“It eases your heart to read Joyce Sutphen.” — Garrison Keillor
OUR NEW MINNESOTA POET LAUREATE, JOYCE SUTPHEN, was born and grew up on a working farm near St. Joseph in Stearns County. This rural background is something she shares with our first Laureate, Robert Bly. She is the eldest child in a large, talented, close-knit family.
Sutphen’s latest book, First Words (Red Dragonfly Press, 2010) describes her family’s farm and her early years; it reads like a memoir in poems. And like all good memoir, it describes more than personal experience, evoking a more universal experience, too, of rural and small town life in the 1950s. The collection is a warm, generous meditation, perhaps her most intimate book: we see her “at the top of the stairs” waving goodnight in “pajamas that had feet.” We see her hanging wash, and sitting on the top bale “bringing in the hay.” She writes poems praising the harrow and the oat binder and her favorite tractor, the “H.”
Hard work — Joyce Sutphen is used to it. She is the mother of three grown daughters; she is a grandmother, a professor of literature at Gustavus Adolphus College in St. Peter, and has published five books of poems. She is also modest, as befits — in the words of Duluth’s Louis Jenkins — “a true daughter of the Minnesota soil.”
Connie Wanek: How do you feel about following Robert Bly as Minnesota Poet Laureate?
Joyce Sutphen: Robert Bly is legendary and charismatic; to enumerate all of the ways that he’s been important to American poetry would take a long time (and many books)…Compared to Robert Bly, I have done nothing — in fact, there are many other poets in this state (and I could name a dozen right off the top of my head) who are much more accomplished and eloquent than I am. I am a surprising choice, but here’s what I think: no one could adequately follow Robert, so I make a great contrast, and whoever follows me won’t have to worry.
CW: What poems or poets made you want to begin writing poems of your own? When did you become serious about your literary work?
JS: I’ve always been an eclectic reader. In high school, I especially liked e.e. cummings, carried his books around with me, and wrote poems that looked and sounded like his. In college, I loved Shakespeare, Milton, the Romantic poets (all of them) and Blake and Yeats — but I began to feel overwhelmed. I couldn’t imagine being able to write the kind of poem I was reading. Some years later, I discovered those wonderful books published by Nodin Press (25 Minnesota Poets #1 and #2) where I fell in love with contemporary Minnesota poetry. I was lucky to be able to finish my undergraduate degree with evening courses taught by Michael Dennis Browne and Patricia Hampl — both of whom have always been incredibly helpful and generous…I started getting serious about writing poetry in 1990, when I found myself in London for three months, with a room of my own. I found my voice there too, and a number of the poems in my first book were written in London.
Sutphen’s first book, Straight Out of View, won the 1994 Barnard New Women Poets Prize and was first published by Beacon Press (it has since been reprinted by Holy Cow! Press). It’s a book in five sections, one of them containing those London poems she mentions, and others touching on themes that she would continue to develop in later work. Here is a poem called “Tornado Warning” that seems an early argument in favor of the literary merit of her home state:
That is not the country for poetry.
It has no mountains, its flowers
are plain and never poisonous,
its gardens are packed into blue mason jars.
There are no hedges bordering the roads, the sky
flies up from the ditches, loose in every
Yet I knew it to be passionate,
even in its low rolling hills, where a red
tractor pushed through the oat field, cutting
down gold straw and beating a stream
of grain into the wagon trailing behind
in the stubble,
I knew it to be melodious
in its birch woods, leaves shadowing
a stone-strewn river, the path along the bank
softened with pine needles, sunlight
woven in and out of branches, the many
colors of green, solid as a pipe organ’s
I knew it would haunt
the memory with its single elm,
where a herd of cows found shade
in the July heat, their bony tails
swinging the tufted bristle left and right
over the high ledge of a hip bone,
while at the horizon, a black fist
of storm came on, something not
to be averted, something singular
in its fury,
as any blind heart knows.
