Boise's poet laureate Diane Raptosh puts the city into poetic perspective

doland@idahostatesman.comMay 18, 2013 

Diane Raptosh is known as an inspiring teacher who takes her C of I students out of the classroom to spark the writing process.

ERIC RAPTOSH — Provided by the College of Idaho

Diane Raptosh hikes the Boise Foothills above her house on Hill Road most days. The time she spends under the open sky, her feet crunching along the sandy trail with her blind shepherd-mix Sesi alongside, is a reminder of the nature of her art - of her poetry - here in Idaho.

Being in the Foothills suggests a feeling of openness and possibility, she says. The more she grounds herself in this environment, the more she connects her past, present and future selves.

"I'm an Idahoan," Raptosh says. "I like the leveling influence of living here. If you try to show people your importance, they don't buy it. That democratizing effect does influence my poetry. I find it affords me an expansiveness in terms of voice that might not be there if I were in a different landscape."

Raptosh's ability to tap into and translate that language - what she calls the "green air" of her surroundings in her poem "Sky With Proviso" - makes her the perfect choice as Boise's first poet laureate.

The creation of the position represents a touchstone for Boise - a city that boasts a lively and thriving literary and poetry scene. It elevates the civic discourse of who we are and what it means to live in the City of Trees.[0x0b]

A committee through the Boise City Department of Arts and History chose Raptosh, a published poet and professor at The College of Idaho, from a strong pool of applicants earlier this year as part of the city's sesquicentennial celebration. However, the department's director, Terri Schorzman, would like to see the position become a permanent part of Boise's cultural tapestry.

"This is a trial, and we'll come back and look at it again, but it's something that feels right for Boise," Schorzman says.

The Boise poet laureate designation comes with a stipend of $2,000 and the responsibility to write three poems that will mark - and in years to come - somehow define Boise in its 150th year.

That's no small task. Raptosh also is performing a series of community readings throughout the year and teaching workshops in underserved parts of the Boise community. For instance, you can hear her read her poem on the topic of community at the city's July 7 Sesquicentennial Celebration in Julia Davis Park (see details on page 22).

Having a poet laureate is part of developing a civic - and civil - cultural dialogue, especially around historical and celebratory events.

It's not just about saying, "This is important," says poet Megan Williams, who was one of the four finalists for the position and is a former student of Raptosh's.

"You want someone to express the reality of the moment in a way that makes you feel something, as opposed to just telling you, 'It's important,' which is boring," she says. "I think Diane is a great choice for that."

Poets laureate are an ancient tradition that harkens back to classical Greece when a garland of laurel leaves was bestowed as a designation of literary and physical honor. Think baccalaureate. The symbol continued through the centuries, and today most governments have a poet laureate. The post of U.S. poet laureate - originally established in 1937 at the Consultant-in-Poetry for the Library of Congress - becomes an advocate for not only poetry, but literacy and education.

Mississippi's Natasha Trethewey is the 19th U.S. poet laureate. Past U.S. poets laureate include W.S. Merwin, Robert Hass, Rita Dove, Robert Penn Warren, Josephine Jacobsen, Robert Frost and Joseph Auslander, who was the first.

Schorzman got the idea for a city poet laureate when she met poet Joan Logghe, who often comes to Idaho to teach workshops. At the time, Logghe was poet laureate for Santa Fe, N.M.

The idea stuck with Schorzman, she says.

"I thought it would be a great thing for Boise," Schorzman says. "When we started planning for the Boise150, we knew we wanted the arts and humanities infused throughout the celebration. We had music, essays and painting - we needed a poet. There's just something about the way a poet sees the world that brings things together in a way that helps us see ourselves more clearly."

That - in a nutshell - is every poet's job, Raptosh says.

Poetry isn't what most people expect, Raptosh says. It's sometimes more probing than pretty, it rarely rhymes - at least not the poetry of this century - and it has as much to do with the head as the heart.

"Poetry is very much about feelings - which need expressing. We don't have many venues for that. So that's part of what poetry does. The other part is widely misunderstood. That is to engage the thinking part of the brain. Feelings without the influence of the mind can sound cheesy. It's when the mind works with the world of the feelings that poetry comes together."

In turn, the job of a city poet laureate isn't just to placate and express the status quo. It's to look at where we collectively are at and ask what's next. What choices can we make for a brighter future?

