Four Rural Poets for GIA
As is the case with so many careers, the tipping point often comes from a teacher or professor, someone in an authority position who takes notice of budding talent and urges that talent along. Fate, if there is such a thing, may be behind it all, but it can’t be overlooked that the right word at the right time — a homeopathic dose of encouragement — can be paramount. Just the thing to keep a want-to-be-writer from giving up.
What follows are interviews with four poets who either grew up rurally, live in rural environments now, or both. In speaking with them about their childhoods and careers, all of the themes above, and more, emerged.
For Pamela Steele-Reese, chance came in the form of a burrito, while for Joe Wilkins permission to write arrived in a Richard Hugo poem. Linda Hussa might not have ever published a word had it not been for the National Cowboy Poetry Gathering, and for Native American poet Jennifer Finley, confirmation that her thoughts were valid made all the difference.
Regardless of their paths to success, each one of these poets has a story to tell about overcoming the odds. Maybe this is true for all writers, but for these four, wide-open skies, miles of sagebrush, and few other writers around both helped and hindered them as they found their way.
Four Rural Poets: Joe Wilkins, McMinnville, Oregon
Joe Wilkins grew up on a hay ranch six miles outside of Melstone, Montana, in what is known as the Big Dry, a stretch of high plains along the eastern front of the Rockies. Born into a hardscrabble life, he grew up slaughtering chickens and lambs, learned to hunt, and wandered the prairie alone, daydreaming. When Wilkins was nine, his father died of cancer, leaving his mother with three children and three hundred acres of farmland. For the young Wilkins, the death of his father was monumental. His memoir, The Mountain and the Fathers, chronicles the loss.
From the start, Wilkins was bookish and, by his own admission, “not the ranching type.” Wilkins attended school where K–12 were housed in a single building, and classes were often combined across grades. His senior year his graduating class totaled nine students. A saving grace was the school library, which Wilkins says he went through top to bottom. “It mattered so much to have that library there,” he says, “Access to books mattered to me. Even though I wasn’t thinking I was going to be a writer by any stretch of the imagination, I was preparing myself by reading so much.”
Wilkins had few role models when it came to putting pen to paper. “I didn’t know you could choose to be a writer,” he says, “that it was a choice you could make. No one told me, and no one around me was making that choice. And I think this is a problem in many rural areas, that there’s not those examples. Those imaginative choices just aren’t there.”
After graduation Wilkins attended Gonzaga University in Spokane, Washington, where on his the first day of class his literary professor D. S. Butterworth read “Degrees of Gray in Philipsburg” by the Montana poet Richard Hugo. As it turns out, this would be a life-altering moment.
“I was in D. S. Butterworth’s class,” Wilkins remembers, “and he read ‘Degrees’ the very first day. It knocked me out. I had no idea you could make sense of — make beauty of — the kind of things I’d known growing up. I mean, I’d read poetry in literature classes, and I carried around a ratty copy of Eliot’s selected poems, but most of that felt like another world, a world I didn’t exactly have access to. But Hugo, and later Wright and Alexie, that was a world I knew, a world that mattered so much to me. Their work gave me permission to speak about that world in poetry.”
Wilkins went on to teach math in Mississippi as part of the Teach For America program, and eventually to study writing under the tutelage of Robert Wrigley and Kim Barnes at the University of Idaho, where he earned his MFA. He now teaches at Linfield College in Oregon.
Wilkins writes with a matter-of-fact intimacy and vulnerability as he examines his past. Violence is a theme he often returns to. “But to kill is not necessarily to do violence,” he writes in The Mountain and the Fathers. The sentence swivels on the word necessarily, because Wilkins, coming from where he did, understands that at times violence is needed, a part of life. “You see the chickens being slaughtered and cow being butchered out,” he says, “and these things seep into your life and become a part of who you are. I think there’s a strength in that, and a danger as well.”
In his second volume of poetry, Notes from the Journey Westward, Wilkins writes about deer hunting, “In that poem I was interested in connections, in the way we sustain and live off one another, off a moment of violence. I wanted people to be confronted with the necessity of violence and the way we sustain ourselves within this ecological system.”
“If I were to back up and think about my writing in general,” Wilkins says, “for me that recognition of listening to Hugo talking about those small Montana towns, and reading James Wright and feeling that I knew him somehow, that sense of connection across the page, that made a huge difference.”
“There was a sense,” Wilkins says, “that there was another person looking at these things and wondering about them and thinking about them in the same way that I was, and then taking the time to send me a little message.”
Four Rural Poets: Jennifer Finley, Arlee, Montana
Native American writer and poet Jennifer Finley grew up living what she refers to as a sheltered life. Finley was born and raised on the Flathead Reservation in western Montana, a tract of nearly two thousand square miles of forested mountains and valleys north of Missoula. For Finley as a young woman, role models, especially Native American writers, were conspicuously absent. “One of the earliest things I wanted to be was a writer,” Finley says, “but it felt stupid to even want that. I didn’t know any people who were writers, and I certainly didn’t know any Native people who were writing.”
