Interview with Bruce Dethlefsen

by Sarah Busse

SB: How long have you been writing poetry? 

BD: I’ve been writing poetry in fits and starts since I was a seventh grader at John J. Pershing Elementary School in Kansas City.  In 1996 I was inspired by Madison’s David Steingass to submit a poem to the Yahara Prairie Review and have been writing seriously ever since.  The Wisconsin Fellowship of Poets has encouraged me and so many other poets in so many ways.

SB: As you travel around Wisconsin, who are the people in your audiences? Are you reading to poets? Teachers? Children? People who otherwise wouldn’t read poetry?

BD: The special project I’ve chosen as Wisconsin Poet Laureate is to visit and help public libraries set up local ongoing and sustainable poetry readings.  There are so many poets here and there who are just waiting to be asked to share their writing in a supportive atmosphere.

Often people who otherwise don’t read poetry attend the readings because it’s inexpensive live and local entertainment.  Usually they receive a personal invitation from the librarian (and did I tell you I love librarians?)

Before a reading I also love to visit schools and talk with teachers and students about poetry.

SB: As you allude to below, the subject matter of some of the poems in this book is difficult terrain–very personal, and tricky to write about. Can you speak a little bit to what you hope readers might get from these poems? Also, how do you think the poems about your son interact with the other poems in the book (or do they)?

BD: After the death of my son in June, 2010, I wrote to express my grief.  The writing was very therapeutic.  As time went by, I looked at the poems and thought it could be helpful to others who had suffered a personal loss.  My hope is that these readers might understand that they’re not going through the grieving process alone.  I felt obliged to share and the sharing makes me feel less powerless.


is salty numb cold water
come in waves
from the sadness sea
blue black heavy waves
they pound you flat
and you know the next wave
will scrunch you under
just like that
and you’ll crumble into sand

so the next wave comes
to pummel you
and your knees buckle
and you are going down
done for and at least
you think thank god whomever
it’s got to be over

no     the next wave comes
and the next one comes
but then the waves get smaller
less often     less awful
you can stand up some
and breathe a little
squeeze open your stinging eyes
hold on     you can rest for a while
cause oh you’ll need it
when the mourning comes

SB: There are also a lot of poems of childhood, featuring your own memories and evocations of the schoolyard. You have been a teacher and a librarian. It’s clear this has impacted your poetry. Would you talk about what role childhood plays in your poems? 

BD: Childhood fears and joys are felt intensely as they happen.  Christmas time was truly magical.  Baseball players walked on water.  Even our taste buds were stronger when we were young.  That’s why brussel sprouts tasted so bad, and now, they’re pretty good.  Sometimes we miss the bigger picture at the time but later, in reflection with older eyes, see the lesson or the truth.Bruce Dethlefsen, by Wilson Dethlefsen

I had a wonderful family and neighborhood, tough sometimes but always loving.  It was the time of personal discovery.  When I can capture a memory in a poem successfully it becomes a universal experience in the reader.  That’s my hope anyway.

I wish a poet would have come to my eighth grade class and given me permission to be an artist.

SB: Another major theme in this book is the natural beauty of Wisconsin, and the seasonal landscape. Have you lived in Wisconsin your whole life? Can you talk a little about how the landscape and weather of the state have impacted you?

BD: I came to Wisconsin to attend college in La Crosse.  Having grown up on 55th street in Kansas City, I felt like Dorothy must have when the door to her crashed house opened full color to the land of Oz.  I love the blue and green and white of Wisconsin, the water, the breeze and the seasonal extremes. It’s true, I’m so at home with the squawks of the sandhill cranes and the sight of those black and white cows on the green hillside.

SB: What about the people of the state? Would you care to make any observations/statements about Wisconsinites–either the poetry scene, the audiences, the schools…or some other aspect?

BD: The people of Wisconsin are educated and friendly.  They invariably choose “true” on any true and false exam questions.  They’re trusting, progressive and encourage freedom.  They may not tell you, but once they’ve discovered that first poem that speaks to them personally, they’re hooked.

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