What: Derek Sheffield reads from “Through the Second Skin”
When: 3 p.m. Thursday
Where: The Grove, Wenatchee Valley College
Information: www.wvc.edu, 682-6800
Waking, I find a still form,
a bird whose aim was to sweep
past our sleeping faces, to be
that glorious gust, or trumpet spurt
of dawn, and not this lidless eye
upturned below our window.
I kneel and slide my fingers
under fading warmth. A limp,
soft sparrow. Scaly talons
clutched as I carry it like an egg
beyond my yard and toss it
in brief revival back to the woods.
The knock did not wake my wife,
and neither do I, slipping into bed
to lie beside here with open eyes.
Light takes the hill, the trees,
our house into its definite grasp,
all the sparkling edges revealed,
and all I hear, all I want to hear,
is breath after breath.
— Derek Sheffield
WENATCHEE — It’s the little things that count in life: The sight of a flock of geese flying overhead, the excitement of catching your first big fish, the danger of a snake slithering through the grass.
For Derek Sheffield, inspection of the little things presents opportunities to better understand life’s larger questions.
“Things are happening all the time, passing us by in the stream of life. A poet picks one of those things and examines it,” Sheffield said in a recent interview in his office at Wenatchee Valley College. The small things in life are not inconsequential, he said, but microcosms of much bigger things.
“If the little things don’t matter, how can the big things matter?” he said. “Poetry demands that we slow down and that’s something we don’t do much anymore.”
Sheffield, 44, is a poet. His first book of poems, “Through the Second Skin,” is the result of some of his meticulous examinations over the past decade. The book was published this month by Orchises Press.
His tiny office is walled with books of poetry, books by and about his favorite poets, stacks of texts of English and world literature. One wall is entirely covered with photographs of famous poets and writers he admires: Walt Whitman, Theodore Roethke, William Stafford, Richard Hugo, Dylan Thomas, Mark Twain and Ernest Hemmingway among them.
With his new book, Sheffield shows that he, too, is a poet to be reckoned with. His poems have been widely published in literary journals and have been awarded some of poetry’s top prizes. He’s also published two small chapbooks of poems.
The 42 short poems in the book are all about the small and simple things that matter in life. One reflects on life’s fragile nature when a bird hits a window at dawn. Another is a portrait of an intimate relationship past. Eating a greasy mushroom burger with a friend inspires a poem. So does a group of firefighters in a relaxed moment from saving the green forest from turning black. The poems show great diversity of focus, thought and style.
Many of the poems are visual, not only summing up images, but taking shapes on the page that add to the story. That poem about the mushroom burger, “Delicious Apocalypse,” is in the shape of a mushroom. The lines of “Remember the Incredible” shrink on the page like its subject.
All are meant to be heard, as well as seen, for that is what poetry is. As much akin to music as literature, poems should be read aloud to appreciate the rhythms, breaks and sometimes rhymes that add to the meaning of the chosen words, he said.
Sheffield enjoys playing with many styles of poetry, but never lets form obstruct access. He counts among his major influences Northwest poets like Roethke, Stafford, Hugo and Wagoner who incorporate nature, the western landscape and simple language about real people into their poems.
“It’s an unfortunate perception that only poets can read poets, that you have to be an intellectual,” he said. In reality, he said we’re all reading poetry all the time. The Bible, the Bhagavad Gita and nearly all religious texts are poetry that have had huge influences on culture. Poetry is used for many important events including inaugurations, weddings, birthdays and funerals. Poets write about war, suffering and our grief, as well as our celebrations.
“We turn to poetry and it’s there when we need it,” he said. “Poetry is the underpinning of everything else in literature. It’s the pinnacle of verbal and written art.”
Sheffield first turned to poetry when he was in high school. Living with his often-gone salesman father in Portland, Ore., then Gig Harbor, he and his sister were typical suburban “latch-key” kids. Their parents had divorced when he was young, so brother and sister were often cared for by nannies and baby sitters or left to fend for themselves. Sheffield sought comfort in science fiction and fantasy books. His teachers were substitute parents. He still considers his high English teacher, Kevin Miller, a poet, one of his most important influences.
“It seemed that poems were where the real important stuff was happening. Poets wrote about relationships, about God and religion, philosophy and exploration. I saw people in poetry living the examined life,” he said.
He bounced around several jobs — shoe salesman, apprentice electrician, warehouseman and telemarketing manager — after earning his bachelor’s degree in English at the University of Washington. He later earned a teacher’s degree and took a job teaching English at Gig Harbor High School, where he had schooled with Miller. He completed his master’s of fine arts degree in poetry from UW, studying under Wagoner. He was hired at WVC as an adjunct English teacher in 1999 and full time in 2003.
Sheffield, his wife Gabi, and daughters Zoey and Kelsea, live in Eagle Creek Canyon, surrounded by tall trees, birds and other wildlife that often appear in his poems.
“I became an outdoors person after living here,” he said. “I’ve come to really love it.”
Rick Steigmeyer: 664-7151