Trying times are an inspiration to artists, musicians and writers. Even before the social unrest and public health crisis of 2020, America was undergoing a shift in the cultural zeitgeist. Idaho poet Diane Raptosh has seen the underlying unrest in the country, and her newest collection of poetry addresses these issues as they relate to the unborn lives that have yet to encounter the modern world. The inception of the idea for the third installment of her trilogy of books came around March of 2016, when she found out that she was to become a grandmother.
“When I realized it was new life that was potentially coming into the world, I thought, ‘Here’s an opportunity for a possible book of poems to suspend a zygote in time and introduce the unborn, which I call Dear Z in the book, to the perils and the beauty of 21st century American life in America,’” Raptosh said.
The book, entitled Dear Z: The Zygote Epistles, contains poetry in letter format addressed to the freshly conceived zygote from an aunt or a cosmic being. It was published and released on June 12, and Raptosh will celebrate the release with a remote poetry reading in partnership with Rediscovered Books on Thursday, July 16. Though the design of the poetry collection is abstract and conceptual by nature, the ideas are rooted in the very real social and economic issues that people wrestle with in their everyday lives.
Raptosh is adept at exploring activism and social issues in her writing, and has seen her own fair share of success as an author. She is the recipient of three fellowships in literature from the Idaho Commission on the Arts, she served as the Boise Poet Laureate in 2013, and was the Idaho Writer-in-Residence from 2013-2016. In 2018, she won the Idaho Governor’s Arts Award in Excellence. The first installment of the trilogy, American Amnesiac, was longlisted for the 2013 National Book Award for poetry.
Raptosh has made her mark in Idaho as a renowned writer and poet, but her skills do not stop there. She teaches literature and creative writing and co-directs the program in Criminal Justice/Prison Studies at the College of Idaho, which she said has informed her poetry a great deal.
“As soon as I realized what was going on in the American criminal justice system, it became a kind of key to me to more deeply understand America. I came to see that incarceration is the new slavery and that incarceration is used as a system of social control of people,” Raptosh said. “States use incarceration as a means to solve social problems, and that’s not a very good solution and it’s not a long-term solution. The more I read about the criminal justice system, the more I feel compelled to teach about it and to write about it.”
Raptosh’s passion has made way to real life application as she has given workshops at maximum security prisons and brought her students along to the experience. Her commitment seeps into her newest collection and she plays with the predicament of how to prepare a not-yet-human for the civil rights issues it may face upon its entrance.
Throughout the book, Raptosh addresses the zygote not only as “Z” but as “Zero” and “Lifespeck,” encapsulating the sort of endearment and worry one feels for the naive “great human maybe.”
In her personal life, Raptosh said she sees the world through a unique lens—that of a mother. Her perspective is molded by parenting one causasion child and an adopted Asian child as a single mother. Raptosh recalled that, for the last 30 years, she has been on high alert for perils that could haunt her children in their home that is the ever-changing America.
“What happened along the way of writing this collection is that I got to capture the kind of sense of vertigo of our moment. The changing of the social landscape is sort of revealed; it’s sort of a strain of acceptance of that vertigo,” Raptosh said.
The collection opens by diving head-long into an explanation of Moby Dick as a perfect getaway to introduce issues of class, race, sexuality, capitalism and eroticism. Raptosh said that it was the ideal way to introduce the concept of intersectionality—the theory that individual people comprise numerous social, political and economic advantages and disadvantages—as a common thread throughout the book.
The poems subtly but consistently allude to culturally relevant topics and events, from the Pulse nightclub shooting of 2016 to the so-called “Meme industrial complex.” By the end of the story, the zygote, and the reader by default, is swept up in the juxtaposing beauty and danger that is today’s America.
“My way of proceeding in poetry is to take on difficult material and do it in a way that is both playful and serious, that is both unsettling and uncomfortable, and provides enough of a sliver of hope for people to keep on reading, keep staying awake and aware of what’s going on,” Raptosh said. “Ideally what I would hope for readers to be able to do is rejoice in the music and mystery of language.”