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Posted: Friday, August 9, 2019 2:56 pm

Transcendentalist Henry David Thoreau wrote, "I went into the woods to live deliberately." Dakota State University Professor John Nelson went into the woods to write poetry.

"I needed to be free of other obligations," he explained.

Nelson, who recently won the 2019 South Dakota Poetry Society chapbook contest, came out of the woods -- Newton Hills State Park, to be exact -- with a Moleskin notebook half filled with poetry. He notes the poems are in draft form and "rough, super rough."

"One of the big tests is whether I'm willing to take the time to type them up," Nelson chuckled.

Nelson, who grew up in Fort Pierre and has been teaching at DSU since 1996, said he has been writing poetry since high school.

"It's an artistic outlet," he noted.

He grew up in a large family. With nine siblings, many engaged in the arts in some way, Nelson found his creative voice in writing.

"A lot of my family is musical. That was never my strong suit," he said.

While teaching at St. Mary of the Plains College in Dodge City, Kan., he served as president of the Kansas Writers Association and had a regular spot on High Plains Public Radio called "The Poetry Corner." However, publishing poetry wasn't his priority; inspiring people to love poetry was.

"I did a lot of readings," Nelson indicated. "I was a lot more active there than since I moved to South Dakota."

However, he has continued to write. Author Anne Lamott doesn't mince words when she talks about writing.

Butt in chair. Just do it.

That is her approach. Sometimes she elaborates. In a Facebook post she added, "You are going to feel like hell if you never write the stuff that is tugging on the sleeves in your heart -- your stories, visions, memories, songs: your truth, your version of things in your voice. This is really all you have to offer us, and it's why you were born."

While Nelson may not go so far as to say writing is why he was born -- he tends to be more hesitant, less bold, in speaking about himself as a writer -- he does have a writing process that he recognizes.

"Some language comes to mind; a phrase will come into my head, some statement or line," he said. "The line is like an invitation to something. I try to follow it."

He describes the experience as compelling and observed that spending time in nature facilitates his writing process. However, memory and experience also play a part.

Nelson described writing a poem about Robert Frost shoveling snow nearly 10 years after visiting the poet's home in Vermont. He wrote the first draft in about 30 minutes and then fiddled with it for a day before sharing it at a writers' retreat in Colorado.

"I got a line in my head about the sound of his shovel on gravel," Nelson said, explaining the genesis of the piece.

He said that in teaching writing, he uses an analogy to compare writing prose to writing poetry. Prose he compares to a barge which carries cargo. Poetry he compares to a jet ski. Both, however, can have a similar effect on the reader.

"Any kind of good artistic writing -- any good writing -- helps you see things you wouldn't see on your own," Nelson indicated.

The chapbook, which will be published by the South Dakota Poetry Society and released at the South Dakota Festival of Books in Deadwood, is called "West River." It contains 30 poems, primarily about South Dakota. For some, he draws upon his experiences as a rancher.

"In high school, my summer jobs were often working on ranches -- riding horses and branding and roping and pulling calves and fixing fence," he said.

This year's chapbook contest was judged by Nathaniel Lee Hansen, associate professor of English and creative writing at the University of Mary Hardin-Baylor in Belton, Texas, and editor of "The Windhover: A Journal of Christian Literature." Hansen is also a poet and fiction writer.

"The poems of `West River' transport readers to rural spaces while avoiding the trappings of sentimentality and plastic nostalgia," he said in a press release.

"With vivid imagery, subtle humor and clear language, these poems chronicle the particularities of everything from chickens to arrowheads, from horses to hay, from swearing to the Oahe Dam," he continued.

Although Nelson doesn't make publishing a priority, he is honored that his submission was selected for publication by the South Dakota Poetry Society.

"It's nice to be recognized for this and to have the support I've had from the people who encouraged me and liked my work," he said.

The South Dakota Poetry Society was formed in 1927. The organization's mission is to encourage poem-making and poem-reading in South Dakota. It's official literary magazine, "Pasque Petals," is published twice a year.

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