Local man releases new book, wins poetry prize

by Caroline Parker

Dean Rader vividly remembers the moment he fell in love with poetry. As a sophomore in college, he recalls opening an anthology of poems penned by W.S. Merwin and James Wright.

"I remember feeling like the table I was sitting at was moving away from the rest of the room. I didn't know there was poetry like that out there in the world," he said.

Rader's first collection of poetry, "Works & Days," was released in bookstores in October. Earlier this year, the book was awarded the 2010 T.S. Eliot Poetry Prize.

Announcing the award, Truman State University Press praised "Works & Days" for taking on the "great issues of any era - our attempts to make sense of dreams, duty and the divine."

Rader, a professor of English at the University of San Francisco and a scholar of American Indian studies, is a published essayist, poet and blogger. His work looks at American life through literature, art and popular culture. His blog, The Weekly Rader, was a Best of Blogs finalist in 2007.

Rader, 43, a native of western Oklahoma, now lives in the Richmond District with his wife and young son.

Rader loves being close to the ocean, which makes its way into his poetry. He finds the experience of looking over wheat fields in Oklahoma similar to looking out over the water.

"The movement of the wheat and the movement of the waves really mirror each other. And it's the place where the sky's the biggest, where you sense the vastness," he said.

The first time Rader saw the ocean was as a teenager at Ocean Beach. He writes about the experience in the poem "Ocean Beach at Twilight: 14," which includes these lines: "Everything seems surprised / by the fat slab of pink strung up against the blue: / the dogs dark in night's water, the fishermen / buoyed to the beach's pillar of stillness."

Rader's father, a Vietnam War veteran, had been stationed in Stockton in the Army. One summer, he brought the family back to California to visit old army buddies and they drove out to Ocean Beach.

"I remembered the ocean ever since and was even kind of obsessed with it," Rader recalls.

Duty is also an important theme in "Works & Days." Everything, it seems - the sun, the land, the people - must pull its weight. Rader writes: " you said, / community is work. / For all I know, God may be in both. / For all you know, God may be both."

Themes of labor in "Works & Days" can be attributed in part to Hesiod, the ancient Greek farmer and poet to whom the book pays homage.

But Rader says he is also influenced by the values of his hometown, Weatherford, Oklahoma.

"People work hard, they don't complain, they're modest. There is a sense of loyalty. There is also a sense of family. I think of myself as a populist, and I think that comes from Oklahoma," he said.

Perhaps the character of the land affects the character of the people. Main Street in Weatherford, as Rader points out, is actually on Route 66. His family survived the "dust bowl" during the Great Depression, and later had an insurance business and farm. Growing up, Rader worked a lot, spending summers as a carhop, farm hand and lifeguard.

While Rader's poetry reflects his deeply American experience, it also asks big questions. His poem, "Self Portrait: Rejected Inaugural," begins with the line: "The land was the land before we were us" and continues later on with the lines: "Of America's phone: we ask who might / Answer when the other millennium / Calls to check in. We reply as we did then: / Look in your window. We are whomever / we are when we answer that phone."

Rader will be reading from "Works & Days" at USF on Nov. 10. The book is available at Green Apple Books on Clement Street.