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An award-winning poet learns how to let go

Christine Deavel, author of 'Woodnote,' which won the Washington State Book Award for poetry in 2012 Credit: Photo: Natalie Fuller

Last week Crosscut filmed a conversation with Christine Deavel, whose first full-length poem collection, Woodnote, won the 2012 Washington State Book Award for poetry in September. Deavel explained how she drew material from diaries kept for 50 years by a family member during the first half of the 20th century. The diarist, Sarah, lived in the same rural region of Indiana where Deavel later was born and grew up.

In Woodnote (reviewed in these pages last fall) Deavel intertwines phrases from entries written in 1941 with her own contemporary thoughts. “I knew I couldn't stand in Sarah's shoes,” said the poet, “so we would have a dialogue. I'd bring myself to her.”

Deavel said many of the poems explore what was lost from the Indiana countryside during the time when the Miami Indians were vanishing from the region and a different population (“my people,” she said wryly) cleared the way for what became vast new farming enterprises. The poems mingle a lost world of wild abundance and little towns with memories of Deavel's mother, who died while the book was in progress. So Woodnote is a meditation on changes that disrupt our deepest attachments to the ways and things we love.

(For full screen, click on bottom right corner of video.)

Deavel on the mystery of change: “How do things exist, even as we move away from them?”

On living with loss: “We’re mortal. The world changes. We have to let things go.”

On keeping what matters to us: “Sometimes just saying ‘This happened, and I’m aware of it,’ is a kind of preservation.”

On poetry: “[It] just seemed to be a way for me both to be myself, and to think, and to find pleasure, sometimes also heartbreak, but it just seemed to be the place where I could live.”

On authorial self-doubt: "I have many periods of quietude. Years have gone by when I haven't written, when I'm not sure why I would do it: 'Does the world need another poem? Does it particularly need one from me?' I need poetry, but I'm not sure I'm the one to produce it. So periodically, doubts wash over."

Receiving the Washington State Book Award, Deavel said, brought home to her how much writing a volume of poems about the Midwest depended on the encouragement of fellow poets in Washington. They were fascinated by her use of a diary that captured life in rural America of a century ago, and they kept reaching out to her and cheering her on.

"I needed the embrace," she said, at least as much as she had needed some emotional and geographical distance from her subject to produce the book.

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