Veteran Poet and Professor Ralph Carlson Publishes First Book

by April Overholt '11

After publishing nearly 450 poems in various literary journals and magazines, Ralph Carlson, Ph.D., professor in the Department of English, produced his first collection of poetry entitled, Waiting to Say Amen. Written throughout the past 20 years, the collection explores traditional church imagery, as well as the difficult topics of cancer and Alzheimer's disease. Carlson writes from his own experiences as he delves into the hard questions that surface in life's challenges through poetry.

“In dealing with cancer and death, we're faced with questions like, ‘Why do good people suffer the way they do?’” said Carlson as he explained the heavy issues found in his poetry. “I hope [readers] identify with these journeys as they read this collection.”

Carlson's own journey has taken him from the Alaskan tundra to fighting in the Vietnam War, providing much inspiration for his writing. He also credits growing up as a pastor's kid for the themes of church and faith that infuse his poetry. With religious imagery as a medium, Carlson professes through his poems a “grappling with faith and doubt.”

“The poems in Carlson's aptly titled book, Waiting to Say Amen, wrestle with what it means to be alive,” said colleague David Esselstrom, Ph.D., professor in the Department of English. “Amen expresses approval, praise, thankfulness, and acceptance as surely and securely as it tags the end of the prayer.”

Carlson explained that it was the support from family, friends, and colleagues that helped him decide to organize his poems into a book.

“My colleagues have encouraged my creative writing, and in certain instances have inspired it,” he said. “And they have not asked me to leave out anything [in my poetry] that deals with difficult topics.”

Carlson draws inspiration from other avenues as well. Newspaper articles, nature, and even scientific and archaeological discoveries can spark his imagination while writing. Some of his contemplative nature poems can be found throughout the chapters of Waiting, balancing out the darker poems.

“Every so often, I get a glimpse of how my work moves someone else,” Carlson said. He says his proudest moments come when readers express their identification with the emotions and experiences captured in his words. Although he looks forward to retirement in the coming years, Carlson anticipates sharing his gift of poetry in future publications of his work.

“Some poets delight us, some poets instruct us—but the best poets change us,” said Esselstrom. “Dr. Carlson is among the best.”