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Dean Rader provides humorous insight to his work

Three T. S. Eliot Prize poets will visit Truman March 29 to promote poetry and highlight their prize-winning books published by Truman State University Press, now celebrating 25 years of publishing.

Rhina Espaillat, Mona Lisa Saloy and Dean Rader will be on the Truman campus as guest lecturers in several creative writing classes. They will all take part in a discussion panel at 1:30 p.m. in the Student Union Building Alumni Room to talk about the craft of poetry and getting started in publishing. The poets will read from their prize-winning books at 7 p.m. in the Student Union Building Down Under where books will be available to purchase. The public is welcome at these events.

The T. S. Eliot Prize, sponsored by the University Press, was first established in 1997 and receives national recognition for the quality of work published. Each year the Press receives about 500 manuscripts for the competition and a well-known poet selects a final winning manuscript. The author wins $2,000 and publication.

In preparation for the event, we invited each author to tell us about their interest and career in poetry.

Dean Rader, author of the 2010 prize for “Works & Days,” has published widely in poetry, American Indian studies and popular culture. He teaches at the University of San Francisco.

For more information, check out Rader’s website at:

How did you decide to become a poet? 

Well, I think most poets would say that they never actually choose poetry—poetry chose them. At least that was the case for me. I mean, almost no one would make a conscious decision to be a poet: you have a tiny audience and even tinier royalties. No one makes films of books of poems. You don’t get invited to be on Oprah. Perez Hilton won’t blog about you. You’ll never see a poet on Dancing with the Stars.

But . . . but . . . there is no better feeling than crafting newness out of the words we use every day for the most mundane things. I started writing poetry because I wanted to see if I could make something funny or provocative or holy from the raw materials of language.

Nothing had made me feel more excited about being alive, nothing had made me feel the divine more than poetry. I wanted to see if I could do as a writer what I had felt as a reader.

How did you first get published?

That sort of depends on what you mean by “published.” I wrote for my high school newspaper and even did the occasional column in college. Some of my poems and stories were published in standard undergraduate literary magazines. Also as a college student, I had a short story, I think, appear in The Rectangle, the magazine of Sigma Tau Delta (the national English honor society).

Later, once I had my Ph.D. I started writing poems more seriously and sending them out to journals and literary magazines. I’m pretty sure the first national magazine to take one of my poems was Veer: New Verse, but it wasn’t until a few years ago when one of my Frog & Toad poems won a national contest and another Frog and Toad poem got accepted at The Colorado Review that I really started feeling like I had moved from merely writing poems to being a poet.

What has it meant for you and your career to win the T. S. Eliot Prize?

It is not overstating things to say that winning the Eliot prize has changed my life. Though I had this other career as a scholar and a columnist, Works & Days was my first book of poems. The prestige of the prize probably helped get the book reviewed, and the positive reviews got the book noticed and subsequently got me noticed as a poet. Now the book has gone into a second printing and has sold more copies than either of my scholarly books.

In addition to being a writer, I’m also a professor at the University of San Francisco. I was up for Full Professor when it was announced I won the Eliot prize, so the prize certainly helped get me promoted. Also in 2011, I won the university’s distinguished research award—which takes into account artistic and creative work.  I’m absolutely certain that the Eliot prize was instrumental for that award.

But, on a more personal level, this particular award has meant a great deal. My area of expertise in graduate school was modern poetry, and I focused on writers like Wallace Stevens, William Carlos Williams, and of course, T. S. Eliot. Having my name linked to Eliot’s is pretty cool.  Additionally, I really like and believe in university presses, so the fact that Truman State University Press publishes the book makes me happy. Most significantly, though, I have a real affinity for this part of the country. I grew up in Oklahoma. My great great grandfather moved to Oklahoma from Missouri. I feel very connected to this part of the world and the cultural values that shape it.

Many of your poems incorporate experimental poetic techniques (words that are stricken through with black lines, blanks, and poems that appear to be lists and, in one case, a PowerPoint presentation). What appeals to you about writing this way? Were you hoping for poems like these to have a particular effect when read in the same book as poems that are more traditional in structure and appearance?

I believe that pretty much anyone can like poetry. I also believe that most people have a kind of poetry anxiety. When they see a text that looks like “a poem,” the immediately go into a defensive mode, like they’ve seen a grizzly. So, in these poems, I wanted to communicate to readers that poetry and poetic language—poetic creation—can take many forms (even un-poetic forms). Almost nothing is less poetic than a PowerPoint presentation or a talking point memo, but writing poems that take on those forms, changes both the poem and the form. I hope it makes both more accessible.

I’m also very interested in readers. Readers are more interesting than writers. I wanted to write a book that would, obviously, appeal to writers (all those references to other poets, for example) but that would also reach out to readers. My hope is that the pop culture references, the poems about Frog and Toad, the use of recognizable forms (like PowerPoint), and the humor will draw people into the book, rather than push them away.

