Diane Raptosh is one of Idaho's most celebrated writers. Her official bio reads like a who's who of the literary world: her fourth book of poetry, "American Amnesiac," was longlisted for the 2013 National Book Award. She's received three fellowships in literature from the Idaho Commission on the Arts. In 2013, she was also named Boise's Poet Laureate — and the Idaho Writer-in-Residence from 2013 to 2016. She received the Governor’s Arts Award in Excellence in 2018.
Currently, Raptosh is ensconced at The College of Idaho, where she teaches creative writing and runs the criminal justice/prison studies program.
Her most recent book of poetry, "Dear Z," is being released this month. Critical reviews call it "a book of dynamite" ... "a collection simultaneously anchored to the past and miraculously stretching forward" ... .
I recently had the opportunity to chat with Raptosh via email about life, love — and her new book, published by Etruscan Press.
Jeanne Huff: You've been writing poetry for years. But, do you remember the first poem you ever wrote?
Diane Raptosh: The first poem I ever wrote — and can today still consider a poem — was about stuttering. I wanted to explore in a playful way a theme that underlies all poetry and keeps poets engaged in the craft: the mysteries, joys and limitations of language.
Here is a sample from that poem: “Stuttering:” “it’s clear-cut palatal clapping / … [O]nly the full-lipped lover’s // able to um just so. So …”
JH: So have you always wanted to be a writer?
DR: Well, since at least junior high, I felt estranged from preoccupations and activities that seemed fun and important to everyone else. When I was in college, I could see that I was ill suited to become a member of the corporate world. Also, because I’m just stubborn enough, I refused to let myself be reshaped according to the priorities of capitalist America. I guess I wanted to remain free to be who I felt I was.
The only world left for me, through which I could remain true to myself in these ways that seemed fundamental, was the arts. I had a great literature teacher in high school, and this helped set me down my path toward becoming a writer. Alongside this, my dad died suddenly, in a car wreck, when I was 17. This unexpected event sparked my determination early on to own the inevitability of my own death. This tragedy gave me the opportunity to earn the authenticity of my one brief life.
I guess I wanted, in the words of Rumi, to “burn, / become light and heat and help.”
As for whether I wanted to become other things, as a grad student, I first went into sociolinguistics. There, I learned a lot about the ways in which language is marked by race, gender and class and as such serves to perpetuate invisible structures of power. These issues have (been) very much on my mind for decades — as both citizen and poet.
Because of its reliance on the formal properties of language, poetry — that truth- and heart-seeking missile — is, in my view, able to lay bare and perhaps undo these structures more effectively than any other genre.
JH: Who were your favorite poets when you were young?
DR: I really didn’t read much poetry that I can remember in grade school or junior high. In high school I remember reading and memorizing W.B. Yeats’s “Sailing to Byzantium.” Yeats had such a wonderful ear:
"That is no country for old men. The young
In one another's arms, birds in the trees,
—Those dying generations—at their song,
The salmon-falls, the mackerel-crowded seas,
Fish, flesh, or fowl, commend all summer long
Whatever is begotten, born, and dies."
It’s so satisfying to say over and over again “the salmon-falls, the mackerel-crowded seas” — it is like chewing on some(thing) simultaneously smooth and crunchy.
I guess maybe I was an old man when I was in high school …!
JH: Who are your favorite poets today?
DR: Adrienne Rich has always been a touchstone poet for me. I am attracted to those poets who study the hidden heartbeats of America: Emily Dickinson, Walt Whitman, Claudia Rankine, Reginald Dwayne Betts, Roger Bonair-Agard. There are so many.
JH: You've said that: "poetry is where the action is." Explain.
DR: Poets are people loving and trying to heal the times by means of the senses, by way of all the receptors in (the) body. The body is a tool for our true selves to interact with the world. As long as we have our senses, even just one, we can feel human, connected. And so, we can contrive — through the torque and cue of well-tuned language — a vision for the world the heart knows is possible.
JH: In your new book, "Dear Z," you address a newly-fertilized zygote through verse letters that cover topics from Idaho to the zombie apocalypse. This is intriguing from many angles. How did you come across this idea — and why did you decide to explore it this way?
DR: In March 2016, I found out my oldest daughter was pregnant. Shortly after that, I had the idea of writing a collection of verse letters to a zygote suspended in time: the Z, the great human maybe. I figured that this concept might let me cast a wide net of wonder about themes I’d been mulling: self and other, mind and marketplace, language and consciousness.
