A Q&A with state Poet Laureate Suzanne Rhodes

In February, Governor Asa Hutchinson named Suzanne Underwood Rhodes poet laureate of the state of Arkansas. A native of New York and a transplant from Virginia Beach, Rhodes joined the Poet’s Roundtable of Arkansas when she and her husband Ella Wayne, a landscape photographer, moved to Fayetteville three years ago. Her poetry collection “Flying Yellow” was named this year as a semi-finalist in the North American Book Award of the Poetry Society of Virginia.

You are not only a fan of writing, but of the act of revising, and of teaching poetry students about the process. How do you know when a poem is finished?

I think it was the French poet [Paul] Valéry who said, “A poem is never finished, just abandoned.” That’s true for some poems. There’s one poem I’ve been working on since 1998, I think. Over and over. Leaving it alone, coming back to it. And finally I feel that I got it right. There have been probably a hundred revisions of that poem. But they’re not all like that. … Some poems come in like a gift.

The poem selections on your website range from 1995 to the current day. What, if anything, would you say has changed about your poetry over time, or maybe in the last few years?

I feel a commitment to poems that go way back. I think a lot of them are good, and some of them aren’t so good. My first chapbook was called “Weather of the House,” and there’s this poem in there that has this absolutely absurd line. I’ll go back to collections of my poems and change lines. So the revision goes on as I get older and see better and hear better. Because poetry is all about listening. Robert Frost said “The ear is the only true writer and the only true reader.” I think my poems have become more deeply spiritual, not necessarily in an explicit way, but I think that the wellspring of who I am is finding its way into the world with more authenticity. The musicality of a poem has always been important to me. I think a lot of contemporary poetry misses the layers. Even though a poem can be simple, it can be many-layered. And that’s the art part.

Ezra Pound said that without music, poetry atrophies, and I thought that it was so good. Poetry calls us to pay attention, and calls us to notice what gets lost in the rush. And that’s a goal I have as a poet laureate — to teach people of all ages in our state to really listen to their lives, listen to what’s around us. To slow down and pay attention. That’s where our meaning comes from as human beings.

I understand that a lot of your poetry deals with the practice of prayer. Your poem “Advent,” for example, appears in devotional publications, and on your website, you say that “words have roots, too — roots in the divine.” Do you have a religious affiliation or denomination you practice?

I’m a Christian, and I guess that says it all. I’m a Christ follower. I love the verse in the book of John that says, “In the beginning was the word, and the word was with God, and the word was God.” To me, that’s absolutely overwhelming and mysterious. But I think poetry from all perspectives can open up our inner lives. It’s like a magic carpet. A poem can take us to a place where we can think about our experience, our memories, our dreams, and can lift us up into a higher look, a higher perspective. Language has an element of mystery to it.

I found a lot to read about what inspires you to write poetry — nature and divinity, and the process of aging, in your poem “Aunt Claire.” But I was thinking about how so many artists during the pandemic have found the well of inspiration rather empty, because the focus has been so prominently on our basic needs – survival, financial and otherwise. So I wonder where you go or what you read when you are feeling uninspired?

Let me give an example. I remember my husband and I went to Pea Island [National Wildlife] Refuge and it was a really gray, dismal kind of day. Maybe what we would think of as a “covid day.” It was drizzly, and I kept thinking, “I wanna be able to see something here. Have some other kind of impression other than this dreariness.” And we came upon the estuary, and there were all these swans. So I’ll read that poem, which I think fits into what you’re asking. This is called “Gray Distances,” and it’s very short.

The loneliness of their long whistles,
the sound full of their whiteness,
even in community they are lonely,
miles of loneliness across the rain-
beaten water as they have come to overwinter,
to fly the gray distances from there to here,
to be the wings of longing, to plumb
the sky and sea, landing and leaving
like arrows from the bow of God,
the air crying for love of swans.

Thank you. I think that answers my question perfectly. Keep looking, right?

Yeah, keep looking. And look for joy wherever you can find it. And don’t deny it. I always watch for my chipmunks — I’ve tamed a couple of chipmunks and I just love watching their antics. And that brings me joy when life seems tedious.

Did you say you’ve tamed them? Like, they’ll come to you?

And it is! I’ll have to send you a picture. We’ve got a little routine where I put out sunflower seeds and they’ll come out.

courtesy Suzanne Underwood Rhodes

Is there a single goal or, at the risk of sounding clinical, agenda for you during your time as poet laureate?

I’m going to focus at least for the first two years of my tenure on Youth Poetry Day. This was something that [my predecessor] Jo McDougall started.

An integral part of my calling as a poet is teaching and mentoring. You probably read on my website that I teach poetry workshops, now virtual, and have for years with the Muse Writers Center in Norfolk, Virginia. Having many repeat students as well as poets I mentor one-on-one gives me the deep reward of seeing them grow in their craft and understanding, with a number of these poets going on to publish in journals and even find homes for their books. These activities are really inseparable from my writing life. My most foundational belief as a teacher is that ALL people are creative (certainly in many ways), but to draw out the poets is my privilege and honor.

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