Finley’s mother is Chippewa-Cree from the Rocky Boy Reservation in eastern Montana, and her father is Salish. Finely, now a mother of three, is an enrolled member of the Confederated Salish and Kootenai Tribes and today lives and writes just miles from where she grew up.
Looking back, Finley sees there was a glaring lack in her education on the reservation. “We never read anything by a Native author,” she says, “I didn’t know a Native author even existed in the world.” Still, the idea never left her mind, but like so many rural kids, Native or white, she had no idea where to begin, and by the time college rolled around, she had all but given up on the idea, and her dream.
Finley attended Eastern New Mexico University, and her sophomore year she found herself in a creative writing class. Terrified, stumped as to how to even begin, she said the assignment to write a short story felt like torture. Self-doubt is commonplace for a writer, and for a young writer a simple word or two of encouragement can make all the difference, sometimes for a lifetime. The day after handing in her assignment, the professor opened class by saying she wanted to read something “brilliant,” and then began reading Finley’s story.
“Here was this person who saw something in me that I couldn’t see in myself,” says Finley, “It felt like a miracle.”
“I think that sometimes to be a writer we have to have this crazy blind faith in ourselves without knowing what kind of reward there is going to be in our work,” Finley says. “Then at other times we need people to see in us what we don’t see in ourselves, whether it’s writing or it’s something else.”
Finley went on to get her MA from Northern Arizona University, and her thesis became her first book. For Finley, this was in contradiction to all she had been led to believe. “It was the first time writing poetry,” she says, “it felt like I had a voice.”
“I’ve been thinking about this recently,” she goes on to say, “that it’s miraculous I became a poet at all. Because I’m a brown girl who grew up on the reservation, and nobody cared what I thought, nobody cared how I felt. And now some of the biggest rewards I’ve received in life are because of my thoughts, what I think and how I feel about things. Some of the biggest gifts I’ve received have come from that. To me that just seems like such a miracle, that I became a writer, because I grew up in a space where I felt I was really dismissed. And I think a lot of Indians are. No one says, ‘What you have to say matters. What you think matters. What you think and feel matters and it’s beautiful.’ No one felt that way for us. No one feels that way about Indian kids, even now. So I think it’s such a miracle that I came to do what I do, that people have given me awards for what I think and what I feel.”
Finley’s first book of poetry, What I Keep, was the winner of the 1998 North American Native Authors Poetry Award. She also won first-place awards from the Native American Journalists Association for feature writing, and her work appears on the CD Heart of the Bitterroot: Voices of Salish and Pend d’Orielle Women, which was nominated for a Native American Music Award in 2008. Her latest collection of poetry, What Lasts, came out in 2010 from Foothills Publishing.
Finley doesn’t write simply from a Native perspective. Like poets everywhere, she writes about the human condition: about love and loss and that crazy thing that beats in our chest and fires the mind. “Writing is how I work things out,” Finley says. “Certain things, certain images, will get stuck in my mind, like a record skipping, and that’s when I know that I need to write about it.”
Four Rural Poets: Linda Hussa, Surprise Valley, California
From Linda Hussa’s ranch in the Surprise Valley on the western rim of the Great Basin, you can walk in any direction for nearly two hundred miles and not hit a town of any significant population. It is without doubt off the beaten path, which is exactly where Hussa likes to be. “A slice of paradise,” she calls it, bordered on all sides by a restorative, calming, and far-reaching silence.
Hussa and her husband, John, raise commercial cattle and a flock of pure Navajo-Churro blood sheep, as well as locker lambs. On more occasions than one when I have called or emailed, Hussa has apologized for not getting back to me sooner, saying that her ewes were lambing and then referring to them as “teenage mothers — which of course is what they are.”
Hussa grew up on a horse ranch at the foot of Mount Diablo east of the San Francisco Bay Area and has always lived in rural communities. Although she always written, she didn’t start writing for public consumption until she was in her forties. Not long after marrying and moving to Surprise Valley in 1970, she rode their three-hundred-square-mile Nevada cow range learning the history of the people who worked to make a living in that harsh land. When she attended the National Cowboy Poetry Gathering in Elko, Nevada, it changed the way she saw cowboy poetry, and her own.
“Before I went to Elko and saw the quality of work there, I thought about cowboy poetry the way a lot of people do,” she says, “stories of wild horses and wild buckaroos and wild times. But it wasn’t that at all. There was so much history, so much oral history, people writing about their culture. This wasn’t a bunch of guys sitting around a fire at cow camp telling each other funny stories. They were opening their way of life to people who had no point of reference to their life at all.”
From that moment on, Hussa says, “It became important to me that we protect that culture, that we protect the language of it, protect the way it is done. Because for these people, this was their life, as it is today. The animals eat before the people eat, and the animals rest before the people rest. I noticed that a lot of the language was being lost. People didn’t know what a beaverslide was, or riding a jig-up horse. I felt we needed to immortalize those things that were a very special part of a difficult and isolated life.”