The last poem in Sutphen’s first book is called “Crossroads,” and it ends with a prediction, or perhaps a hope, about “the second half of my life.”
The second half of my life will be ice
breaking up on the river, rain
soaking the fields, a hand
held out, a fire,
and smoke going
upward, always up.
It’s interesting that her second book, Coming Back to the Body, ends with a poem that has a similar trajectory. Take the first stanza of “The Assumption:”
That would be the way to go:
straight up on a cloud,
the crowd below craning
their necks as you disappeared
out of view and then
the wondering: which cloud
overhead was under you.
In this poem, “assumption” has several facets, several meanings, each examined as the poem progresses. It’s used as a verb as well as a noun. Many readers have remarked upon the word play and wit in the poetry of Joyce Sutphen. These qualities are, as well, essential features of Shakespeare’s sonnets and his plays. Coincidence?
CW: Who are your three biggest literary influences?
JS: Shakespeare, Bob Dylan, Elizabeth Bishop.
On that note, here is a new Joyce Sutphen sonnet:
The Bob Dylan Dream
So here is one of the best dreams I’ve
ever had: I am in New York City,
and everything is closed tight except
for one door that is wide open and seems
inviting, so I go through and up the
stairs to a room with wood floors and
a window seat where Bob Dylan is waiting
for me, and we have a long talk about
love and poetry, and afterwards we
stand up and fly over the Village, which
is quiet until we hear some music
a few blocks away so we fly there, and
it’s the Jefferson Airplane Marching Band!
Tell me-does it get much better than that?
CW: You are admired for your adventurous sonnets. In fact, Red Dragonfly Press published a gorgeous hand-printed book of them, Fourteen Sonnets, in 2005. How is working in a form different from writing free verse, for you?
JS: Thank you for calling the sonnets “adventurous.” I think that’s probably a charitable way to describe a process that is both casual and formal. I started memorizing sonnets when I was writing my dissertation, which was called Shakespeare and the Art of Memory. At first, I simply wanted to see if I could memorize…but pretty soon, I wanted to have poems in my memory so that I could think about them, so that I could feel how the words worked together…
You know how we say, “You are what you eat”? In a memory culture, you were what you memorized (that is, what you fed your brain) — you built up your own private archive. Saying those sonnets out loud (“Not marble nor the gilded monuments/ Of princes shall outlive this powerful rhyme…”) put those meters down into my bones (at least that’s what I hope).
When I write a “sonnet” though, I don’t try to imitate the way a Shakespeare sonnet sounds; the only “rule” I have is that the poem should have fourteen lines, with ten syllables in each line, but I also think rules make it possible to break rules.
Sometimes after working very hard to get an idea into a sonnet, I’ll turn to a new page and re-cast the subject in free verse. Sometimes that really feels wonderful, like changing from dress clothes to jeans — but that’s not a good analogy, because free verse is just as complex as a sonnet, you’re just paying attention to different things, technically. The important thing is what the “container” contains.
CW: What are your most enduring subjects when you approach the blank page?
JS: That’s not hard to answer, after I’ve been wrestling with a number of possible shapes for a new manuscript. My last book [First Words] was almost exclusively about my family and growing up on a small farm. I write about that quite often. My first two books [Straight Out of View and Coming Back to the Body, Holy Cow Press, 2000] both had sections that had rural subjects, but my third book, Naming the Stars [Holy Cow Press, 2004], was mainly about relationships (falling in and out of love, trying hard to be good and kind). I often write about poets and poetry, in response, I suppose, to being immersed in teaching courses in British Literature or Modern Poetry, but I’m not so sure those poems are “enduring subjects.” I’ve always written poems that express my thankfulness to be living in the body (even as the years change how that feels!), and I’ve always been a fan of memento mori, which means “remember that you are mortal.”
