Suzanne Rhodes of Fayetteville is happiest when she's writing poems. Technically, she is not required to do any writing or crafting of poetry during her year as Arkansas State Poet Laureate, a position she assumed in February that recognizes a poet of significant talent. But it has always been an integral part of her life, ever since childhood when she would frequently wake her sister in the middle of the night to read her a poem that she'd just written.
"When I got the call from the governor's office, I thought it was spam," Rhodes says. She let it roll to voicemail and then got an email. "I thought it would be 'We're sorry' -- but I couldn't finish reading after 'Congratulations.'"
It still feels surreal to Rhodes, who is getting used to the "hoopla." Her concentration during this year will be to help students grades 1-12 in the most rural areas of the Natural State to discover the power of poetry.
She is in the process of setting up a couple of poetry contests to inspire grade school students to create and read works of their own and hopes to establish a youth poet laureate as well. Submission deadline for the home school poetry contest she established, "Yum's the Word," is July 1.
"Suzanne is true to herself and to her belief in the power of poetry to do good, to heal, to overcome adversity," says Sofia Starnes, a former Virginia poet laureate. "I have no doubt that she will bring this strength to whatever project she undertakes as poet laureate."
Rhodes has published a number of books in her career, chapbooks "Weather of the House" (1994) and "Hungry Foxes" (2013), books of prose poetry "Sketches of Home" (1998) and "A Welcome Shore" (2010), a full-length collection called "What a Light Thing, This Stone" (1999) and a guide for students "The Roar on the Other Side" (2000).
Her most recent full-length collection of poetry, "Flying Yellow," deals in themes of family and bloodlines, intriguing literary and historical characters, nature and things of a religious matter, though there's a spiritual element to all that she writes.
She often writes about the "other," creatures and people who are very different or set apart, and loves poems rooted in a particular place.
"All throughout her life she wanted to be published, that was her goal," says Rhodes' sister, Leslie Kendall. "It wasn't for her glory but ... so others could have a better concept of life. Her life speaks through her poems. She's taken the unique (and) the ordinary and goes into a whole world of possibilities."
As a child, poetry was the escape from a home life that was often lived in poverty and always at the whim of an emotionally wounded, abusive man, Rhodes' stepfather. Her poem "Onions" centers on him and the importance of forgiveness.
"I discovered a life of imagination that I would go to; it was a wonderful world," Rhodes said during a discussion with Virginia Poet Laureate Luisa Gloria and several poetry students in March.
I hope "to afford (children in poor areas) pleasure and a glimpse of joy because there's always joy in everyone's life if you look for it," she says, since she was a girl who could relate to the children she'll be reaching out to. "My hope is that they find a world they can go to, the fun of language, of words and word play."
The possibility of bringing people together through poetry excites her.
"That's a passion of mine, to show the power of language to unite us and inspire us and make us listen to our lives better," she says. "To look around us more keenly and just enjoy words."
HEAD IN THE CLOUDS
Rhodes grew up in New York in the 1950s. She, her two older sisters and her parents lived in Shank's Village, where most families were like theirs: the fathers all GIs, the mothers having one baby after another. Her own father, Roger Underwood, was a bombardier in World War II.
When she was 4 years old and her sisters 5 and 6, her dad left the family. Her grandparents came to help out as her mother went to Idaho for a quicker divorce. When Mom returned, the family moved to Arlington, Va., for her new job at the CIA.
Even with a good job, as a working single mother in the '50s, it was hard for Rhodes' mother to make rent, she says. Once she remarried, it brought some financial stability, but in many ways it was rockier.
"She married him and regretted it," Rhodes says. "He was emotionally damaged. Life growing up with him was difficult."
Her stepfather was a jazz fan with many friends in the business, and the musicians often spent time at her home. That's how she managed to meet Ella Fitzgerald and get her autograph. It's also how she got her own first credit as a songwriter.
When Hezekiah "Stuff" Smith, a jazz violinist featured in several numbers on Nat "King" Cole's "After Midnight," took Rhodes' poem "Miracles" and set it to music, he gave her mother the copyright. "Miracles" was her first work to win a major award, taking the cake at the national scholastic contest when she was in sixth grade.
