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For new Minn. poet laureate, job description a blank slate

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Joyce Sutphen
Joyce Sutphen on campus at Gustavus Adolphus College in St. Peter, Minn.
MPR Photo/Euan Kerr

Since her appointment as Minnesota poet laureate a few weeks ago, Joyce Sutphen has plunged herself headfirst into the role. Sutphen, a Gustavus Adolphus College professor, has been out promoting poetry to the people of the state — and says its been a personal challenge.

Sutphen claims to be slightly perplexed as to why she was named to the ceremonial position. She remembers the call from the governor's office to offer her the post.

"I actually looked at the phone and it said 'State of Minnesota,' and I was hesitant because I thought maybe one of my daughters long ago might have had a parking ticket and finally it was being collected," she said.

However, David O'Fallon, president of the Minnesota Humanities Council which compiles the short list of potential laureates for the governors office, said Sutphen stood head and shoulders above the other candidates.

"It was clear that she was, by personality, by intelligence, by artistic merit and by her willingness to be a poet for all the people, the right one to be the laureate," he said. The duties of Minnesota poet laureate are vague. Basically, whoever holds the title decides what it entails. When Robert Bly held the job, he made his approach clear from the start, according to Carole Connolly, the city of St. Paul's poet laureate.

"I thought Robert was a great first laureate because he was an icon, and I thought it was a great move into that area," Connolly said. "But ... he said from the beginning, 'I'm not going to do a damn thing.'"

But Sutphen is taking a very different approach. On a recent Saturday, she read one of her poems to a group of people at the Arlington Hills Library in St. Paul.

"In my mother's cellar,
there were realms of golden apples,
Rooms of purple beet,
Hallways of green bean
Leading to windows of strawberry and grape."

"When I walk down the steps,
And pull down the light,
I saw where she kept the kingdom of summer."

The gathering was a celebration of the latest batch of sidewalk poems — elegant, enigmatic short verses city workers will stamp in the cement of select new sidewalks for the next year.

Sutphen is a tall and slender woman with a mass of curly brown hair framing a genuine, yet faintly nervous, smile. Despite her breathy voice, there's an air of toughness about her which stems from growing up on a farm near St. Joseph.

Listening to music
Joyce Sutphen (in the tan jacket) listens as members of the Brass Messengers play outside the Arlington Hills Library in St. Paul.
MPR Photo/Euan Kerr

Sitting in her office in the English department at Gustavus Adolphus College in St. Peter, Sutphen is still trying to decide what kind of laureate she'll be.

"There's is no agenda, there is no salary, there's none of these kind of things," she said. "But what it means for me practically is that I've heard from lots of people and have had requests to host something, or give a little talk or give a reading, so I am just doing those things."

Which is easier said than done. Sutphen admits to being very shy. But she is a great believer in the power of poetry, and is willing to push herself forward in the service of her art form.

Sutphen says she hopes to get Minnesotans thinking more about poetry, maybe using it to inspire, to encourage, to comfort.

It's been hugely important to her. She said she was the first person in her family to go to college. She talks of her love of the remarkable rhyming in early Bob Dylan songs, and the linguistic delights of Shakespeare.

"It's like something that's been grafted onto the really plain tree of my farm and my background. Then this thing with language comes together and I think makes an interesting combination," she said.

She reads a poem called "Just For the Record." It's a simple piece from her collection, "First Words." It's about her father, but it touches many things.

"It wasn't like that. Don't imagine
my father in a feed cap, chewing
a stem of alfalfa, spitting occasionally.
No bib-overalls over bare shoulders
no handkerchief around his neck
Don't imagine he didn't shave every morning.
The buildings on his farm weren't
weathered gray; the lawns were always mowed.
Don't imagine a car in the weeds.
I tell you this because you have certain
ideas about me, about farmers
and their daughters.
You imagine him bumbling along, some
hayseed. When really he wore his dark
suit as gracefully as Cary Grant.
The one thing you're right about is he worked too hard.
You can't imagine how early and how late."

Sutphen said as a poet she's just trying to get it right. "You try to express the thing that you love or that you are amazed by, or that you are puzzled by. You just try to get it as authentically as you can and then just hope that someone else then connects on that," she said.

When asked about Sutphen, one local poet said her work is remarkable for the way it displays genuine gratitude. Humanities Council President David O'Fallon said that's just another reason that makes her right for Minnesota's poet laureate.

"Right now, when we seem to be so dominated by the economy and ideas of the marketplace and everything, poetry restores us to our humanity in a way, and Joyce just lives that," he said.

She certainly does. At the conclusion of the sidewalk poetry event, a young woman with a ring binder stuffed with her own poems approached Sutphen and asked for advice. They sat for a moment and talked. And as the sun streamed through the window, the world seemed just a little better.