Let's Give Them Sutphen to Talk About
We have something really great to stir into your coffee on this ever so fall-ish morn. Joyce Sutphen, a graduate of the University of Minnesota's MA and Ph.D programs in English Literature, was recently named the poet laureate of our great flannel state. She graciously agreed to answer a few questions for us about her writing and what it's like to preside over Minnesota's poetry kingdom.
This is a basic question, but how does it feel to receive a title like "poet laureate?"
It feels a bit unreal; I can't explain how it happened or what I did to deserve the title. People like to tease me ("Where are your laurels?" "Do I have to address you as Madame Poet Laureate?"), and I laugh and change the subject.
Is there a difference between a poet's laureate's responsibilities to the (general) public and his/her responsibilities to the writing community?
I hope not, because I don't think in those terms. I write for passionate intelligent readers, and those readers are part of the writing community that exists in every part of the state.
Minnesota is not the only thing you write about, but it's something that surfaces and resurfaces throughout your body of work. Is there some aspect or part of Minnesota you've been preoccupied with in your writing lately?
I haven't finished with writing about my family and the experience of growing up on a small farm. That's material that keeps looking different to me and I continue to try to get it down, to create something that conveys what's being lost when those independent little places disappear. Lately I have been writing poems about the late 60s, when I was an undergraduate at the University and the early 70s, when I was trying to find my way through ... life.
Which contemporary Minnesota poets are you excited about?
I feel fortunate to have met so many fine Minnesota poets over the years. I especially admire Connie Wanek (of Duluth), Tim Nolan (Minneapolis), Patricia Kirkpatrick (St. Paul) and Phil Bryant (St. Peter). These four are excellent poets in very different ways and make a sort of poetic compass for me. We often send each other new poems and talk about who we are reading. Lately I have been admiring Ed Bok Lee's new book, Whorled, Jim Moore's beautiful Invisible Strings, and Bill Reichard's Sin Eater. Of course, there are poets I have admired for years and those I've come to read and admire more recently. I tried to make a list, but it's impossible!
Can you give us a prompt for a poem?
For me, most poems come in one of two ways: either I get an idea or some words and I obey the direction of that prompting and start writing or I start reading poems (from a volume I'm currently reading or a book I pull from the shelf) until something (an idea or a word) catches my imagination and I pick up a pen and write. In the classroom, it's hard to present students with more than one poem, but sometimes I like to take a pair of poems that complement each other in some way (for example, James Wright's "Hook" and Mary Oliver's "Picking Blueberries, Austerlitz, New York, 1957"), read the poems out loud, talk about them a bit, and then give the class about ten minutes to write. I try not to suggest a direction in this kind of exercise, since I want the richness of the source poems to lead the way.