SEQUIM — For her debut poetry collection, Sequim author Gina Hietpas dug deep into personal thoughts and experiences — at times, three decades deep.
Along with friends, former teachers and other poetry aficionados, the retired teacher celebrated the release of “Terrain,” a collection of poems inspired in part by the highs and lows of health and illness and advocacy, on Sept. 10.
“A lot of these poems started as journal entries and sort of evolved into something more,” Hietpas said. “If you go back and go through it there little gems you can pull out.”
Port Angeles poet Alice Derry, who worked with Hietpas’ manuscript, noted “The whole book works as a love poem.”
A Pacific Northwest native, Hietpas grew up in Tacoma, came to the Olympic Peninsula in the mid-1970s and settled in the Sequim area in 1981. The former Olympic National Park backcountry ranger lives just outside Sequim on a small farm with her husband, cows, chickens and the neighboring elk, deer, coyotes and occasional bear.
At Sequim Middle School, she taught U.S. History and language arts, and was a reading program specialist before retiring in 2010.
“I had always written and always written poetry,” she said, but retirement allowed for much more time to develop her craft. Her work has appeared in Minerva Rising, Tidepools, Spindrift and New Plains Review publications.
Hietpas took a friend’s suggestion to try some poetry workshops, and began working with Peninsula College professor Kate Reavey and Derry, the college’s then Writer-In- Residence.
“Alice really encouraged me with the manuscript,” Hietpas recalled.
With her husband dealing with some significant chronic health issues, Hietpas’ poems weaved those themes with her love of the natural world on the peninsula.
Her original collection of 16-17 poems grew when Blue Cactus Press publisher Christina Butcher suggested she add her other poems.
A longtime journal writer, Hietpas said she’s gleaned a lot from those passages from years past.
“One of the things I looked for were, ‘What are the repetitive images that come up?’ Often times in the journals, I document not only how I’m feeling but what’s happening with the land, what’s happening with the birds, the elk coming through the valley.
“The land itself and the wildlife become an active part of the process in my personal life.”
That’s evident from the get-go in “Terrain,” introduced with “Coyote Speaks To Me.” It opens,
“So you want to know this place? Be up at dawn
when first light brushes the sky beyond the grove
of madrones you call the seven sister.
Don’t whine. Learn by exposing yourself
to the dark and the cold.
I sleep in the blackberry tangle edging the hayfield,
my thorn fortress warmed by southern light. … ”
While she doesn’t necessarily have favorites in the collection, this piece, Hietpas said, is a powerful one to her.
Deeper into “Terrain” is “Coyote Transforms the Blues,” a piece inspired by a specific moment. Her husband battling an illness, and she still grieving over her recently passed mother, Hietpas one day spied out of her window a coyote walking along a path. The animal leapt on a patch of earth to capture a mouse and, having come up short, shrugged and lumbered away.
“It’s total lesson: you don’t always get what you want,” Hietpas said. “You’ve got to learn to shrug it off and keep going.”
Working the craft
Hietpas has studied under Derry, Kelli Russell Agodon, Holly Hughes, Susan Rich and Kim Stafford, among others, to develop her craft and voice as a poet. From a workshop with Hughes in Port Townsend she developed a sense of place — “how to honor place, (the) how and where we live is an active force in our life” — while a workshop with Stafford, the former Oregon state poet laureate, helped her develop a beneficial, disciplined writing process.
“Hietpas delivers the visceral, highly-textured terrain of experience on home ground with all the fierce affection and honesty true residence requires,” Stafford said of Hietpas’ work. “Your sense of honest words in the world, your grasp of animal courage, will not be the same after these poems take you.”
From Derry, Hietpas took in valuable suggestions about the craft, from stanza structure to word choice.
“She really gave me some wonderful guidelines on how to revise,” Hietpas said of Derry’s instruction.
It’s arrogance to think a poem is perfect the first time, she said. A clear example, she noted, is “Aria: We Are Introduced to Our Future,” a poem found in “Terrain.”
Hietpas had written the piece inspired by the song of the female winter wren, coming to identify with the bird.
Four years after its composition, however, she read in a newspaper article that it’s the male winter wren who sings. She went back and amended the poem’s pronouns.
“It’s a metaphor about resilience; we each have our own complex song, and we have to work in what ever is our creative way to put that song into the world,” she said.
Hietpas was the guest of honor at a Sept. 10 virtual book release of “Terrain,” introduced by Sequim author Tim McNulty along with a question-and-answer session hosted by Hughes.
See the virtual book release at tinyurl.com/y6293zcm.
“Your poems are so fully of the body, that … they really bring together the land, the body, a marriage and all the creatures that we inhabit this earth with,” Hughes said.
“I loved how they kept showing up.”
Read samples of Hietpas’ work at bluecactus press.com/2020/05/04/ pre-orders-poems.
Michael Dashiell is the editor of the Sequim Gazette of the Olympic Peninsula News Group, which also is composed of other Sound Publishing newspapers Peninsula Daily News and Forks Forum. Reach him at [email protected].