The first thing I noticed when I stepped into USF English professor Dean Rader’s office was the shrine to poetry behind him. His collection of literature was so expansive that the sum of it could no longer be contained on his shelves and had begun to be stacked on top of each other, taking up an entire wall of his office. Many may think that his collection is excessive, but it is representative of what draws him to poetry.
“I’ve always been interested in language,” Rader said. “More than plot, story, more than character — poetry is the most exciting genre for exploring the many things language can do.”
Dr. Rader’s command over language has earned him appearances in publications such as the San Francisco Chronicle and The New York Times, in addition to a string of well-reviewed poetry books. But his most recent accomplishment — and perhaps his most prestigious — is being awarded a Guggenheim Fellowship for poetry.
“I was in a little bit of shock. It was the first time I had ever applied for (the fellowship), I didn’t know if I had any kind of shot at winning it. It’s the coolest thing that’s ever happened to me professionally,” he admitted.
Rader has a kind of soft-spoken humbleness about him, which is reflective of his small-town upbringing in western Oklahoma, where he first fell in love with writing. “I always knew I wanted to write; that was the really interesting thing,” he explained. “But I don’t think I ever would have thought that I would be living in San Francisco, teaching at a great university, spending my time writing poems. That would have been a great shock to me and to my parents, by the way.”
As successful as Rader’s foray into poetry has been, it did not happen without its tribulations. “When you’re starting out, your work is never as good as you want it to be,” he said. “There will be people who doubt your talent and conviction. One of those people will be yourself. There will be editors who do not want to publish your work; you’ll get rejection after rejection after rejection. You have to be prepared for people to say no, and to say no, and to keep saying no.”
Even now that poetry is his profession, Rader’s work is still deeply personal. “I think artists pull from all these different places: the past, politics, language, your life, and (my sons) are part of my life,” Rader noted. “And somehow something they say, or my anxieties about them, work their way into my larger anxieties about our country.”
Rader’s poetry also often has a social justice slant. He has crafted poems that comment on issues of gun violence, climate change, and race in America.
“I write because I want to solve a problem, or address a problem or call attention to a problem. I’m nagged by something, and I want to see if I can address it in a way that helps me make more sense of it. And if it helps others make more sense of it, that makes me really happy,” he said.
Rader’s use of poetry as his medium for social justice is highly intentional. “People don’t read poems the same way they read op-ed pieces, or novels, or blog posts. I think about what poetry can do that other forms of writing can’t do,” he said. “Poetry can deliver an ethos, an emotional current that is a good companion to the rationale, and statistics that you often get from journalism, and other forms of media. There’s something about poems that helps teach us how to feel about ideas that I find really compelling.”
Although Rader’s more political poetry is concerned with the current ethos of our country, pathos is the driving force in much of his work, “Each poem is trying to do its own work. I hope my books embody a range of human emotions and ideas because we’re not always angry; we’re not always funny; we’re not always sad. So, I hope that they reflect the different registers of our lives,” he explained.
I hope my books embody a range of human emotions and ideas because we’re not always angry; we’re not always funny; we’re not always sad.Dean Rader
Rader’s next project, which will be funded by the Guggenheim grant, will be an amalgamation of his poetic passions: social justice, the power of language, and the ability of poetry to express emotion.
“I proposed a project (to the Fellowship) that would be my next book of poems. Over the past couple of years, I’ve been writing, what I thought of as, three really different kinds of poems. One group is slightly more political, more outward-looking poems. Then on the other end of the spectrum, I’ve been writing poems in response to paintings and drawings by the artist Cy Twombly. This third group (of poems) have been elegies for my father, who died in 2017,” Rader said.
“I thought they were three discrete projects, and then one day I just thought that maybe the poems for my father were elegies for our country, and the poems about Cy Twombly might really be ways to think about my dad, and the poems about our country might be really about the ability of art to communicate anything at all. I know somewhere that there is a triangulation; a thru-line that is connecting all of them and I just want to try and figure out what that is.”
Regardless of all his accomplishments, Rader still checks his expectations. “We’ll see where the poems go. I’m hopeful, but nervous.”