Poet, professor and prison scholar Diane Raptosh got out from behind the writing table more in the past year.
Last year saw her serve as Boise’s first poet laureate, start a four-year stint as the Idaho Arts Commission Writer in Residence and receive word that her “American Amnesiac” made the National Book Award Longlist. She spent more time in public, speaking and leading workshops aiming to increase poetry’s profile and accessibility. She maintained her busy schedule at The College of Idaho in Caldwell, where she’s known for taking students on field trips to jails and prisons.
“Yes, 2013 was a banner year,” said Raptosh, 52. “Most years, it’s a lot of time sitting at the writing table alone with no guarantee of anything.”
Going high-profile goes against the private passion writing is for many, including Raptosh, who takes it in stride. Putting poetry in the public eye is a great opportunity, responsibility and luxury, she said.
She enjoys reading aloud and taking questions from participants in her presentations and workshops. One example came last summer, when she held writing sessions at a women’s prison.
“I have been out with people more, raising awareness about the things poetry can do and the topics poetry can take on,” Raptosh said.
Her presentations often involve making poetry more accessible, and helping break down barriers between people and poetry.
“There are so many good poets,” Raptosh said. “Anybody can write poetry, but it is a very serious discipline. It requires knowledge, tools and techniques. Giving access to those is something I can do.”
She’d like to think “Amnesiac” is accessible, “but I have heard differing views on that,” she said.
National Book Award long-listing drew praise for Raptosh via email from American poets Tony Hoagland and Tess Gallagher. Earlier, Raptosh read from the book publicly in New York City’s Bryant Park.
“It was sort of a breakthrough out of a pretty isolated writer’s life,” Raptosh said.
“Amnesiac” is the culmination of a longtime goal to write a book-length poem exploring some of the challenges and unpleasant realities of American life in the late 20th and early 21st century. Themes include wider gaps between rich and poor, corporate personhood and mass incarceration.
Raptosh and students hit the road early in The C of I’s winter-spring term, visiting the Canyon County jail and a state prison in the first half of January.
“Do you feel fear?” and “What is the worst day you ever had?” are among questions asked of staff on trips like these.
“Poets are people who like to get the truth out and shine the light into dark places,” said Raptosh. She studies a U.S. corrections industry she said is currently huge — a concern of hers — and historically a source of significant writings from prisoners and others.
More people are doing more writing than ever, thanks to Internet sites and social media outlets, which “on the face of it, it seems like a good thing,” she said.
But this instant, often-truncated style risks losing important nuances and layers, she said.
Master of Fine Arts programs in creative writing see increased demand from prospective enrollees. Raptosh said this is partly because, for many, writing represents a way to live a more soulful existence despite its inherent career and financial challenges.Raptosh’s own literary journey gained intensity in 1979, after she graduated from Bishop Kelly High School in Boise: Her father died in an auto accident.
“It was tragic, and a reminder of the fragility of life,” Raptosh said.
But the event also motivated her.
“I felt this sense of urgency after his death, the significance of my own life and its fleeting nature. Poetry was the perfect site for dealing with the greatest questions of human existence. It was a hard loss, but in a way it was also a gift. Catastrophes come bearing gifts sometimes.”
Raptosh graduated from The C of I and earned an MFA from the University of Michigan. Her family came from Michigan originally, settling in the Boise area during her childhood.