Beautiful Wheel: A Chat With Theodore Deppe [Interview]

by Amanda Huynh

Amanda Huynh: What sparked your interest in poetry? Were you writing poetry from the very beginning of your nursing career or did it slowly evolved?

Theodore Deppe: A love of writing comes from a love of reading: Dostoyevsky and Dylan Thomas were early invitations to try to understand life better through a conversation with others by way of the page. I wrote poetry, stories, and plays throughout high school and college, and in 1970 I walked a thousand-mile circle around Ireland as part of an independent study creative writing class arranged with a poetry professor at Earlham College. It’s hard to make a living as a poet, though, so after I married and started a family I became a registered nurse.

Working night shift and helping raise three children with my wife cut into my writing time, so I gradually found that I was turning to poems when time and inspiration coincided, that is, not often enough. But hospitals are great places for writers: one comes up against life-and-death moments and I wrote a sequence poem about a patient I was caring for in the ICU and it seemed good enough that I began to write more. Then one night I had a dream in which I was having a heart attack and realized that I was leaving my children with no father or money. But, I thought, at least they’ll have the poems, they can know who their father was from them. And then, in the dream, I thought, But the poems are terrible, and I hurried to my desk to destroy them. Waking, I decided it was time to start writing good poems, and I became quite compulsive, writing at least two hours a day.

At first the hospital world was a source of inspiration, but when I started working in a psychiatric hospital, the issue of confidentiality came up, and I stopped writing about clients. Gradually, though, their stories pressed on my imagination, and over time I learned how to make composite characters and change enough details to protect the privacy of my clients.  Psychiatric nursing involves stories from the beginning: people come to the hospital and say, “This is my life.  I can’t cope with such-and-such.”  And my job was to listen and help them find different endings to their stories.  Nursing requires an active attention, just as poetry does.  My current definition of a poem is that it is an act of attention, born of surprise, played out in words.

Was it difficult transitioning from a nurse to full-time writer and teacher?

My first two books of poems came out while I was working as a nurse, and they led to invitations to teach part-time in a high school for the arts and then a university. I was finding that I enjoyed teaching at the same time I was finding that my nursing job—which I’d loved for most of the twenty years I worked as an R.N.—was becoming almost unrecognizable. The insurance industry had put such pressure on hospitals that they had to cut staff, and I was put in charge of two units at once. It was a dangerous and stressful situation, and when I found I couldn’t change it, I gave myself a one-year “sabbatical.” So at age 50, we sold our house, quit our jobs, and rented the southernmost house in Ireland, a home on the sea cliffs of Cape Clear Island. We thought we’d return to the States at the end of the year and I’d get a teaching or nursing job, but I was offered a position teaching in a graduate program in Ireland and we stayed on. So far, that one-year trip to Ireland has lasted over fifteen years.

What made you choose to move to Ireland? Had you visited Ireland prior to moving there?

When I was nineteen, I did six-month hike round Ireland. I fell in love with Ireland and it has always seemed like my second home. We would visit it for a couple of weeks every seven years or so, while the children were growing up. Annie’s grandparents were born in Ireland, so she was able to get Irish citizenship, and I married well, so I have an Irish passport too.

How does poetry from Ireland differ from that of the United States? Do you notice a connection between the two?

The Irish have always loved to talk and have made an art out of daily conversation, and that enjoyment in language comes out in the music of the poetry.  I’ve learned so much from poets like Seamus Heaney, Paula Meehan, Eamon Grennan, Sinéad Morrissey, Paul Durcan, Harry Clifton, Kate and Joan Newmann, Theo Dorgan—but the list goes on and on and now I’m afraid of sins of omission.  But the Irish have learned a lot from American poets too—there’s a certain wildness in some of the best American poets, a certain frankness, a certain questioning, that has meant poets like Gary Snyder, William Carlos Williams, and Elizabeth Bishop have been important influences on Irish poet.

How does working as a creative writing professor affect your poetry?

I’m fortunate to have some excellent students who are an important part of my continuing education. This month, I read J.L. Carr’s A Month in the Country after one of my students sent the book to me, and as soon as I finished it I started it again and reread it. But in some ways, there’s less time to write and read now than when I worked in hospitals. I didn’t take work home with me then, so it was easier to protect writing time. I’ve had to learn to stay off the Internet during my morning writing time so that I don’t compulsively answer student emails instead of doing my own writing.