I’ve always loved the elasticity of poetry. As a poet, I wanted to stretch what a poem could look like and sound like. I wanted to write a book of poems that really felt like it participated as much in the world as in the world of poetry.

Many poems in Works & Days, especially in the final “Days” section of your book, offer a personal, biographical look at the author. Is it ever uncomfortable to expose personal moments or reflections on your experiences, or does relying on these experiences make your task as a writer easier?

Ha! It is always uncomfortable for me to expose personal moments. I still worry that the poem for my sister, “Self Portrait as Antinomy: 32” is too intimate, too confessional, though it is one of the poems that many interviewers and reviewers seem to respond to.

I also worried (and still worry) that making me the subject of so much of the book is too self-indulgent. I mean, most people don’t know me. Why would they want to read poems about mile markers in the life of some random dude? I realized, though, after putting the book together and doing some readings that folks are interested in the project of mapping the terrain of a life, of charting what kinds of things give direction to our common journey.

I also think one of the things that saves Works & Days from being too internal or self-obsessed is that so much of the content is universal. We all know pop songs. We know who Michael Jackson is. We have ideas about Albert Einstein. Many of us have been moved by the story of Dido and Aeneas or the photographs of Dorothea Lange or the poems of Wallace Stevens or the exploits of Frog and Toad. So, while a lot of the poems are about the self, they are about the self as mediated and experienced through a larger database that everyone has access to.

Which poets or authors do you often read? Why do you enjoy reading them?

First and foremost, I’m always drawn to Wallace Stevens. His is the voice I hear in my head at some point every day. I really mean that. Every day. I don’t think I write Stevensian poems, but his voice certainly narrates the poetic soundtrack of my life.

More obviously, I like Charles Wright. I worry at times that too many of my lines sound too much like him, but I don’t even know I’m doing it. I think his book Negative Blue is the best book of contemporary American poetry of the last 20 years.

I’m also currently obsessed with Emily Dickinson. I keep rereading her with awe. I loved Terrence Hayes’ Lighthead. It excited me like nothing I’d read in a while. I am also drawn to W. S. Merwin, Jorie Graham, H. D., Gerard Manley Hopkins, Pablo Neruda, Rainer Maria Rilke—the list extends forever it seems. No writers have shaped my teaching and critical work more than recent American Indian writers like Heid Erdrich, LeAnne Howe, Sherman Alexie, Louise Erdrich, Orlando White, Linda Hogan, Leslie Marmon Silko, Joy Harjo, Simon Ortiz, Kimberly Blaeser, and Esther Belin.

I enjoy all of these writers for different reasons. In Rilke I feel the divine; in Neruda energy and politics; in Hayes anger, energy, politics, and poetic experimentation; in Wright the unexplainable beauty of a perfectly articulated image; in Hopkins, glory; in Alexie and Howe artistically hilarious insights into Native American issues; in l Stevens the struggle to make sense of the ongoing tensions between one’s overpowering imagination and the realities of the real world.

What advice would you have for students wishing to pursue writing as a career?

Since I teach in the writing program at the University of San Francisco, I get this question a lot. My advice is pretty practical. Do everything. Do writing and publishing internships. Study with as many different people as you can. Be prepared to work very hard for a long time and very little money. Be prepared for rejection after rejection after rejection (Reginald Shepherd told me one time to expect 200 rejections for every acceptance). Go to graduate school—not necessarily in creative writing but in something you truly care about. Stay engaged with the world. Keep an open mind about the subject of your writing. Consider writing about anything and at any time. Do not worry about selling out. If such a thing even exists, it’s a long way away. Above all, read. Read, read, read. In her great handbook on poetry, Mary Oliver says that if you want to be a writer, and you have a choice between reading and taking a workshop, you should read. That is excellent advice.

I find—especially in San Francisco—that some students are more interested in being a writer than they are in writing. Writing is very hard work. Writing does not come easy for anyone. You know that Malcolm Gladwell claim that a person needs to do 10,000 hours of something to become a pro at it? It’s certainly true with writing.

But, at the same time, writers have altered the course of history. They change the way we see everything. They give us back ourselves and the world as well. There are few more noble ways to spend your days.

What are you working on right now?

Right now, I’m working on getting our newborn son to sleep.  But, I’m having no luck. All the dude wants to do is eat and nap, eat and nap. He rarely sleeps longer than an hour or two at a time (even at night).

But, in all of my free time (that’s a joke), I’m immersed in several things all at the same time. I’m working on a book on poetic craft. I’m continuing to review books of poetry. I’m writing an essay for a new Oxford University press book on American Indian art and literature. I’m trying to keep up my columns for The San Francisco Chronicle and The Huffington Post, and I’m working on new poems. I’m really pleased with the direction of my recent work, like this one in Zyzzyva.