"I'm not just here to say 'Boise good' because Boise is good," she says. "But one way of taking something seriously is to see it from all sides and ask, 'What can I do - what can a work of art do - to make it even better?'"

As poet laureate, Raptosh is to write three poems on the core topics of the Boise150 celebration - environment, community, enterprise.

She wrote and read her first poem, on the environment, titled "Selenium and the Seated Comfortable" at the opening of the city's Sesqui-Shop - the store and community hub for the Boise 150 celebration - in February. In it, Raptosh creates a character named Torchie who decides it's her mission to clean up the Boise River - and in turn the consciousness of humankind.

The poet's critical eye on environmental issues wasn't what anyone expected, Schorzman says.

"We were like, 'What the heck?' We asked her if we could post her notes so we could get where she's coming from because it was a challenging poem," she says. "It's not all supposed to be happy stuff. We (as a community) have a lot of tough things facing us - and this is a huge issue. She did a beautiful job expressing it."

IDAHO ROOTS

Raptosh grew up in Nampa, where she spent a lot of time alone as a child, she says. But rather than remember herself as lonely, she realizes her solitude became a creative well from which she continues to draw.

"It was just my nature," she says. "But spending time alone is a great training ground for being a writer. That has served me well over the years."

After graduating from Bishop Kelly High School, she followed her love of literature to The College of Idaho, where she now teaches and influences a new generation of poets and writers.

Next, she went to the University of Michigan for graduate school. There she started pursuing an academic path in sociolinguistics, but to her surprise, she found herself drawn to writing. So she entered the MFA program in creative writing.

"I was at the bottom of the heap, and that was OK," she says. "They (the other grad students) all had worked with writers and (had) written on their own, and I hadn't. I tried not to be too hard on myself."

She found herself drawn to poetry more than other writing forms.

"I can write essays and short fiction," she says. "But writing poetry is more interior. It gives me the opportunity to take the inner life to the outside. Fiction doesn't do that. I think I was temperamentally destined to write poetry."

After leaving Michigan, she lived in and taught in Chicago, Seattle and Laramie, Wyo. She landed back in Idaho to take a one-year-appointment at The College of Idaho in 1990, which turned into the full professorship she enjoys today.

'I'M NOBODY ... '

" ... Are you - Nobody - too?'

Raptosh pulls out this quote from Emily Dickinson to describe her hesitation at defining herself as a poet.

"Being a poet is a lifelong learning process," she says. "It's not something I would announce on an airplane or introduce myself as at a party. It's such a loaded thing to say that is what you are, and there have been so many great poets in the world. To say that you're one of them can sound a bit conceited."

Even so, she's received numerous awards, fellowships and residencies throughout her career, and she has published four books. The most recent, a book-length poem titled "American Amnesiac," will be out from Etruscan Press on Aug. 13.

In it she tells the story of John Doe, a man who wakes up and can't remember who he is or anything about his world.

"It grapples with what I see as the crisis state of 21st century America," Raptosh says. "It's about what it means to be a self, to lose identity and then re-create one."

She writes in hybrid forms that blend poetry and prose. "American Amnesiac" is written in her version of an ancient Arabic form called "ghazal" that allows her to take leaps between couplets and reflects how she imagines an amnesiac would process what's happening around him.

The fact that she uses characters sometimes throws her audiences for a loop. They often assume a poet speaks from a first-person perspective. But Raptosh delineates between herself as poet and the poem. That allows her a creative freedom to develop different voices - such as Torchie and Doe - as a novelist would create characters for a book. (Her next book is "Torchie's Book of Days.")

Doe's voice is open-ended and all-encompassing - and written for a broader audience than the rarified world of poets.

Raptosh approaches a poem as a research project. She does interviews and reads up on different topics. "I like to learn things as a writer and to read, so it's a good process for me."

She keeps a notebook - a practice she encourages her students to follow. In it she stores quotes she overhears, moments she observes and her own thoughts, all of which might become a kernel for a poem.

"I'm a collector, like a magpie, gathering sentences, images, phrases, something with a ring to it," she says. "I chase the language as opposed to having this great idea of what this poem is going to do, and bash it until it does what I say."

Raptosh teaches creative writing and literature and also directs the criminal justice program because of her course on Prison Experience at the College of Idaho.

She started co-teaching it with a sociologist who retired several years ago and just kept the course going. Her students visit Idaho prisons and jails. She brings in speakers who have first-hand experience with the justice system, from former meth addicts to people who have been exonerated after spending years in prison.