Here are two poems. The first is one of Sutphen’s earliest on the aforementioned theme, and the second, a sonnet, is from Naming the Stars:
Death Becomes Me
Death has been checking me out,
making himself at home in my body,
as if he needed to know his way
through the skin, faintly rippling
over the cheekbone to the hollow
beneath my eyes, loosening
the tightly wound ligaments
in the arm, the leg,
infirming the muscle
with his subtle caress,
traveling along the nerve,
leaping from one synapse
to the next, weaving his dark threads
into the chord that holds me tall.
Death is counting my hair,
figuring out the linear equation
of my veins and arteries,
the raised power
of a million capillaries,
acquainting himself with the
calculus of my heart,
accessing the archives
of memory, reading them
forward and backward,
finding his name everywhere.
Death comes to rest in my womb,
slaking away the rich velvet
of those walls, silently halting
the descending pearls,
as if he could burrow in
and make himself my mother,
as if he could bare my bones
and bring me to that other birth.
At the Moment
Suddenly, I stopped thinking about Love,
after so many years of only that,
after thinking that nothing else mattered.
And what was I thinking of when I stopped
thinking about Love? Death, of course — what else
could take Love’s place? What else could hold such force?
I thought about how far away Death once
had seemed, how unexpected that it could
happen to someone that I knew quite well,
how impossible that this should be the
normal thing, as natural as frost and
winter. I thought about the way we’d aged,
how skin fell into wrinkles, how eyes grew
dim; then (of course) my love, I thought of you.
Joyce Sutphen co-edited the prize-winning anthology, To Sing Along the Way: Minnesota Women Poets from Pre-Territorial Days to the Present (New Rivers Press, 2006). During the research for this book, she and the other editors came upon the little-remembered fact that in 1934 the League of Minnesota Poets took it upon themselves to name a poet laureate for the state, and their first selection was Margaret Ball Dickson, from Staples. But no one followed Ms. Dickson, and the idea was dropped.
A few years ago, a new effort was born, sponsored this time by the legislature, and on February 27, 2008 Robert Bly was appointed as the first Minnesota Poet Laureate of our “modern era.” To describe Joyce Sutphen, our second: She is tall and has auburn hair, very curly, and a radiant face. She is an attentive listener, inclining her head and looking often at the speaker, and she remembers names better than anyone you’ve ever met.
Tim Nolan, a fellow poet, says of Joyce Sutphen, “Everyone loves her and her work; she is from the center of the state; and she knows most of the Shakespeare sonnets by heart! She will be a great ambassador for poetry.” Margaret Hasse, author (most recently) of Milk and Tides, says she “turns to the work of Joyce Sutphen for its tenderness.”
The poet, editor, and teacher, Patricia Kirkpatrick, offers this appraisal:
“Generous and approachable in person, Joyce Sutphen inspires those who know poetry well and welcomes those who don’t. She knows that what looks straightforward — the surface of fieldwork, a lyric poem — can be misleading. The clarity of her poems is often the investigation — with subtle metaphors, fluent rhythms, wry observations, sometimes a quiet fury — of a mystery right in front of us: the poems create way-stations on what she has called ‘a long journey to find truth and beauty’ leading, ‘as usual…straight back to the beginning: home, country roads, the sun setting through the woods.’ Her poems invite readers to begin their own journeys, and to honor the place of language in life.”
About the author: Connie Wanek is the author, most recently, of On Speaking Terms (Copper Canyon Press, 2010), which was a 2011 nominee for the Minnesota Book Award for Poetry. Her work has appeared in Poetry, The Atlantic Monthly, The Virginia Quarterly Review, Narrative, Poetry East, and many other publications and anthologies. She has been awarded several prizes, including the Jane Kenyon Poetry Prize and the Willow Poetry Prize, and she was named the 2009 George Morrison Artist of the Year. Poet Laureate Ted Kooser named her a 2006 Witter Bynner Fellow of the Library of Congress. Her poem, “Polygamy,” was the grand prize winner in the 2010 What Light competition.