by TaLeiza Calloway – firstname.lastname@example.org
Students at All Saints Academy listened with big ears and watched with big eyes as Joyce Sutphen shared her love of poetry and admitted being shy in front of big crowds. The Minnesota poet laureate recently visited the school as part of its celebration of National Poetry Month and to see how much has changed since she once walked the halls.
“It’s wonderful to see all of the familiarities and the changes,” Sutphen said. “It’s still the same railing, the same stairs, the same brick building. It still feels familiar.”
The St. Joseph native was named Minnesota’s poet laureate in August 2011 by Gov. Mark Dayton. Sutphen succeeds Robert Bly, who was the first official poet laureate in 2007, shortly after the Legislature created the position. The Chaska resident teaches literature and creative writing at Gustavus Adolphus College in St. Peter.
She grew up on a farm near St. Joseph and remembers the feel of the small town. This was her first time returning to the school except for attending the Joetown Rocks! Concert and annual Fourth of July Parish festival in the summer, she said. As sixth-grade students Maggie O’Donnell and Hallie Hupf gave Sutphen a tour of her former school, they compared notes. Much has changed since she attended the school in the 50s and 60s. For example, she remembers the second-grade classroom was once the school’s library and the space now used as the library used to be a bowling alley. There was also no kindergarten class, just first- through eighth-grade. All Saints Academy currently teaches grades K-8.
During her tour of the school, she stopped to have lunch with students. She asked what projects they were working on as they ate their chicken sandwiches and corn and sipped their milk.
After the tour, the school held an assembly with Sutphen. Students welcomed her with a poem of their own.
Sutphen read one of her poems and even read the poem, “Hope,” by Emily Dickinson, one of her favorites. They enjoyed listening to her read and having a chance to ask her questions about her life, poetry and her inspiration.
“It was pretty cool,” said Maggie O’Donnell of Sutphen’s reading. “She’s really nice.”
Students seemed enchanted as she shared her experience of learning how to ride a tractor. In fact, the Chaska resident admits she learned the names of the cows on the farm she grew up before knowing her alphabet, which she evoked in her poem, “Girl on a Tractor.”
“What the poem is saying is ‘I felt powerful,’ ” she said. “(Learning to drive that tractor) gave me confidence.”
That confidence comes through as she reads her work. She’s been writing poetry for about 20 years, dating back to her high school and college years. Her first book, “Straight Out of View,” won the Barnard New Women’s Poets Prize (Beacon Press, 1995). Her favorite poets include Robert Frost and W.B. Yeats. She read Frost’s “Nothing Gold Can Stay” during the assembly.
Her favorite poem to compose is the sonnet, for its length and simplicity. What she said she enjoys writing about the most is where she came from.
The poet says she has always been a bookworm. While she’s a published poet seven times over, she does academic writing as well. And interestingly, she said, if she hadn’t become a poet, she might have become a doctor.
“I’ve always loved words,” she said. “My father used to come up with different rhymes when I was I little. I think I got the poetry from him.”
Her books are available on amazon.com. For more information about Sutphen, visit her website: http://www.joycesutphen.com/. Here’s one of her poems from her book, “First Words.”
How to Listen
Tilt your head slightly to one side and lift
your eyebrows expectantly. Ask questions.
Delve into the subject at hand or let
things come randomly. Don’t expect answers.
Forget everything you’ve ever done.
Make no comparisons. Simply listen.
Listen with your eyes, as if the story
you are hearing is happening right now.
Listen without blinking, as if a move
might frighten the truth away forever.
Don’t attempt to copy anything down.
Don’t bring a camera or a recorder.
This is your chance to listen carefully.
Your whole life might depend on what you hear.