Poetry in Action: Diane Raptosh uses words to build community
College of Idaho English professor Diane Raptosh considers poetry “the vehicle for getting the truth out and for shining the light into dark places.”
In 2013, Raptosh is firmly behind the wheel. In January, Raptosh was unanimously selected as Boise’s first Poet Laureate by the city’s Department of Art and History. And her road did not end at city limits – in May, she went on to earn the title of Idaho Writer in Residence, the state’s highest literary recognition and largest financial writing award.
The Writer-in-Residence is a three-year appointment that carries a $10,000 prize. Raptosh’s duties include sharing her work at four annual public readings and at special events in both urban and rural communities. She now is part of a list that includes some of Idaho’s finest writers, including literary luminaries Brady Udall, Anthony Doerr and Kim Barnes.
“I am thrilled and humbled to have the honor of serving as the state’s Writer in Residence,” Raptosh said. “To be an ambassador for literature at the level of the city and now of the state is one of the highest honors I can imagine. I am deeply grateful.”
Raptosh is a Pushcart Prize-nominated author of four books of poetry: American Amnesiac, Parents from a Different Alphabet, Labor Songs and Just West of Now. She received three ICA Creative Writing Fellowships and held residencies in the literary arts at the Banff Centre and The Studies of Key West. She is a 1983 C of I alumna and holds the College’s Eyck-Berringer Chair in English.
As Boise Poet Laureate for 2013, Raptosh was asked to address the topics of enterprise, environment and community in her work. As a teacher, she has shown a special talent for bringing students out of their comfort zone and helping them discover new inspiration and drive in life. Teaching courses in English, creative writing and poetry she is able to focus on how writing – poetry, in particular – is a tool to “say the unsayable.”
“[Poetry] can open the door to a different kind of life,” Raptosh said.
Raptosh says her greatest reward in teaching is the day-to-day breakthroughs her students make in their writing and in their perception of the world and their ability to understand the issues at hand in their communities.
Raptosh’s ‘The Prison Experience’ is among the most popular courses at the C of I. During winter term, students examine the American prison system through documentaries, interviews, statistics and studies, prison tours and writings from the incarcerated. Raptosh aims to bring awareness to current socio-political issues and encourages critical thought in all of her courses.
“Diane has truly taught me what it means to be a writer and poet,” said Ashley Barr, a recently graduated poet and creative writing major. “She is an asset even to students who do not see themselves as writers.”
In addition to the courses and workshops she teaches at the C of I, Raptosh also nominates students to present work at the annual National Undergraduate Literature Conference in Utah and helps arrange student internships in underprivileged areas.
The College of Idaho is a community of people who represent what it means to aim high in both scholarship and relationships. Raptosh continually aims to strengthen her relationship with community using the power of words and embraces her role to “shine the light into dark places.” As Poet Laureate and Writer in Residence, even more doors will open for her and her students.
“The position is not really about me at all,” Raptosh said. “I am just a way to help bring literacy and language to those who need it.”
No Hurry is a book about aging: the conscious pang of the loss of past intensities, the treasuring of the quieter now, the achingly slow death of sex.
By Maryann Corbett.
One of the delights of reviewing poetry is researching for a current book and finding that the poet has a long history of work that the reviewer has somehow missed and that she might still pleasurably discover—that, really, she has a duty to discover in order to do justice to the assignment. I have found that delight in Michael Blumenthal, as I’ve read his newest book and sampled work from his seven previous collections of poems. There is a novel (Weinstock Among The Dying) as well, and books of essays, translations, a memoir: a 40-year writing career of work. That I missed all this suggests that the man has never received the press he deserves, in spite of the praise of Howard Nemerov for his first book and Helen Vendler for his second. Yet the poems from his recent collections have been showing up in popular venues like Poetry Daily and The Writer’s Almanac with some regularity. His “Wishful Thinking,” anthologized by Vendler, is reproduced on more than one young person’s Tumblr page. His poems have left their mark.
These newly collected poems will too, though they may leave them on different readers. No Hurry is a book about aging: the conscious pang of the loss of past intensities, the treasuring of the quieter now, the achingly slow death of sex. The arc of the book is downward, from the dive into desperate S&M of “Atelier Rheingold” to the open-palmed detachment of “God’s Window.” Because every poet will age, poets especially will be curious about how this poet tackles the problem David Yezzi described in a review of an earlier Blumenthal book: “Extra care must be taken that the poems don’t adopt the torpor they describe.”
