When she wakes up at 5 a.m. most days, Joyce Sutphen has a decision to make.
“I’m having a battle in the morning. Should I try to sleep a little bit more, or should I just get up and sit with my notebook and see what’s coming today? I sometimes ... just sit and wait for a poem,” she said.
If the early-morning poetry isn’t satisfactory, she’ll place them in a folder titled: “Bad Poems.” Yes, even one of the most-esteemed poets in Minnesota — who just received a $9,700 grant for her future work — has a discard pile.
In 2020, Sutphen, 70, can use her new Minnesota State Arts Board Artists Initiative grant to keep writing and sharing her poems.
She’s the state’s second poet laureate, succeeding Robert Bly, and was appointed by then-Gov. Mark Dayton in August 2011. Sutphen’s work has been published in nearly a dozen of her own books and anthologies.
In April she applied for the Artists Initiative grant, created to support an artist’s project and visibility. It was the first time in over a decade she’d applied, she said. With the money granted in November, she hopes to do more public outreach surrounding her poetry.
“I want to come to a sharper realization of my subject,” Sutphen said. “I know my experience and I can probably write poems from that source for the rest of my life, but I think I’m excited to make it bigger — make it more universal and without losing the specific perspective.”
In the coming months her project, which could have garnered anywhere from $2,000 to $10,000 based on application results, will focus on finding a way to “memorialize” the shared experience of reading her poetry. She said people approach her with stories and her poems remind them of a similar person or experience about farm life — a topic she writes extensively on.
“It’s just exactly the way my grandpa, my uncle, my father-in-law (was),” Sutphen recalled of past conversations. “People all have a farm somewhere in their family’s history, I think, or their experience. It just seemed like it would be interesting to take that topic and have the audience talk to each other.”
Sutphen grew up on a small farm west of St. Cloud near St. Joseph.
“It was wonderful,” she said. “I feel like I had an idyllic childhood. I really loved running in the woods and helping my dad with things.”
In high school, she began dipping her toes — or her pen, rather — in poetry. She let herself soak in lyrics from Bob Dylan, Joni Mitchell and Leonard Cohen. Soon, a few of her own poetic works were displayed in the high school literary book.
She wrote a burst of self-described “emotional” poems during college, a response to her younger sister dying during open heart surgery. She then took a break from writing poetry for nearly two decades, she said, as she finished her degrees and taught English. She was a professor at Gustavus Adolphus College until two years ago.
She published her first book in 1995, titled “Straight Out of View.”
“It was almost like making a quilt,” she said of writing it. “I kind of squinted my eyes and said, ‘OK, I think this is a good shape, this poem should go first and then this one. And maybe I’ll make five different sections.’ And (I) just kind of intuitively did it.”
It was published just two years after the beginning of Garrison Keillor’s daily audio broadcast, “The Writer’s Almanac.”
“He’s read so many of my poems,” Sutphen said, noting the poems were read and recorded on the show. “I’m very, very lucky. I was lucky from the start. I kind of owe it to him and his readers.”
That very first book won the Barnard Women Poets Prize, but she remains humble.
“I’m really a lucky person in that respect,” Sutphen said. “I know friends who are really wonderful writers, probably — I would say — better than I am, and it took them 10 years to get their first book published.”
Her intuition and calmness is something fans — who now share the title “friends” — of her work said they are thrilled about.
“She’s been an example for me for how to write in a meaningful way that’s engaging and simple but also very not simple — full of emotion and depth,” Tim Nolan said.
Nolan met Sutphen through a book judging competition about two decades ago. She didn’t win the award, but the two walked away with a friendship. Nolan sent her a self-described “fan letter” that year, and since then he’s sent her hundreds of his poems.
“I just sent her one about five minutes ago,” he said, laughing. “We’re simpatico and I really admire her work. I think we’ve kind of influenced each other in a way in our poems.”
And he’s not the only one.
Connie Wanek met Sutphen at a Duluth poetry reading over 20 years ago. She saw Sutphen’s work grow and change, particularly from an academic to personal lens.
“She began to embrace the things that actually make her incredibly unique because she’s both a Shakespearean scholar and a farm girl,” Wanek said. “She’s kind of the most authentic Minnesotan possible in that sense.”
Wanek called Sutphen’s poetry a blend of formal and warm, approachable and recognizable. Such writing takes a personal angle yet isn’t cloying, Wanek said, especially considering Sutphen’s femininity.
“Joyce is a perfect example of the way writing has changed. Women are taken seriously and are allowed to write on women’s subjects — what used to be called women’s subjects,” Wanek said.
She added, “In every area women were limited, so she has bridged two worlds that way.”
Both Wanek and Nolan agree her work comes from a place of ultimate humility. They said she doesn’t believe she deserves the accolades — and that’s just one more reason why people love her.
“You could have a hundred people meet her and they’d come away with something similar,” Nolan said of how much people like Sutphen’s work and character.
Sutphen remains humble despite her noteworthy background of three degrees, including a PhD in Renaissance drama.
“When they called me, I said, ‘I think you must — really?’” she said of being offered the grant that first time. “It was a blitzkrieg. It just kind of all happened at once.”
Friends call her work accessible and understandable, without losing its sophistication and informed literary sense.
But for Sutphen? She likes to keep things simple.
“Love and death and what else?” she said with a laugh. “Love and death and farms.”
Sutphen is currently working on a manuscript. It’s one she said will fit with the first two books she wrote on rural life on a small farm.