Years later, as an adult, Rhodes would find a recording of Stuff singing and playing violin to it and learned that he had been performing "Miracles" in Europe.
Rhodes had a habit of removing herself from the hustle and bustle of her parents' socially active lives. Even then she craved the quiet that would allow her mind to roam and create.
Any time that the family visited the grandparents and her mother's relatives in Alabama, Rhodes would walk straight past the pies, beans, fried chicken and fixings and find a place to escape all the noise.
"I would quietly leave and walk through the corn field and would talk to myself, tell stories out loud," she says. "I still do. Usually I would leave the social world and enter this other world where I could listen and think and drink in the natural world."
Her sister Leslie was her first and best audience any time she came up with a new poem. She would wake her and ask if she could read the new poem to her, to which Leslie always said yes. Then the two would cross the hall, wrap themselves in towels like makeshift blankets and snuggle up as Suzy shared her new lines.
"Growing up, I didn't know how unique and talented she was, she was just my sister," Leslie Kendall says. "It always delighted me to hear the poems because she had a unique outlook on things. She was always digging deeper and deeper. From an early age she was not just creative but had a depth of desire to see the other side of things."
Among those memorable poems was a simple one about a gardener toiling with clumps of dirt and soil. Kendall saw it as a metaphor for the way that Rhodes writes poems, excavating meaning and shedding light on things in a new way.
"She saw in that clump of earth there was much more, a secret opening into another world," Kendall says. Often a line from Rhodes' work will stick with Kendall and cause her to see the world around her differently. In another poem, Rhodes used the phrase "the faint against the fixed," and ever since Kendall has looked for examples and then delighted when she found one.
Living alongside a young poet meant Kendall knew when Rhodes had drifted off to another place when she would take a towel, toss it up in the air and catch it over and over again in a loop.
"I could always tell she was creating something in her mind when she did that," Kendall says. "She was not an ordinary person and still isn't."
WHERE IS IT?
All throughout Rhodes' school experience, teachers befriended her, mentored and encouraged her to keep writing. Her direction nearly changed once in high school when she worked as a nurse's aide through a program at an Arlington hospital. Each day she left school early and spent afternoons working there.
It was a grunt job, but Rhodes got to know the patients well, and it was influential enough to cause her to consider becoming a nurse. But even then her writer's mind was at work.
Each day, Rhodes would take a special treat off a tray and sneak it off to Mr. Black, a double amputation patient who was in isolation and often lonely. She wrote an essay called "The Coldest Room" about his circumstances, which won her an award.
It proved to her that she really did want to become a writer.
During college at James Madison University, Rhodes began to enjoy the independence of supporting herself as she worked at Pizza Hut to put herself through school. She chose to be an English major and minor in secondary education.
"Suzy always had a warm and welcoming personality and was a wonderful mentor to new students and pledges" at Alpha Sigma Tau, says Bonnie Gilley, her best friend from college. "She was always creative, rewriting lyrics to songs performed during rush festivities and performing with enthusiasm."
Rhodes was editor of the literary magazine in college and proved even then that she was a good listener, a deep thinker and loved to write. She won first prize for poetry at Virginia University.
"The depth of her poetry over the years clearly had early roots," Gilley says. "A consummate learner, she graduated with honors (magna cum laude) and continued to become an incredible poet, an achievement that could have been predicted."
As a fresh college graduate, Rhodes stepped into the Washington workforce with the help of an employment agency. She found work as a research assistant for Dr. Dunn at the National Recreation Park Association.
"It sounded great," Rhodes says. But on her first day of work she walked in just in time for Dr. Dunn's sendoff party. He was no longer working there. "I became a clerk typist, but I would have rather cleaned houses. I felt desperate."
Then "it hit me. Where is all this creative life I enjoyed in college?"
Rhodes loved academic life and intellectual stimulation and knew she would want to continue to pursue literature that way. She applied to Johns Hopkins University and took teaching jobs, first in Nebraska and then in Colorado Springs, Colo. She was accepted to Johns Hopkins but was unable to afford it without a fellowship.