"Dear Z" gave me the opportunity to ask (in the words of one of its poems) What is one i?, while at the same time summoning everyone to see all citizens as members of “my group” — the pain of others, our severest strand of anguish. I figured also that this book would let me pursue issues around language acquisition, Old English and “senile nouns,” as well as the possible nature(s) of language itself: “Is language anguish gauge or laughing gas?” the speaker in "Dear Z" asks in one of the missives. “Correct answer: yes.”
JH: Was it easy or hard to write?
DR: Writing poetry is rarely easy for me, but I mostly enjoyed writing the book. It was a labor of love — in the spirit of serious play — to introduce the Z to the Zeitgeist. The Z was lots of fun to hang out with. I also appreciated the zygote’s quiet reminder that we all proceed in the presence of unborn generations.
JH: In addition to poetry and teaching creative writing, you also co-run the program in Criminal Justice/Prison Studies at The College of Idaho. What is that like and how do these divergent studies come together for you?
JH: I don’t see these studies as divergent at all. About 20 years ago, I started writing almost exclusively poetry that wrestles with the notion and nature of America, in keeping with my own liberal arts training and teaching, and in deference to the tradition of many writers — Walt Whitman to Herman Melville, Emily Dickinson to Adrienne Rich. I put into my own writing practice much of what I teach as literature professor.
All of my roles: poet and mother (and grandmother!), teacher, and co-director of the Criminal Justice Studies program, inform and reinforce each other — or, as Thich Nhat Hanh might say, they inter-are. Each of these acts aims to unearth and air uncomfortable truths, to summon an ethos of care, to envision a culture underwritten by mercy.
JH: What is your writing ethic like? Do poems come to you by way of a muse? Or do you craft each line, each word meticulously? Or?
DR: I am not one of those writers who gets up at dawn and writes for a certain number of hours. I try to write a little every day — even if it is just one word scratched on the back of an envelope. Sometimes I write all day. That said, I try not to punish myself if I don’t write for days, weeks or even months. Going out into the world and just wondering about it, sitting in awe of it — without writing — is also good practice.
Poems rarely come to me by way of a muse, per se. But sometimes voices pop in that I get to listen to for an extended time: in this book’s case, the Z’s voice. In "American Amnesiac," it was John Doe.
As for process, I tend to write various drafts of every poem, and then craft each line and word meticulously in the latter stages of rewriting.
JH: When you get away from it all, let your hair down, so to speak — where do you go, what do you do for fun?
DR: Hiking in the foothills is one of my favorite things to do. I like to ski and do yoga. In prepandemic times, I spent a lot of times with close friends. Am hoping to return to that soon! I spend a lot of time with my family — my two grown daughters, Keats and Colette, and my two grandchildren. In fact, "Dear Z" is both inspired by and dedicated to my first grandchild, Camas Lee Schaeffer, now 3 ½ years old.
JH: What about you would surprise even a close friend?
DR: I’m kind of a one-trick pony. Oh, I can ride a horse! One of my secret dreams is to be a horse masseuse.
I can also touch my tongue to my nose.
JH: What delights or surprises you the most about being a poet, getting to play with words all the time?
DR: “A poet is somebody free,” the American poet June Jordan said. So, there’s that. I love the subversive elements of poetry — the ways a poem lifts the veils from signs and scenes a culture might otherwise wish to keep secret. Of course, I love the sounds of words almost as much as I love my own children. They (word sounds) are the tools for teasing poets into saying what they didn’t know they could.
JH: What advice would you give to aspiring poets?
DR: I would suggest that aspiring poets read a lot, naturally — poetry as well as everything else. I would also give them advice that might seem counterintuitive: Write what you don’t know.
Approach the poem as an opportunity for investigation. Put another way, aspiring poets might want to study seriously, and for a lifetime, subjects beyond poetry: botany, marine biology, sociology, American and/or world history, whatever. Study something, or several somethings! Let those areas of study — the content, the lexicon, the metaphors — sit at the heart of your poetry.
JH: What is on your horizon?
DR: I’m hoping to put together a collection that will include, among other poems, the “corona” of sonnets included in the “pandemic stories” of the Idaho State Archives, which you and I talked about earlier this month. These poems’ themes point to “what in us is one,” as well as address issues such as mass incarceration and other relics of slavery in America.
Also, I recently realized I have not yet exhausted the possibilities of the epistolary poem! I am working on another long verse-letter currently in its very early stages.