Joyce Sutphen

It's the birthday of poet Joyce Sutphen (books by this author), born near St. Joseph, Minnesota (1949). She grew up on a small farm. She was one of nine children, and everyone worked hard: hoeing potatoes, driving the tractor, or milking. Her parents weren't literary — she said that her mother did not "like sentimentality and gush, keeping things plain and concise" — but they encouraged their kids' studies. She said: "My parents always felt that anyone doing homework or practicing a musical instrument was granted dispensation from other things. So as you can imagine, we were all good students and loved playing music!"

She said: "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." Instead, she went to graduate school at the University of Minnesota to study Renaissance Drama. In 1990, at the age of 40, she was a teaching assistant with a group of students on a program in London. Away from her husband and three children, she had time for herself and her own room, and she was suddenly inspired to write poetry. She said, "It was so amazing. I got a little more rest, and I became a different person. I just expanded, and the poetry was there, like an untapped thing I turned on."

Some of the very first poems she sent out for publication were published in Poetry and American Poetry Review. About three years after she began writing poetry, she entered the Barnard Women's Poets contest. To assemble a manuscript, she printed out all the poems she had written, spread them out around her on the floor, and grouped them together as best she could. Then she sent off the manuscript and forgot about it. Months later, she got a call informing her that she had won the Barnard Women's Poets Prize, and her first book of poems, Straight Out of View (1995), would be published by Beacon Press.

She published several more books of poetry, and in 2011 she was named poet laureate for the state of Minnesota. She was the second poet laureate in the state's history, following Robert Bly. She said: "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."

Her other books include The Green House (2017), Naming the Stars (2004)Coming Back to the Body (2000), and First Words (2010).

She said: "When there are funding cuts for art and music and poetry and drama and dance, people just go ahead and do these things anyway — because it's absolutely necessary. People who love these things know how vital they are. I mean, humanly. And they won't stop, no matter what."

And: "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."

Read our Poet Interview with Joyce >>>


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