One summer in her early working life, she rented a beach house with her former sorority sisters. While out at a restaurant, someone overheard that she was a poet and connected her with another poet who was there that night, Josephine Jacobsen. Jacobsen was a famous fiction writer and at the time their paths crossed, she was the U.S. Consultant for Poetry, the former title of the U.S. Poet Laureate, a position she had from 1971-1973.
The two hit it off, and Jacobsen gave Rhodes work editing her late husband's poetry, which she wanted to turn into a book.
The poetry wasn't that good, she says now, but she got to spend a lot of enjoyable hours at Jacobsen's comfortable house on Wisconsin Avenue in Georgetown, where they shared meals and worked on the poetry. Ultimately it was Jacobsen's recommendation and endorsement that got her into the writing seminars at Johns Hopkins with a fellowship.
WRITING TAKES FLIGHT
Rhodes was excited to be a writing fellow because the program at Johns Hopkins was among the first of its kind. It was the early 1970s, a time when many were experimenting with drug use and sexual freedom. Rhodes by contrast arrived to the first day of graduate school in her working woman attire.
Her fellow students relied on their parents to pay for anything not covered by the fellowship; meanwhile, she worked at a bookstore to manage extra expenses. She liked the academic work, but otherwise she felt a bit out of place and began to see a therapist as she sorted out where she fit in the world.
Once she had her MFA, Rhodes began to consider job offers in editing, but she still felt adrift. When her sister Robin invited her to live at her house in Memphis, Rhodes said yes. She accepted a copy editor position at The Commercial Appeal newspaper there and taught at a community college. To her own surprise, she also began attending church at her sister's encouragement.
"I had made fun of it. I laughed at (the Biblical story of) Jonah and the whale and angels. I was very skeptical," Rhodes says. But one of the Sunday School teachers had recently returned from Jerusalem and spoke with intensity about Jesus' crucifixion. "It changed my life, knowing I was beloved by God."
Over the next few years, Rhodes established herself as a leader in poetry through various teaching positions. She also met her first husband, had her three children, when through a divorce and moved to a new town -- but she always kept sharpening that creativity.
"Sketches of Home" came as a reflection during that period of life, and for 15 years she told other people's stories in newsletters for Angel Flight, an organization that provides transportation for terminally ill people get to medical appointments.
As she did as a nurse's aide, Rhodes developed close relationships with patients. She marveled at their fortitude as they experienced terrible, rare diseases or watched their children go through the final days of their lives.
"I wondered how they went on living, but they inspired me and I felt so blessed to be able to partake," Rhodes says. "They offered kindness and practical help that was so rewarding. That shaped me a good deal."
"Angel Flight Mid Atlantic," published by Arcadia, is based on her interviews with them.
Rhodes' strength is being the sort of person who finds a way to resonate and connect meaningfully with the experiences of just about anyone around her, Craig McDonald conveyed by comparing her to a character in the C.S. Lewis book "Great Divorce."
McDonald met her while teaching at King College, where Rhodes was an adjunct professor in poetry and composition. He sat in on one of her lectures while she was substituting for a survey of Western Literary Tradition.
"She was poised, well-prepared and downright interesting," McDonald says. "What impressed me was how she brought a poet's mind and spirit to her commentaries and interpretations of the works."
Her passion for writing and literature quietly permeated her lectures, he says. No matter how many times he had studied the works in question, McDonald says Rhodes' insights brought a fresh perspective.
Teaching poetry and watching others latch onto it always brings Rhodes joy and keeps her growing in her own work. Every time she gives an assignment to students, whom she now teaches through online workshops at Muse, she does the work herself, too.
"As a teacher, the thing I value most is seeing them grow, seeing what they can do and become excited, turned on to the possibilities within them," Rhodes says. "Giving them tools and models to show the range of what can be done is such a thrill."
"When you're writing the poem, the poem belongs to you," she reminds them. "After it's written, you belong to it, and it makes demands on you."