An excellent avoider of torpor is the laugh, and the wry smile does a good job, too. Blumenthal has a good store of effective comic moves, like the splat into bathos of the poem that carries the title
I think constantly of those who were truly great
which evokes Stephen Spender, and then the first line
and to be perfectly honest, it bums me out
Another such move is the opening of “Self-Help”:
It was, as it always has been, a choice
between Twelve Steps to a Compassionate Life
and The Story of O, so I picked up The Story of O
Yet another favorite tack, and not always for comedy, is the long sentence that rolls out its epic catalog of quotidian (a word the poet likes) specifics—
The sweet, considerate lover who betrayed you later,
the loving, devoted wife who ran off with your money
and children, the magnificent accountant
who got you the biggest refund of your life, and
shortly thereafter, was arrested for embezzlement,
all of them were wonderful once, weren’t they?. . .
—and builds gradually to its little climax of wisdom, “if loving me is what you insist on/take the whole package for what it is/wonderful when it is wonderful. . . .”
And sometimes the epic catalog is not quotidian in the least, as in “Lilac Nostalgia,” a paean to the pleasures of food, which contemplates French president François Mitterand’s last meal of oysters, fois gras, and capon and luxuriates in the delicate work of constructing the dessert of the title.
But the poems that rise out of the mass of specifics and then go onto dare abstractions are the ones in which the unstoppable pour of the language becomes truly charged. This happens in “And the Fish Swim in the Lake, And Do Not Even Own Clothing” although excerpting from the long pour is difficult:
. . . the brown headed gulls, the clacking storks
nested two to a village, and the stinging underwater nettles, they too
are benedicted by the elements of water, they too are blessed
though there is no one more sacred than myself here to bless them
It happens too in “Epithalamium: The Leaves”:
The leaves, in their infinite kindness,
take the light from the air and make it
life. So here, in the sometimes dark,
a hand can be met, a mouth, the fragile
kernels of tenderness we call love
can be scattered over the immaculate hills
until believed. That, too, is kindness.
The importance of the abstract to the effect of these poems will stand out to readers who know the standard arguments about poetic craft. And clearly Blumenthal knows those arguments too, and he counters in the poem “Abstractions”:
. . . Love justice truthfulness hurt,
I say to my workshoppy friends,
in how many ways
would you like me to fill them?
And when I am done with those,
how many specific facts will you
still need, in what shape and size,
and for whose embarrassingly factual sake?
My one slight disappointment is with Blumenthal’s use of form, which is nearly nonexistent apart from his six villanelles. In a book of 63 poems, a nearly 10-percent villanelle ratio is noticeable and prompts one to ask, Why so much of this and so little other rhyme or form, barring the ”Existential Couplets” and the “Six Cheerful Couplets on Death”? True, the villanelle is various and contains multitudes. But it attracts attention, and not all of these poems stand up equally well under the spotlight. Invoking Elizabeth Bishop on purpose, as Blumenthal does in “Two Arts,” risks the question, Is this poem as good as hers? (And invoking Larkin’s “Aubade” in the “Six Couplets” does, too.) And Blumenthal seems to like to ally form with slightness, another risk, though a book this dark overall needs a few puffs of cumulus.
Still, in a few of the villanelles, formal straitness upholds genuine heft. “The Germans” distills a whole people’s high, sad history and ends
Proud of their Schiller, and proud of their Hegel,
Of Rilke too, and of Goethe still prouder,
So punctual, decent, historically regal.
And what are they reading? The Tagesspiegel.
And one that gives me a real pang is “Two Short”:
They’ll never be, those other two
That love had made, but life denied,
That could have been, of me and you.
All these poems are as different as they are in part because, as Blumenthal explains in an author’s note, they were written over a period of 15 years. So which of the poems present “a person who, while I do not wish to disavow his existence, I (gratefully) no longer entirely am”? There is plenty here to pique a reader’s curiosity and to prompt the rereadings that might answer such questions, and there is plenty in No Hurry that displays the power Michael Blumenthal’s work has had from the beginning.