Arts & Culture » Lit

You Can't Take Boise Out of the Man

Desert poet Richard Shelton returns to his roots

by

While much of his work is synonymous with the Sonoran Desert where he has lived since 1956, Richard Shelton draws heavily on his Idaho roots in his poetry and nonfiction writing. Born and raised in Boise, Shelton returns to Idaho this week for two readings.

Regents professor (emeritus) of English at the University of Arizona, Shelton is the author of 11 books of poetry, six chapbooks and two works of nonfiction. His first book, The Tattooed Desert, won the International Poetry Forum's United States Award in 1970, and The Bus to Veracruz was nominated for the Pulitzer Prize and the National Book Award. His first book of nonfiction, Going Back to Bisbee, received the Western States Award for creative nonfiction in 1992 and was honored in 2007 as the "OneBook Arizona" selection (similar to Idaho's Big Read project). With his wife Lois, who was director of the University of Arizona Poetry Center from 1970 to 1991, Shelton was the recipient in 2006 of the inaugural Arizona Literary Treasure Award.

Shelton's poems and prose pieces have appeared in more than 200 magazines and journals, including The New Yorker, Harper's, The Atlantic, Poetry and The Paris Review, and have been translated into Spanish, French, Swedish, Polish and Japanese.

Best known for his poems about the landscape of the southwest, and the destruction of that landscape, Shelton's work is far-ranging and diverse. With spare, imagistic language, he creates dry, understated ironies that perfectly suit his subjects. When he points his razor-sharp wit at contemporary politics and social issues, the results are both heartbreaking and hilarious. At one end of his tonal spectrum is the elegiac "Requiem for Sonora" and its final stanza:

"I am older and uglier / and full of the knowledge / that I do not belong to beauty / and beauty does not belong to me / I have learned to accept / whatever men choose to give me / or whatever they choose to withhold / but oh my desert / yours is the only death I cannot bear."

It was from this that Edward Abbey drew the epigraph for his novel The Monkey Wrench Gang. At the other end is the madcap humor of Brief Communications from My Widowed Mother, and its lines like, "One of the neighbors up the street went completely besmirch last Saturday night and killed his wife. It's getting so only the widows are safe in this neighborhood." In addition to his writing and teaching at the University of Arizona, Shelton established the Creative Writer's Workshop at the Arizona State Prison in 1974. Though retired from his university professorship, Shelton continues to lead three weekly prison workshops and to serve as editor of the literary journal Walking Rain Review which showcases the work of current and former inmates. Workshop participants have been widely featured in dozens of journals and have published books with leading publishing houses.

Shelton's most recent book, Crossing the Yard: Thirty Years as a Prison Volunteer, chronicles his experiences leading the prison workshops. His prison work began when a serial killer dubbed the "Pied Piper of Tucson" sent a few poems to Shelton and asked for a critique. The ensuing three decades of working with inmates, he writes, has led him "through bloody tragedies and terrible disappointments to a better understanding of what it means to be human." The book also celebrates the success of a number of Shelton's prison proteges, such as Jimmy Santiago Baca and Ken Lamberton, now highly acclaimed writers known for their words instead of their crimes.

The prison workshops are supported by grants from the Lannan Foundation. Shelton is also the recipient of two NEA Writers Fellowships (one in poetry and one in nonfiction), a Lannan Completion grant and three Borestone Mountain Awards.

With a new book of poetry, The Last Person to Hear Your Voice, published last year, and a forthcoming family memoir about growing up in Boise, Shelton is more prolific than ever.

Fellow Tucson poet Alison Hawthorne Deming writes, "By turns comic, surreal, prophetic, Richard Shelton's poems spring from that place in the mind where high seriousness and play are one. The ordinary opens into an extraordinary lament for our human and political condition."

Shelton will read at 7 p.m. on Feb. 12, at Langroise Recital Hall at the College of Idah, and on Feb. 13, at 7:30 p.m. at the Cabin, Jean Wilson Room, 801 S. Capitol Blvd. Both readings are free to the public and sponsored by the TumbleWords program of the Idaho Commission on the Arts and the Western States Arts Federation.

Tags