When you have students visiting Ireland, do the workshops have a vastly different atmosphere than workshops you have held in the states?

We’ve hosted nineteen residencies in Ireland for Stonecoast’s MFA program so far, and every student who has come has loved it here. Faculty and students all stay together in a bed-and-breakfast by the sea, and workshops and classes are held in the living room and dining room. We invite leading Irish writers to give talks and readings. We work everyone hard, since they’re here to improve their writing, but they’re also in Ireland, so they can’t help but have a lot of fun.

What are some pitfalls new poets tend to make? What are some ways a poet can improve his or her work?

Traditionally, I discourage new students from using end rhyme and meter for the first few weeks of a semester, as it’s so easy to sound old-fashioned, or like a bad greeting card. I encourage them to play with syntax, sonic devices like assonance and alliteration, metaphor, etc. and then we work up towards more formal techniques. Reading widely, writing wild rough drafts, revising freely (instead of just tiny cosmetic touch-ups), and looking for the true subject to emerge during the act of writing all feel like important things. As my Stonecoast colleague Jeanne Marie Beaumont says, “Go further, deeper, wilder.”

What are you currently reading? Who are some writers that inspire you?

Annie and I have been reading with pleasure Bernard MacLaverty (Grace Notes, Collected Stories) and Niall Williams (History of the Rain) to each other in preparation for their residency in Ireland this winter. I’ve been reading Eamon Grennan’s There Now and the New Collected Poems of Tomas Tranströmer. So many writers have inspired me, but some names that come to mind right now are Gerard Manley Hopkins, Dorothy Day, John Keats, James Baldwin, Betsy Sholl, Robert Cording, Mark Doty, Brigit Pegeen Kelly, Robert Hass, and of course my in-house muse, Annie Deppe.

In your acknowledgements, you give your wife, Annie Deppe, credit for being your first reader. From my understanding, she is a writer as well. Have you and Annie collaborated together in writing? How do you two help one another?

Annie and I were classmates in the poetry workshop at Earlham College, and like me, she found it hard to sustain the writing while raising three children and working. When we moved to Cape Clear Island in 2000, she planned to write a novel, but instead wrote much of what became her first book of poems,Sitting in the Sky. Her second collection, Wren Cantata, was also published by Summer Palace Press in Ireland. We try not to show each other our poems until we have gotten them as far as we can ourselves. It’s great being married to a poet. Who else would understand why we stay in a room so long by ourselves, and then start talking to ourselves in that room, and then give our lives over to something that makes so little money? The one time we actually tried to collaborate on a book of non-fiction about living on Cape Clear Island, we found that we were both too opinionated about each aspect of the writing and never got past the first couple of chapters. We read books of poetry and fiction to each other after meals, and those times are very sweet.

In Beautiful Wheel, you’re doing some wonderful things. Can you tell us about this collection in your own words? What did you learn while writing this collection?

When I put Beautiful Wheel together, I was surprised to find how much of it was inspired by music—Bob Dylan, Pablo Casals, Louis Armstrong, Maurice Ravel, Turkish buskers in Berlin, Pink Floyd as played by the guitarist who showed up on the beach at the wrong wedding… somehow music has become for me the way to approach things I can’t quite put words to, which is the work of poetry. My mother, father, and favorite uncle died while I was working on this book, and one of my closest friends committed suicide so music somehow became one way to approach the mysteries of these lives of ours. Dreams became another important thread in this collection, another way to try to understand. I’m intrigued at the way I seem to have been learning in this collection to write longer sequences, staying “in the poem” to explore the territory fully. The last poem could have been the first part of the book-length poem I’ve written this past year—I think what I learned in Beautiful Wheel has made this new book possible.

 

***

Ted Deppe’s two decades in nursing coronary care and psychiatric hospitals influenced his sensitivity towards embracing complicated human relationships. His powerful poetry reflects these experiences. Deppe is the author of 6 books and has received a Pushcart Prize, two fellowships from the National Endowment for the Arts as well as numerous grants.

Amanda Huynh is a native Houstonian living in Virginia. She was a finalist for the 2015 Gloria Anzaldúa Poetry Prize. Her work is published or forthcoming in the following journals: Huizache, The Healing Muse, Tinderbox Poetry Journal, The Acentos Review, and As/Us: Women of the World.