"I try to expose the students to as many voices as I can," she says. "It's more academic writing than poetry, but also I see the poet's job as shining light into dark places that are far removed from daily consciousness and go into that as deeply as possible."

She takes the same approach with her other writing classes, taking students into different environments to spark their creativity.

"As a teacher, she was an amazing inspiration and still is," says Williams, who discovered her poetic self in one of Raptosh's workshops. "She is very encouraging and into working with students one-on-one and talking openly about the content of a poem without judging, criticizing or changing it. Not all poets are able to do that."

Raptosh and Williams are both supported by Boise's surprisingly strong poetry community.

Multiple reading series, including Williams' Ghosts & Projectors, regularly draw full houses in different venues around Boise. The city has become a favorite spot for internationally known poets such as Alice Notley and Tom Raworth, who have both read here multiple times. Boisean Kerri Webster also has gained attention as one of the notable emerging poets in the nation by winning the prestigious Whiting Award and the University of Iowa Press Poetry Prize in 2011.

Boise's vibrant poetry scene surprised Britt Udesen when she arrived in Boise from the Sun Valley Center for the Arts to become executive director at The Cabin earlier this year.

"I've been shocked," she says. "Programming lectures in the Wood River Valley, I always wanted to do poetry, but I would get this weird reaction. Here, there's poetry everywhere and people show up. You'll see more people at a poetry reading in Boise, Idaho, than at many of them in New York City."

The phenomenon stems from several sources. The Cabin's Writers in the Schools program puts poets of the caliber of Webster, Adrian Kien and Daniel Stewart in classrooms across the state. So students who come into contact with these poets develop a deeper understanding of the art form at an early age.

Big Tree Arts also works with young poets developing competitive slam poetry skills. That leads to a lively slam poetry scene as well.

And a lot of energy comes from Boise State's masters of fine arts in creative writing program, which started in 1998. It supports an average of 18 masters students - nine in poetry, another nine in fiction - who live, write and create for three years in Boise.

BSU also is home to the all-poetry independent Ahsahta Press, headed by Janet Holmes. It publishes the works of high-caliber poets from around the globe.

Whether people realize it or not, poetry is not just nice to have around: It's necessary art, Holmes says.

"It's part of keeping the human spirit alive, that part of us that doesn't clock in and out every day," she says. "I love the quote from William Carlos Williams' "Asphodel, That Greeny Flower":

"It is difficult to get the news from poems

yet men die miserably every day for lack of what is found there."

The BSU program has been a slow burn, says Martin Corless-Smith. It started quietly in 1998 and is now receiving more national attention. In the early years, the program received about 20 applications annually. This year, it has a waiting list of 20.

Corless-Smith heads the poetry division of the program and produces the MFA Reading Series that brings poets such as Notley to Boise.

The popularity of poetry ebbs and flows over time, he says. Right now, it's definitely on the rise both nationally and at home.

"Boise is now quite strangely on the map," Corless-Smith says. "Of course, poets will come anywhere if you invite them, but they talk to each other, and many of them really like Boise. As a poet you have this sort of pipe dream that your work is now out in the middle of nowhere. Then you come to Boise, and you find it's true. It's a nice surprise."

Adding a Boise poet laureate to the mix draws even more attention to the poetry scene, he says.

For Raptosh, Boise's poetry renaissance is a reaction to where we culturally find ourselves today.

"We're making technological advances, and scientific discoveries when scientists are allowed to do their jobs. But we're losing ground in other areas - spiritual and aesthetic advancement," she says. "Art is important in any society. I see it in terms of clusters. Nationally, there are all kinds of poetry conferences and festivals - young people going into MFA programs in numbers that are just shocking. There are people who feel the need to express themselves in a way that goes well beyond Twitter, beyond the sound bite."

Dana Oland is a former professional dancer and member of Actors Equity who writes about performing and visual arts for the Idaho Statesman. She also writes about food, wine, pets, jazz and other aspects of the good life in Boise. Read more arts coverage in her blog at http://blogs.idahostatesman.com/artsbeat.

Dana Oland is a former professional dancer and member of Actors Equity who writes about performing and visual arts for the Idaho Statesman. She also writes about food, wine, pets, jazz and other aspects of the good life in Boise. Read more arts coverage in her blog at Blogs.IdahoStatesman.com/ArtsBeat.

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