The following interview was conducted over email by Sheila McMullin and originally published in ROAR Magazine: A Journal of the Literary Arts by Women Spring 2014 Issue. To buy a copy of the issue and support women in the arts, please visit www.roarmagazine.org. Reprinted here with permission.
Author of four books of poetry and a graduate of the University of Michigan MFA Program, Diane Raptosh serves as the Idaho Writer-in- Residence (2013-2016) and the Boise Poet Laureate (2013). Her most recent book of poems, American Amnesiac (Etruscan Press), was longlisted for the 2013 National Book Award. The recipient of three fellowships in literature from the Idaho Commission on the Arts, she holds the Eyck-Berringer Endowed Chair in English at The College of Idaho, where she teaches literature and creative writing as well as directs the program in criminal justice/prison studies. An active ambassador for poetry, she conducts writing workshops, gives readings, and lectures on poetry in a variety of locations ranging from university auditoriums to maximum security prisons, school buses to riverbanks.
One of the many reasons I come to poetry (and I’m sure for others as well) is for a lyric moment that breaks my heart to encourage a putting together again, just this time with more reinforcement. These moments contribute to what I’ve been calling “bravery training,” sometimes “empathy training.” These revelatory moments within the poem provide opportunities for the reader to inherit language that could serve them during a difficult period in their life. The language becomes a resource to inspire decency between human beings. I found many moments like this in your writing, but the one that shined the brightest I found in your newest collection American Amnesiac. American Amnesiac takes a hard look at American corporate corporeality through a male perspective. In the midst of our speaker John Doe “stripped of his memory” reviewing his life from when he was Cal Reinhart– the corporate mogul–you write: “the kinder you are the stronger/ your immune system.”
So simple, so memorizable, these lines hold the physical and the spiritual tightly together. Speaking to a material intelligence as well as an emotional intelligence, I was hoping you could expand on what a line like that means for you. Could you speak to your efforts of balancing this dichotomy in your book-length poem?
This question is so beautifully framed—so layered and soulful and so very like a poem itself that I hesitate even to try to put an answer to it. I love your notions of poetry’s part in “bravery and empathy training.” I, too, think these to be among the highest aims of poetry, and I return to the poets and writers who offer these gifts in abundance: Adrienne Rich, James Baldwin, Eduardo Galeano, Walt Whitman, Emily Dickinson, William Blake, Elizabeth Bishop, and many others. Calvin Rinehart, the speaker of American Amnesiac, himself sets out to locate “the spine of a possible decency.” In the process of so doing, he realizes he must cast off much of what formerly defined him, namely, preoccupations with wealth and status. During this journey he takes on the “Everyman” moniker John Doe, and, within the process of taking stock of self in its thousand localities, he “falls in omnidirectional love” with everything and everyone from James Brown to the bowl of pluots his nurse brings him. But he is not content to stop at reinvention of self; he next begins to reconceive and refigure America itself and in the end renames it Anamika, the Hindi term for Nameless One. In the end, then, the “anonymous” John Doe and nameless nation-state merge; the one entails the other. Or, to put it in terms of the line you quote in your question, the kindness of the “you” must in the long run come to characterize—and become indistinguishable from—that of the larger system: call it the immune system, the socioeconomic system, the largest possible regulatory organ of which we are all a part.
All of this is by way of saying I believe a poet’s job is to . . . reinvent the language—yes, and this idea is not new. I believe with even more fervency that a poet’s job is to continue reconceiving what it might mean simply to be—more specifically, to be a self in a community as large as a nation or world. And so why not reinvent America (in this book, anyway) while we’re at it? The emotional world is necessarily entailed in the material world, the spiritual realm within the physical one. I guess I wouldn’t have known how to meditate through poetry on one half of this presumed dichotomy without its other side. Poetry is the ideal field for “thinking in feeling,” as the book suggests; it is the field in which all apparent binaries might at last be reunited like twins too long estranged. In the end language seems to insist that all such emanations are one. I am merely language’s tag-along, helping to pull certain specifics through in its service. This may sound cheesy but feels very true.
You are a woman of many academic hats. An author of four books, you teach literature and creative writing as well as direct the program in criminal justice/prison studies at The College of Idaho. You serve as Boise’s Poet Laureate among many other beautiful accomplishments. What is appealing to you about working in so many fields? Do you find these interests in service of/inspiration for one another? Do you ever confront cross-genre challenges–ever feeling like you have to “justify” what you do because you are never just one uncomplicated thing?
