A Look at Vivian Shipley: a Feature Poet at the Massachusetts Poetry Festival

Vivian ShipleyVivian Shipley, who will be a headliner at the May 2-4 Massachusetts Poetry Festival, has an interesting history.  Though a long-time resident of Connecticut and a winner of many awards from that state and from New England, she nevertheless writes often about her native Kentucky (see the poem later in this article). Another interesting fact: though she has won numerous awards, she didn’t start writing until she was 30, and even then didn’t begin seriously sending her poetry for publication until twenty years after that.

Shipley’s Awards

Nevertheless, what a stunning array of awards she has won, including the Library of Congress’s Connecticut Lifetime Achievement Award for Service to the Literary Community, the Connecticut Book Award for Poetry, the Lucille Medwick Prize from the Poetry Society of America, the Robert Frost Foundation Poetry Prize, the Ann Stanford Poetry Prize from the University of Southern California, the Marble Faun Poetry Prize from the William Faulkner Society, the Daniel Varoujan Prize from the New England Poetry Club, the Hart Crane Prize from Kent State, the Connecticut Press Club Prize for Best Creative Writing, and the Binghamton University Milt Kessler Poetry Book Award. In addition she has twice been a recipient of the Paterson Award for Sustained Literary Achievement, and two of her books—Gleanings: Old Poems, New Poems and When There Is No Shore—were nominated for the Pulitzer Prize.

Wow! Time to catch our breath after that listing!

Here is what a reviewer says about her latest book: “Not one poem in All of Your Messages Have Been Erased can be ignored and, as a result, we will not be able to erase the messages delivered in this book.  This collection shows Shipley as a master poet, one of our finest. “

Interview questions with Shipley

In order for you to get a sense of where she is coming from, Vivian answered the following questions for us:

Who had the most impact on your writing when you were a beginning poet? In what way?

Joe Bruchac had a great impact on my writing because he gave me confidence in my ability to write poetry and published my first chapbook, Jack Tales and my first full collection, Poems Out of Harlan County. Both collections are about my native state of Kentucky and Joe recognized the significance of poems that detailed Appalachian daily life. Leo Connellan who passed away while he was the 2nd Poet Laureate of Connecticut was also very influential because he helped me to develop a voice, and to revise in order to tighten my poems.

What convinced you that you had to be a poet?

When I was 31 and about to give birth to my second son, I started having seizures.  Nurses induced labor, Todd was born and doctors discovered I had a brain tumor larger than a baseball in my right frontal lobe. I was in Ohio at the time and the doctors there did not think they could save me and so, I was brought to Yale in New Haven, CT. The tumor was removed and after a lengthy recovery, I began to write poetry. I could not stop writing poetry and I had never written a poem before. In fact, I had a PhD in Victorian literature from Vanderbilt University and in 1969 had been hired an Assistant Professor at Southern Connecticut State University. I never did any more work in Victorian literature and continued to write poetry. I was very grateful that SCSU allowed me to begin teaching poetry writing which I still do today.  So, nothing convinced me I had to be a poet, I just could not stop writing poetry. I often wonder why and suspect it might have been to try and make sense of senseless suffering or at least make something productive come from a terrible experience. As a result of having the brain tumor, one of the major themes in my poetry is giving voice to people who have been silenced for one reason or another.

What do you think is the most exciting development in poetry today?

I think that on line publishing and various forms of electronic communication are the most exciting developments in poetry. They provide limitless opportunities to share work instantly with anyone anywhere.

What emerging poets do you find interesting? Why?

I am not sure what you mean by emerging and hesitate to label a poet as emerging because he/she might feel they are established.

What are you most looking forward to at the Mass Poetry Festival?

I am very excited about hearing my MFA poetry students from Southern Connecticut State University present a reading. I am advising three of the students  on their thesis and they will be reading poems we have worked on together. I am also looking forward to attending a panel conducted by Christine Beck who got her MFA from SCSU in 2013 and wrote her thesis with me. It has just been published as a book, Blinding Light.

And here is that poem we promised earlier in this piece:

Shipley’s poem

Digging Up Peonies

Overcoming fear of stalks that are too close,
I remind myself it’s Lexington, that mist

on fields meant rattlesnakes in rows of corn
would be cold, sluggish. Like prying out

potatoes with my fingers, I dig up tubers
as if I could lift my father, seeded with cancer,

if only for a day from gravity, from ground.
My parents know what I know–this is the end.

They will not return to this house my father built.
No refugee in Kosovo, wheelbarrowing

his grandmother to safety, I will bring as much
of Kentucky, of their dirt as I can carry with me

on our flight to Connecticut. A bride, moving
to New Haven over thirty years ago, I have

not taken root. I cannot explain this urge
to go to creekstone fences my father stacked,

dig up box after box of peonies I will bank
into granite piled along my side garden.

My father will see pink, fuchsia, blossoming
from his bed. Is this what revision is, change

of location, spreading, to retell my story
another time, in another soil? Unable to untie

what binds me to Kentucky, to bones of all
those who are in my bones, I will save what

I can of my mother, of my father from this earth,
from the dissolution that binds us after all.


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