Hussa speaks and writes with an emotional connection to the land. Her poems are expansive, like the view from her porch. “Silence is a thing I need,” she says, “to get away from the noise of human intrusion.”
Hussa believes place has everything to do with her poetry. “When I’m in the middle of this space, a four-hundred-mile radius with nobody up here but my neighbors and small communities,” she says, “my mind can travel without anything stopping it. My dad was a storyteller, and his brother and friends would meet often, and we’d hear stories of when they were young, when they rode and buckarooed, and all that comes back to me here. I think it’s a space that allows the mind to move, and that’s certainly true for me.”
Hussa remembers how revelatory it was meeting other poets who were living the same life as she was. “I met Kim Stafford and Teresa Jordan at the Cowboy Poetry Gathering the first year I went there. That was hugely important because they were both coming from a life on the land and an appreciation for that. They weren’t so apart from my life.” What pains Hussa these days is what she sees missing in the younger generations, millennials who recycle and praise organic but have no connection to the land or appreciation for what is involved in bringing food to their table.
As for bigger city centers and all they have to offer in the way of writing and opportunities, Hussa has never looked back. “It’s an opportunity of a lifetime,” she says, “to live and write about this environment, and I don’t want any of it, or anyone to be lost to time.”
Four Rural Poets: Pamela Steele-Reese, Hermiston, Oregon
Not a lot of poets can say their careers hinged on a burrito. Pamela Steele-Reese, whose first full-length collection of poetry, Paper Bird, was published in 2007 by Wordcraft of Oregon, and was subsequently nominated for an Oregon Book Award, can trace her writing roots back to a specific time and place when a recipe for a vegetarian burrito changed everything.
Steele-Reese was born in West Virginia and grew up in Oregon and Tennessee. The largest portion of that time was in Robertson County, Tennessee, where she attended fourth through twelfth grades. By her own admission, she was shy and quiet and liked to write poetry in her free time. “I don’t remember the first poem I wrote,” she says, “but in my junior year of high school the teacher who had the creative writing class leaned over and said, ‘You can do this for a living, you know.’ But I just filed that idea away somewhere and thought, ‘yeah sure, right.’”
Steele-Reese’s upbringing was undoubtedly rural. Her father’s parents lived in a coal mining holler, and often her family would spend summers there. The house had no running water, and “TV only at a certain time in the evening,” Steele-Reese says. “I mean, we might get Star Trek if somebody shimmied up on the roof and turned the antenna just right.”
To compensate for the lack of external entertainment, Steele-Reese remembers a lot of reading went on in the house and that often her grandmother would read her poems. “The one I remember the most is ‘The Cremation of Sam McGee,’” she says, “I think the rhythm of the language got into my head and stuck there.” Another pastime was sitting on the porch listening to her grandmother tell stories. As with listening to poetry, the cadence and rhythm of storytelling were sinking in. “Still,” she says, “I never thought I could make a career out of being a writer or a poet.”
After high school, Steele-Reese attended Austin Peay State University in Clarksville, Tennessee, where she studied elementary education and became the first person in her family to finish college. Then, following a teaching stint in Texas, she found herself back in Oregon, taking care of her aunt — which is where the burrito comes in.
With the summer off from teaching, Steele-Reese took a shift working the lunch counter at Summer Fishtrap, the renowned series of writing workshops and seminars in eastern Oregon. One afternoon the director, Rich Wandschneider, wandered in to inquire about a vegetarian burrito recipe, and as Steele-Reese puts it, “Somehow figured out I was a writer and invited me into some of the readings.” That simple invitation, coming from on high, would result in her being awarded a fellowship two years later to attend and study at Summer Fishtrap.
“Once I went to the conference,” Steele-Reese says, “and I got over my nervousness, I felt I had arrived in my own skin. My brother came to my fellowship reading, and he didn’t know me as a writer, and he told me that the look on my face as I was reading was completely incredible. I’m shy by nature, but something happened when I got in front of the microphone and had that interaction a writer has with the audience.”
These days, besides writing, Steele-Reese teaches composition classes at Blue Mountain Community College in Hermiston, Oregon. As a poet living where she does, she acknowledges the hardships involved, especially when it comes to getting writers to read in the area. “The distance from here to Portland,” she quips, “is about three hundred miles. But from Portland to here is about nine hundred.”
To counterbalance the discrepancy, Steele-Reese took matters into her own hands two years ago and with a friend began the First Draft Writers Series, a monthly event that brings top-notch writers to Pendleton, Oregon.
Despite Steele-Reese’s recent efforts to bring the world of writing to her, she still thinks back to how important that burrito and Fishtrap really were. “Serving food to those writers showed me that they’re people just like any of us,” she says. “They were nice to each other. I held them in high regard, and at that point in my life I don’t know if I had met a living, breathing writer until I was standing on the other side of that lunch counter serving them.”
Sometimes, that is all it takes.