No one person is any one uncomplicated thing, and so I am no exception in this regard. Poets, though, have the luxuried responsibility of being interested in absolutely everything, of asking—for a lifetime—what Elizabeth Bishop called the naïve questions. Perhaps because I was within the first generation of members of my family to go to college, I have always felt deeply privileged to be in any kind of classroom. Early on I became particularly voracious about ideas and, like John Doe, take notes on almost everything I read.
As to the other part of your question, there is this quote by June Jordan: A poet is somebody free. Poets feel themselves to be free. It takes a lifetime of critical awareness and fighting and loving and feeling and thinking and writing to maintain this freedom. And so freedom itself becomes a logical area of ongoing investigation. This said, it is the case no word has ever been more thoroughly pimped than “freedom,” as Adrienne Rich once wisely remarked. America imagines itself to be the land of the free. Well then. Why do we incarcerate more people (often for unconscionably long sentences and for nonviolent crimes such aspossession of microscopic quantities of illegal drugs) than any country in the world? These are some of the questions that led me into the area of criminal justice and prison studies.
Thinking about what it means to be free, it seemed only right to study those most unfree. And what do poets love as much as freedom? Truth. When I began studying these matters, there were few national figures discussing them. We did not yet have Michelle Alexander on speaking tours promoting her marvelous and important book, The New Jim Crow, which points out that the U.S. prison system is a new form of slavery. So once I started educating myself about the U.S. prison industrial complex, I became determined to get the truth out. Here is some truth: According to California Prison Focus, “no other society in human history has imprisoned so many of its own citizens.” Figures show that the United States has locked up more people than any other country: a half million more than China, which has a population five times greater than the U.S. Statistics reveal that the United States holds 25% of the world’s prison population, but only 5% of the world’s people. From fewer than 300,000 inmates in 1972, the prison population grew to 2 million by the year 2000. In 1990 it was one million. Ten years ago there were only five private prisons in the country, with a population of 2,000 inmates; now, there are 100, with 62,000 inmates. It is expected that by the coming decade, the number will hit 360,000. The prison industry complex is one of the fastest-growing industries in the United States and its investors are on Wall Street. This multimillion-dollar industry has its own trade exhibitions, conventions, websites, and mail-order/Internet catalogs. It also has direct advertising campaigns, architecture companies, construction companies, investment houses on Wall Street, plumbing supply companies, food supply companies, armed security, and padded cells in a large variety of colors. I might add, on a slightly different note, that at least sixteen percent of the 2.3 million prisoners in the U.S. suffer from mental illness. These issues are of grave concern to all of us.
And then as Boise Poet Laureate I gave poetry writing workshops in, among other places, the local women’s prison. It was a great honor.
To answer the other part of your question: I never feel I have to justify anything. Perhaps this is because I am now two years into my fifth decade as a person and my fourth decade as a writer.
We contain multitudes, right? Yet, mainstream culture seems to have a tendency to want people to define themselves as a singular concept when in fact we are composed of millions of beautiful angles that are constantly intersecting through change, growth, and exploration. We see these instances of uniformity most regularly through questions like “What do you do?” usually implying “What do you do to make money?” as if the money-making part of ourselves is the only truly valuable part. Since you own the title “poet,” do you ever feel resistance from people when you describe “what you do”? How do you typically respond? Was the experience different before you had published significantly?
Honestly, I am still afraid to “own” the term poet because of its obvious enormity, but I’m trying to get there. If, say, someone on an airplane asks me what I do, I almost always say I’m a teacher, which is true. Maybe I say that because that is the money-making side of what I do, and that seems to be what people are asking after, as you suggest. It doesn’t bother me to keep poetry a part of my more secret self. On the other hand, perhaps it would be in poetry’s best interest to be open about poetry’s leadership role in all aspects of my life. Perhaps I should, as John Doe suggests, “shout hallelujah, I am a poet! as I pinch myself / on the haunch, pat myself on the pate, and at the same time / swivel to James Brown and whiff these crimson pirate daylilies.”
I really don’t know. John Doe still has a lot to teach me, as does poetry. We do contain multitudes, and most of the multitudes I contain are somewhat neurotic and more than a little conflicted about every manner of thing.
Has serving as the city of Boise’s Poet Laureate changed your relationship to poetry at all? Or provided you with surprising opportunities or paths?
