POET LAUREATES OF THE UNITED STATES
Joyce Sutphen: Minnesota Poet Laureate
At what age did you start writing? The first thing I remember writing was a melodramatic cowboy “novel” that my fifth grade teacher confiscated (I was working on it during math class!) and never returned. I also remember exchanging long fictionalized notes (also written in class) with my best friend, and then, in high school, I began to write poems—but I really didn’t begin to write with confidence until I spent a few months in London when I was 40 (with a room of my own and that marvelous city just outside my door!). The poems I wrote during that time became part of my first book.
Can you share some of the inspirations for your writing? I have been memorizing poems that I admire for quite a long time now, and those poems get down into my heart and mind and echo in my work. Sometimes the inspiration comes from a story I hear on the radio or from the way the sky looks over the hundred acre marsh behind my house, and sometimes I just wake up with a phrase or idea in my mind and know I have to write about it. Sometimes when I sit down to write, I doodle and look out the window. That can be inspiring too—especially when I start writing (just starting is so important) and “learn by going where I have to go.” And if nothing is coming, I pull a book of poems off of my shelf and read until I feel something tugging at me, some idea that wants exploring.
What are some of the challenges you’ve faced? I’m naturally a very shy person. I never gave speeches in high school (or even college), and it was only the love of the material (literature, poetry especially) that drew me to teaching. I also do not like putting myself forward; I would much rather listen than talk, and I like to think about things for a while before I give an opinion. All of these things are fine for the poet writing—but giving readings and talks are things that a published poet has to do, especially if to one’s amazement, she becomes a poet laureate. I have had to learn to go outside of my comfort zone in order to do a lot of the things I am asked to do; luckily I love poetry, and I have learned quite a bit in the process.
Describe turning points in your career as a writer. Winning the Barnard New Women Poets Prize was a great break for me. I was in my early forties, but I’d only been (seriously) writing poems for about three years, and I was encouraged when some of the first poems I sent out were published in Poetry and American Poetry Review and other journals. I put together a manuscript in this way: I simply sat down on the floor in an empty room with all the poems I had written, sorted them into groups, and then found some kind of order for each section. I remember feeling uncertain (but happy) when I put the manuscript in the mail, and then I forgot about it for months and months—until I got the call, saying I had won and my book would be coming out with Beacon Press.
Who were/are some of your mentors? I have only had a couple of poetry teachers; as an undergraduate at the University of Minnesota, I learned much in two courses I took from a poet named Michael Dennis Browne, and just before my first book came out, I had a mentorship with Claribel Alegria. In graduate school, I wrote prose (fiction, memoir, and a doctoral dissertation on Shakespeare and Memory)—that is, until that transformative time in London—but I consider the professors I studied with then (Patricia Hampl, Carol Bly, and Thomas Clayton) as key to any good work I have done in any genre. These days, I am lucky to have great friends who are poets—Connie Wanek, Louis Jenkins, Tim Nolan, Patricia Kirkpatrick, and Freya Manfred, to name a few. I’ve learned so much from all of them (and others); Minnesota is filled with good poets and writers!
List some of your favorite books/poems. Naturally, the poems I’ve memorized are favorites—I have memorized about fifty of Shakespeare’s sonnets, and I have a different favorite on any given week or so. Currently, I love Sonnet 104, which begins, “To me, fair friend, you never can be old / For as you were when first your eye I eyed, / Such seems your beauty still.” Shakespeare is so terrific to say out loud—and so “ intelligent” (as T.S. Eliot said). Other poems in my memory: lots of Yeats, especially “Sailing to Byzantium,“ Among School Children,” “The Wild Swans at Coole,” and “In Memory of Eva Gore-Booth and Con Markiewitz.” Elizabeth Bishop, Robert Frost, Seamus Heaney, Emily Dickinson, Wallace Stevens, Theodore Roethke, Seamus Heaney, W.S. Merwin, James Wright, Rilke, Wislawa Szymborska, Adam Zagajewski, Hopkins, Wordsworth, Bob Dylan—the list goes on and on.
What is your advice to young writers today? My advice is to read, read, read! There’s nothing more important than that. As a college teacher, I can easily tell which writers have been readers—they’re miles ahead of the rest. Don’t worry about being “influenced” by a writer you love; read everything you can by that writer and start thinking about why you love the way she puts words together or the way he ends a poem. At the same time, my advice is to write as much as you can. Be one of those people who try to write every single day; keep a journal where you can keep your pen moving. Practice, set goals for yourself (a poem a day or a certain amount of time at your desk, writing), and then remember that it isn’t just talent you need, but also hard work.#