to be an exciting new phase of her writing career. But she doesn’t take success for granted. She’s still shocked when someone reviews “Red Mother” on Goodreads or Amazon.

“Poetry often doesn't have legs like that,” she said. “So I'm excited with this book because now I have a readership. There's always the wondering how the book will be received by readers because it's very different from ‘Red Mother.’ There will always be people who wish it was the same or similar, and people who will be excited because they'll find something new. This is one of my favorite things I've ever written. I can’t wait to share it.”