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Monday, January 12, 2009

Contributor Spotlight: Derek Sheffield

Straw for the Fire and the Writer’s Notebook

I thought I’d use this blog post to point you to a book unlike any other I’ve read. I first read it about 20 years ago, but it’s in my thinking now because the title popped up in Dennis O’Driscoll’s recent interview of Seamus Heaney. After Theodore Roethke died in 1963, David Wagoner combed through the 277 notebooks Roethke left. These notebooks contain bits of poetry, aphorisms, phrases, thoughts on teaching, philosophy, rough drafts, quotations—they contain anything that flitted through Roethke’s mind. Wagoner distilled the essence of these notebooks and the result is a book called Straw for the Fire (Doubleday, 1972).

Reading the book is a strange and exhilarating experience. There is no depth too deep and no height too high but this book touches it. It is lyrical, zany, vulgar, provocative, tender, inspiring. It is a model for my own notebook. Like Roethke, I seldom use the fragments I put down in my notebook, but I have faith that something happens in my imagination when I do take the time to jot down a phrase or two. It comforts me that all that kindling is ready if I ever need it. Here’s a very small sample of what you’ll find in this book:

If you can’t think, at least sing.

Living as if everything were slightly a-tilt.

The professor is supposed to know. I am not of that breed.

To write poetry: you have to be prepared to die.

Am I too old to write in paragraphs?

O Mother Mary, and what do I mean,
That poet’s fallen into the latrine,--
And no amount of grace or art
Can change what happens after that.

My courage kisses the ground.

I don’t know a thing except what I try to do.

And let me confess that this is my first ever blog. Thank you, Beth, for the invitation. It’s timely. I’ve enjoyed reading the other entries here at HFR. What’s more, I’ve recently found my work the subject of some blogs and I’m impressed at the level of discourse.

Derek Sheffield’s chapbook, A Revised Account of the West, won the Hazel Lipa Environmental Chapbook Award sponsored by Flyway at Iowa State University (2008). His full-length manuscript was a finalist for the 2008 Brittingham Prize and a semifinalist for the 2008 Walt Whitman Award. He teaches at Wenatchee Valley College. Derek's poem, "By The Word Play," appears in HFR issue #43.

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