How did you become a writer?
I’m not sure. I think it was because I was always reading when I was a child; sometimes it got me out of chores, and I loved the sound of a voice (Jane Eyre, Huck Finn, Holden Caulfield, or Scout—all of them!) and the sound of words. My father was a farmer and a rhymer in a sort of Dylanesque way; my mother was (and is) someone who dislikes embellishment and pretense. I realize now that they were a good combination for me, but I think I became a writer (if that’s what I am) because I was very shy and inarticulate, and writing was a way for me to sound the way I wanted. Then, when I realized that writing was a way to find out what I didn’t know I knew, that it often brought me along a way I didn’t plan on going, I was hooked.
Name your writing influences (writers, books, teachers, etc.).
My influences? I would say Shakespeare, Bob Dylan, Yeats, mythopoeic writers such as George MacDonald, Tolkien and C.S. Lewis were especially important when I was in my twenties, but the older I get, the closer I have come to reading contemporary poetry and fiction most of the time. One thing that I’m sure had a huge effect on me was memorizing poems (mostly when I drove to and from the college where I’ve taught for over twenty years). I have memorized thirty or forty of Shakespeare’s sonnets and poems by Yeats, Emily Dickinson, Wallace Stevens, Elizabeth Bishop, Roethke, Wislawa Symborska, Rilke, James Wright, W.S. Merwin, and others—I think those poems settled in my bones and helped me in immeasurable ways.
When and where do you write?
I write anywhere and anytime; if I’m wise, I write when I feel that lump of emotion in my throat (the one that Robert Frost says a poem begins with), and that could occur anytime—it might be while I’m reading a stack of student papers or when a bird crashes into a window on my house and I see him lying down on the patio, beautiful and absolutely still. Mostly though, I’m foolish and work too hard on other things.
What are you working on now?
I’m always working on new poems, hoping that I’ll write something that takes the top off of someone’s head, something that “clicks” and helps me say what I don’t know. I think I’m in transition now. There’s a topic I want to write about, but I’m not sure how to approach it; it may even call for prose!
Have you ever suffered from writer’s block?
Not really—until now. My father died a few months ago, and everything I begin falls into a tangle or a blank. He was such a good man, but the end of his life was shadowed by things that he couldn’t control and strange events that are like something out of a Thomas Hardy story. I know—as much as I ever did—that I’ll get past this if I keep working, keep trying to get it down right.
What’s your advice to new writers?
Read and read and then write and write. Find people who care about writing as much as you do; go to readings and support other writers in any way you can.
Joyce Sutphen grew up on a farm near St. Joseph, Minnesota. Her first collection of poems, Straight Out of View, won the Barnard New Women Poets Prize; Coming Back to the Body was a finalist for a Minnesota Book Award, and Naming the Stars won a Minnesota Book Award in Poetry. She teaches literature and creative writing at Gustavus Adolphus College in St. Peter. Her latest book, Modern Love & Other Myths, was published by Red Dragonfly Press in 2015. She is the second Minnesota Poet Laureate, succeeding Robert Bly.