April 15, 2019
Interview with Sheila McDermott-Sipe

This week, Indiana Poet Laureate Adrian Matejka interviews Bloomington's Sheila McDermott-Sipe. Stay tuned! Sheila will provide poems for inspiration each day for the rest of the week.

Adrian: Thanks so much for taking the time to talk with me about poetry, Sheila. I know you are extremely busy between your obligations as a literature teacher at Bloomington South High School and the various activities and clubs related to poetry you sponsor. Can you start by talking some about what poetry means to you? Why is it so valuable for you and for your students?

Sheila: Thanks for inviting me to be a part of this project for poetry month, Adrian. It’s a pleasure to talk about poetry and what it means in my own life as well as the impact I hope it has with my students. Poetry is a life giving, creative force. I love the precision, the art, the ability for writers to pack an emotional or gut wrenching punch through words so carefully chosen and deliberately arranged. Good poems offer so many “aha” moments – epiphanies about feelings, experiences, something that says “yes, it is exactly like that” or “now I know what that really means.”   I always recite these short lines from William Carlos Williams to my students as a way to somewhat capture what poetry means to me: “It is difficult to get the news from poems yet men die miserably every day for lack of what is found there.” I do believe that poetry provides outlets and expressions that we all need and that can improve our lives. Poems can comfort us, enhance our joys, remind us to be grateful, force us to focus on  the present moment – I guess modern lingo calls this “mindfulness.”  Perhaps it is a bit like Steve Jobs’ theory of technology and the iphone – he wanted to create technology that people did not know they needed until they experienced it. I think poetry can be that for people – they read a poem for the first time that really speaks to them and then they know that they need poetry in their lives because it communicates an idea or provokes a stream of thoughts that no other medium can. As a teacher, I see how students feel an extreme amount of freedom when they are invited to write poetry, and this freedom of imagination and expression is one we have to encourage and cultivate!

Adrian: One of the programs you administer at South is one of my favorite poetry opportunities, Poetry Out Loud. What got you interested in POL? How has that experience been for you and for the students?

Sheila: I found out about the program five years ago, and I only had to watch one student recitation that was posted on the Poetry Out Loud Website,  and I was hooked. Committing a poem to memory and then reciting it in a way that conveys its meaning demands a complex set of skills and reveals true comprehension. I have often required a poetry recitation in my 9th grade English class, and students find this to be a challenging, nerve wracking, and rewarding experience. Poetry Out Loud brings students and listeners into such an intimate connection with the selected poems. I love working with students to bring the poems they have chosen to life, and each year during the competition, the recitations are treasured gifts that the students give to the audience.

Adrian: What led you to writing poetry? How do you find time to write your own work while continuing to do all of the other creative advocacy you do?

Sheila: I can’t think of a specific moment that led me to poetry, but I remember writing and revising my first official poem in junior high in an English class with one of my most beloved teachers – Mr. Dave Schneiders. I still have the lines of the poem embedded in my memory- “The ruby red sun laid down to rest as the moon replaced its light/ a once dancing cornfield reflected a sad and lonely sight.” I remember those lines because I was trying to describe a cornfield I saw that was being beaten down in a huge thunderstorm and wondering what it might look like to the farmer in the morning. I remember feeling so proud that the words embodied what I pictured and this became I challenge that I continued to enjoy and pursue.

In my life now, I chase poetry- I find myself jotting notes in my journal because I don’t want to forgot how something looked or what I felt like or how one of my children experienced something. I try to write with my students as much as possible when I give them a prompt so that I am not just asking them to do something but doing it, too. The writing is all raw and unpolished and pieces I gather and hope to return to. I have to be okay with just getting the ideas into words so that they are not forgotten and not worry so much about whether or not the words become a “real” poem.

Adrian: Who is your favorite poet to teach? What makes them so special?

Sheila: When I teach American Literature at the junior level, I love teaching the poems of the Harlem Renaissance. Langston Hughes is probably one of my favorite poets to teach. Students can understand his deep connection to music in “The Weary Blues”. “Harlem” is such a tight, concise use of language that serves as a great model of what just a few words, carefully chosen and arranged can accomplish. I like the visceral, physical nature of Hughes’ style, and his poems help students see how concrete, accessible and real poems can be.

Adrian: I’m asking everyone the same last question: what Indiana poet are you reading right now (or recently) that other Indiana poets should be reading?

Sheila: I love going to two collections we have on the bookshelf at home –  one called A Linen Weave of Bloomington Poets and the other And Know This Place: Poetry of Indiana. These were both edited by Jenny Kander who was an incredible force in Bloomington for promoting Indiana poets. The collection features people from all walks of life who share a devotion to poetry. I admire so many poems and poets in these collections and love the snapshots these poems offer into the lives of  so many different types of Indiana writers. Lately, I have enjoyed reading Jared Carter and Etheridge Knight. My husband Dennis Sipe who was born in Crothersville, Indiana is an incredible Indiana poet, and I really do think that I can say this without bias.


An Imitation in Words

1. The Floor Scrapers

This repetitive labor is divine.

The scent of wood unrolls in time,

And always, the hammer, the scraper, the wine.


Somewhere in Paris the rich recline,

A baby starves. Here, our faith resides in lines

This repetitive labor is divine.


Here, our bodies busy, our thoughts unwind.

The open bottle our fate belies

And always the hammer, the scraper, the wine.


Is this romantic scene benign?

Does kneeling in fact help us climb?

This repetitive labor is divine.


The white and yellow light of nature’s design

Upon the sweat of arched backs shines

And always the hammer, the scraper, the wine.


A measurable task to the eye is kind

When the weight of abstraction threatens to bind

This repetitive labor is divine.

And always the hammer, the scraper, the wine.


Sheila McDermott-Sipe grew up in Indianapolis and went to DePauw University for undergrad and Indiana University for my MA and secondary teaching certification. She has been teaching English at Bloomington High School South for twenty years. Sheila lives in a log house on a hill, filled with the chaos, joys and sorrows of life with her husband, 4 children and our two dogs. She loves to go on long, early morning, trail runs and her front porch is her favorite place to be.

Posted In: National Poetry Month

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