There was a year or so in the late 1990s when Sheryl Noethe ceased writing poetry. She'd already published her first poetry book, The Descent of Heaven Over the Lake, in 1984. But as writing poetry often goes, it was a struggle to cultivate a presence in literary circles. And it didn't help her confidence, Noethe admits, that some writers getting recognition seemed less than gracious.
"There was a woman I had known for a long, long time whom I found to be cruel, and whom I was a little afraid of," says Noethe, who is too kind to name names. "She became very celebrated—very famous. She won every prize. She was on every radio show. She was in every column. And I thought, 'How can someone who doesn't seem to really like other people achieve this fame and notoriety? It's not fair!' And so I had kind of a break with my faith."
One day, while taking a walk around Minneapolis Lake Harriet, Noethe confided in her mother about why she quit writing.
She recalls her mother saying, "You can't expect the world to follow your dictates or your morality. You can't let yourself become bitter or let someone's fame—deserved or not—destroy you."
It took some time, but in the end Noethe found her way back to writing and has since published two more collections. The 2000 book The Ghost Openings riffs on quantum physics, childhood suffering, constellations and love. It won the William Stafford prize for poetry as well as the Pacific Northwestern Booksellers Award. Her most recent, the 2009 collection As Is, boasts a cover blurb from Martin Sheen, part of which says, "Thank you for showing all your dangerous edges with such great language and confidence."
Noethe talks about her brief break with poetry in the humbled way people do when they've learned a good life lesson. Fittingly enough, she wrote a poem about the experience not long after she started writing again, and it ended up in As Is. That poem, "At the Party with Writers," imagines a group of Missoula writers who, while drinking together at a party, notice a green planet suddenly appearing in the night sky.
Above our heads the new planet turns into an agent of sparkling
I gave up writing to be famous, murmurs the sultry essayist,
now I write for the one person whose life I will change.
I describe for her my two-year spiritual crisis.
She reaches from the darkness to touch my hair.
I switch from wine to Jack Daniels and begin
shaking hands and kissing all around.
A sad weight has dropped from my heart.
"Once you realize the size of the world and how monumental everything is, your own little nitpicking things are silly and a waste of energy and imagination," Noethe says. "So this sultry essayist reached out in the dark to me and I felt it all coming back."
(The sultry essayist who helps her, as it turns out, is Noethe's friend, the writer and UM professor Debra Earling.)
Noethe has won other prizes—the Hugo Prize and the McKnight Prize in Literature—but her most recent accolade is being named Montana's new poet laureate. She follows the previous poet laureate, Henry Real Bird.
"Not every state has a poet laureate," she says. "I'm so thrilled to live in a state that does honor poetry. It's just such a grand gesture."
One of Noethe's biggest passions has been the Missoula Writing Collaborative, a successful poetry-in-the-schools program that she helped found in 1994. It started with pilot programs and now it's part of every fourth-grade classroom in the Missoula district, and has expanded to Arlee, Stevensville, Ovando, Helena, Pablo and Hydaburg, Alaska. Her new role as poet laureate will be more in service to the Collaborative than anything else, mostly because she knows the impact teachers can have on students; it was Noethe's fifth-grade teacher who told her she would become a writer.
"She told me that I was going to be an author and I was going to sell books," says Noethe. "And that rewrote my life. I know that an adult can say something to a child that will give them that kind of power."
Noethe grew up poor in Minneapolis, with snaggle teeth, bad clothes and all the emotional accessories of an abusive upbringing. Even when she fled to New York as a young adult, she ended up just scraping by—subletting rooms in the worst neighborhoods and waiting in line for hours at free clinics.
"It was a grinding, difficult existence," she says. "I never really felt safe."
She did very little writing until, 25 years ago, she fell in love with her future husband, Bob Rajala, and they settled in a house in Missoula at the base of Mount Jumbo.
"You can't create when you're working from your survival brain," she says. "You have to be safe to express the truth. I don't think poetry is playing with language, or Technicolor acrobatics with sentences. I believe poetry is where you can say the things society does not give you a place to say anywhere else."
Over the years, Noethe has collected thrift-store objects—frayed silky lampshades, Buddhas, mountains of vintage dresses, altars and other weathered knick-knacks. The couple has taken in a host of rescue animals—including a one-eyed cat name Mike Tyson—who often end up in her poems.
The title of her book, As Is, has two connotations. One is about love. The other refers to the tag you often see on thrift-store items.
"Everything I have is from thrift stores," says Noethe. "So I'll find a treasure with a crack in it and it'll say 'as is.' I thought that really jibed with the idea of 'love what you've got.'"
Sheryl Noethe reads for "peace literature and poetry" at the University Congregational Church Wednesday, August 24, at 7 PM with Kevin Canty, John Engen, Shaun Gant and many others. Free.