McKenzie Jensen

McKenzie Jensen leaves Lees-McRae as a NC State Poetry Contest finalist

Senior McKenzie Jensen has been named a finalist in the NC State Poetry Contest for her poem “Sometimes Nana visits me but this time she’s a robin.”

The NC State Poetry Contest is an annual competition open to any poet in North Carolina who has not published a book of poetry. Writers submit up to three poems, which are evaluated by guest judges. The NC State Poetry Contest “remains one of the largest free-to-enter poetry contests in the South,” according to its website.

Jensen, who will be graduating May 8 with a degree in History and a minor in English, said, “It’s nice to be recognized for my work, especially when I didn’t think it held the qualities to be considered something that great by panelists. It’s nice that something I thought was just for fun can bring value to other people.”

The poem was written for a class assignment that required the students to use a title or a line from another poem to inspire their own work. The inspiration for “Sometimes Nana visits me but this time she’s a robin” was the poem “Let’s Get Some Better Angels for This Party” by Morgan Parker.

Assistant Professor Matthew Wimberley told all the students in his Advanced Poetry Writing course about the contest and invited them to submit their work. Jensen said that she picked the poems to submit to the contest almost at random because she didn’t seriously believe she had a chance at receiving recognition, but that she is proud of her work on “Sometimes Nana visits me but this time she’s a robin.”

“I felt like it was one of my stronger poems because it was more genuine and deeply meant something,” said Jensen. “It was also one of the ones I spent more time editing and rewriting because I wanted it to be good, and I wanted it to be an ode to my Nana, who has since passed.”

Jensen’s grandmother passed away in 2019. “I was trying to formulate a poem around the line ‘let’s get some better angels for this party,’ and she’s one of the most memorable people in my life who has passed,” Jensen said. “She’s always been a great person in my life and I thought it made sense for her to have something written about her. It has a couple of jarring visuals that I wouldn’t necessarily want her to read, but it fits my writing style and it was a way for me to talk about our relationship in a way that I thought other people would also enjoy reading about.”

In the poem, Jensen reflects on her relationship with her grandmother and her grandmother’s final days. She explained why she chose that specific topic, saying, “It also allowed me to be honest. My Nana, she was a great person, a great individual to me, but she had a harder time in her last bit of life. I thought it was important to show that vulnerability that she couldn’t hide.”

The title of the poem speaks to a belief that Jensen and her mother have that her grandmother now returns to them as a robin, which was her favorite bird.  

Writing comes naturally to Jensen, who says she “dabbled” in poetry as a stress reliever throughout her life. As a History major and English minor, she has had plenty of opportunity to hone her skills, particularly with research and academic writing. She also participated in two of English Professor and Stephenson Center for Appalachia Director Michael Joslin’s ghost story contents, winning one and receiving an honorable mention for the other.  

Jensen was initially drawn to Lees-McRae because of the area, and later learned that her mother had attended when it was a two-year college.

“It was nice for me to hear her memories and see how much she lit up when she talked about the campus,” Jensen said. “I’m really close with my mom, so it was just another way for us to connect and bond.”

Originally, Jensen was a Wildlife Biology major, then switched into Biology. Her sophomore year, after struggling with the workload in her classes, she officially chose History and English because of her love of writing and her desire to be a lifelong learner.

“It’s been a good challenge, but it’s also been enough of what I already know how to do,” she said. “Now I’m able to elevate my writing, instead of struggling to know how to write,” she said.

Jensen’s favorite classes have been anything taught by Robert Turpin, Scott Huffard, or Michael Joslin, and Megan Nye Tewell’s African-American History course. “Out of the whole time I’ve been here, I think that’s the class that’s made the deepest impact on me,” she said.

After graduation, Jensen plans to return home and continue looking for a job. She isn’t sure where she wants to end up, but she knows she wants to help others and put her talents to good use.

As Jensen graduates from Lees-McRae, she is grateful for the opportunities that have helped her grow, from participating in clubs to learning how to network to earning her place as a finalist in a statewide poetry competition.

“Freshman year, I thought this was a beautiful campus and wanted to be here from everything I’d read,” said Jensen. “Being a senior now, I think my reasons for being here have definitely deepened. I’ve made a lot of close-knit relationships with faculty and my friends. It feels more like a second home than just a pretty campus now.”


    Sometimes Nana visits me but this time she’s a robin

    Nana was 86 when she left

    She seemed her age

    she seemed older

    her hair didn’t hold its styled curl anymore

    Shirley temple-esque

    she was always so defiant


    Her mind had run away since before we put her in the home

    She was never rendered immobile

    or spoon-fed

    but she did complain at dinner

    about how she didn’t know anyone

    and how the food was bad

    and how the people were annoying like children

    she didn’t know why she had to stay in this place


    let’s get better angels at this party

    no need

    Nana’s right here


    she called me

    sweet pea

    sweetest girl in the whole wide world

    blue bird


    I wonder what she wanted to call me

    When she found me watching porn in the back room next to her sleeping basset hounds and family relics

    At age 10

    I was curious


    she wrote me a letter before she passed

    I can’t find it

    With jagged lumpy letters and an unsteady hand she told me goodbye

By Emily WebbApril 14, 2021