When did you begin writing poetry? Can you tell me a little bit about your early experience as a poet, and how you developed into the poet you are today?
I didn't begin writing poetry very early. Really it was after college. I probably wrote SOME in college. In high school, though, and earlier, I was a major bookworm and read a great deal. I found a lot I liked in poetry—especially eecummings, Dylan Thomas, Lawrence Ferlinghetti, Sylvia Plath and Muriel Rukeyeser.
I majored in Economics in college, though I took lots of English classes. [I didn’t take any] creative writing, really. I did reading and writing on my own. After graduation I attended a writers conference and met "my people, my tribe" and then I was hooked. This was in Washington State—the Port Townsend conference at Centrum. I heard Carolyne Kizer, Phillip Levine. It was great.
Where were you born? What schools did you attend, and for what? Who were your most influential poetry teachers?
Tacoma, Washington is my birthplace. I attended the University of Washington in Seattle, and my major was economics. Then I went on to get an MFA at the University of Montana.
[One of my most influential teachers was] my first creative writing teacher, Nelson Bentley, at the University of Washington. He was a great teacher for beginning students—very encouraging and kind. He invited me to give a reading in their series there. Later, at the University of Montana, my teachers were: Richard (Dick) Hugo, Madeline DeFrees, and Naomi Lazard. Hugo was very influential.
What inspires you to write poetry? Do you have any favorite subjects to write about?
I consider my poetry a regular practice so inspiration isn't really the way I work. I regularly fall in love with words, certain music I hear in my head, certain things that "bug" me and I try to write about them. I don’t have any favorite subjects. [I write about] anything that causes me to pause, to stop, to think further. It might be a piece of art, or something from the newspaper.
How did you get involved with GVSU? Particularly, can you tell me about the poetry reading series at Grand Valley that you help to organize? How did it come about? What, in your eyes, is its purpose? What is the best thing that you believe has come out of it?
I was in Knoxville, Tennessee and applied for tenure track teaching positions; GVSU was one. I was then interviewed (in New Orleans, of all places) and invited further for a campus interview. I just really loved the campus when I came here. I've been at GVSU now 20 years.
We have a regular Grand Valley Writers Series, which I am not running, and then Poetry Night, which I coordinate. It came about with a request from the President's Office to do a "big" event—so we had Billy Collins, Robert Hass, and Naomi Shihab Nye on one night in October. Six hundred and fifty people showed up! It was fabulous.
The purpose: to share poetry and literary events with students AND the general public in the Grand Rapids area. Some of the best things to come out of Poetry Night are student exposure to really fine writers, and a higher profile for our writing department at GVSU in the community at large.
What kind of things to you do as the "poet-in-residence" at GVSU?
My main task is to raise the profile of poetry at campus. I have written poems for GVSU events and read them at such events. I have written poems for new buildings and spaces on campus. I sometimes speak in the community about poetry—as a liaison for GVSU and the arts community.
What is your favorite class to teach, and why?
One of my favorites is our introductory creative writing class because it’s there that some students who are non-majors come to love creative writing and it changes their lives. They sometimes switch to being writing majors or minors.
Other favorite classes [of mine] are poetry workshops—we have an intermediate one and an advanced one. Both give a chance for students to write poems in a nurturing and encouraging environment. It is exciting to see students develop! They try new forms and experiment. It is great to share their excitement.
Do you have any favorite poets? Does anyone in particular inspire you as a writer?
I have a ton of favorite poets—too many to list. Some current ones: Pablo Neruda, Charles Wright, C.K. Williams, Tony Hoagland, Ellen Bryant Voigt, Czeslaw Milosz. I also read Robert Frost, Elizabeth Bishop, Theodore Roethke, William Carlos Williams, Walt Whitmam, and other 20th Century poets. Also: James Wright and Nancy Willard, poets of the Midwest.
What would you say your poetic style or trademark is?
I hope my style is to write a good sentence, one that flows and moves, one that has some heft to it and also some music; an interesting sentence.
How would you say she walks into the sea differs from other collections of yours?
I think the poems go deeper into subjects, perhaps, and into issues of mortality and loss; still, I don’t think the poems are all downers. I think there is love and appreciation; pleasure in the world and in people.
Do you have any hobbies? What do you like to do in spare time?
I love to read; to walk; I love to travel—especially internationally. I plan to teach a class on “transatlantic poetry” in the Netherlands this coming March (2010). I want to learn more about the world, more languages, more cultures.
What advice would you give a young poet?
Read a lot! Write a lot! Look around. Be curious and notice things. Be open to lots of different kinds of poetry, lots of different kinds of people, food, etc. Develop a lot of interests—in science, in other subjects. There is great vocabulary out there.