Serving as Boise’s Poet Laureate got me away from the writing table and into some local communities. The timing for this was very good; except for my teaching life, I had been living more or less as a hermit (if a single mother can be such a thing) while writing Amnesiac, and I suddenly felt ready to reenter the world and so applied for that position. Being a more public figure reminded me of the loveliness of my fellow humans, of the importance of being a part of a community. That post gave me the opportunity to bring more poetry to the people, and I do not mean here my own poetry. It was a great honor to be poetry’s local ambassador, which is primarily what the laureateship afforded. I am now serving as the Idaho Writer-in-Residence (2013-2016), and in this capacity I am expected to give several readings across the state, particularly in the more rural communities. Another huge honor, and I’m deeply grateful.
Are you familiar with VIDA: Women in the Literary Arts? Recently, VIDA joined PEN’s Prison Writing Program efforts to help address the underrepresentation of incarcerated women submitting to and winning these contests, which often have cash rewards. Idra Novey, VIDA’s Liaison to the Pen Prison Writing Committee, described to me through an email conversation how over the years in the U.S. the number of men becoming incarcerated has plateaued while the numbers of incarcerated women is increasing. Do you have any sense of why this is?
Your friend from VIDA is right: Numbers of incarcerated women are increasing. Sexual violence, drug dependence, mental illness, and poverty are all strongly correlated with women’s incarceration, a sure sign that the U.S. chooses to punish rather than to try to heal the ills. The country locks women up instead of providing services that could help them live healthy, secure, and productive lives. Moreover, women of color experience all of these factors at disproportionate rates, which means that they also have a greater likelihood of becoming enmeshed in the criminal justice system.
Some women are particularly vulnerable to an array of factors that increase the likelihood of their becoming involved in the criminal justice system. The vast majority of women in prison—85 percent to 90 percent—have a history of being victims of violence prior to their incarceration, including domestic violence, rape, sexual assault, and child abuse. And racial disparities strike here too: Girls of color who are victims of abuse are more likely to be processed by the criminal justice system and labeled as criminals than white girls, who are more likely to be considered victims and referred to child welfare and mental health systems.
And to connect back to writing: Do you see writing as a way to avoid recidivism? What impressions were you left with after leading your creative writing workshops in prisons?
Poet Richard Shelton, author of Crossing the Yard, taught poetry writing workshops in the Arizona prison system for three decades. He maintains in his book that writing is unequivocally the number one best tool for reducing recidivism. While the precise statistics are not yet available on such a hypothesis, I will say that my own informal observations support the same. There is no better tool than writing to promote that distinct strain of agency, that sense of self-ownership, if you will, which is necessary to re-craft self and envision new possibilities for a future. The participants in my prison writing workshops always seem newly awake afterwards and more committed to their dream of a future on the outside. As a side effect, hanging around with language stabilizes anxiety and grief as well as fosters playfulness and basic life-joy—all this entirely for free. The blank page is, it seems, the supreme safe-house.
Being a writer is to dedicate yourself to a life-long journey of continual learning, and sometimes unlearning notions of your past to gain a broader view of the world we participate in. As a poet who has made a career out of your poetry and poetic thought, have you cultivated a mantra or some type of inner fueling system that helps to keep you encouraged to continuing writing, editing, sharing, and publishing? Is there some piece (or pieces) of advice you like to share with hopeful and emerging writers that perhaps you wish you had learned earlier and you’d like to share now?
Writing poetry is for me a means to survive and perhaps even flourish in this world. I would not know how to navigate inner or outer without it. Sitting alone at the writing table is of course the most important part of being a writer. It is not a glamorous or exotic lifestyle. If sitting alone and thinking and feeling and writing seems like just about the most important thing on earth, then one should be a writer.
Do you have any upcoming projects, events, collaborations you are excited for that you’d like to mention?
I am just putting the finishing touches on my next book-length manuscript of poems, Torchie’s Book of Days. This book-length dramatic monologue (yes, another one!) contemplates, among other things, space, freedom, mass extinctions, the nature of consciousness, the surveillance society, and the dramatic monologue itself. Torchie is “Heraclitus in a shift,” a “perceptions worker,” a yogini, and a teacher at Who University. She wears a few other hats as well. I would characterize it as a meditative romp. I have no idea how she will be received, but she’s been a lot of fun to hang around with in recent years.