Ruffin A Candidate For Texas Poet Laureate


Paul Ruffin

He loves football, shooting, riding his tractor, keeping up his truck, and doing his own carpentry, electrical, and plumbing work, and he is a long-time member of the National Rifle Association—not exactly the stereotypical image of a person who may become known throughout Texas in a few weeks as the top poet in the state.

Paul Ruffin, a Texas State University System Regents’ Professor and Distinguished Professor of English at Sam Houston State University, has been honored as one of the state’s top 10 poets by the Texas Commission on the Arts and is a candidate for the title of Texas Poet Laureate for 2009/2010.

Anyone who knows Ruffin knows that he is very proud of his Southern roots. His experiences and the people he has met along the way often show up in his writings.

He was also influenced by the times he was required to attend church services as a youth.

“My love of poetry came from memorizing the lyrics from the Broadman Hymnal in church, something I did to keep from being bored absolutely to death,” he said. “I discovered that hymn beat and realized that I could plug my own words in and make a poem. Oh, I also started writing fiction in church: I’d rewrite all the Bible stories and give them a different ending.”

His ability to compose poems was soon apparent and provided him with an entrepreneurship opportunity as a schoolboy.

“I could rattle off a poem on practically any subject almost on command, a talent that came in handy at school, where classmates would hire me to write poems for them when they had to turn one in in English,” Ruffin said. “I would charge a nickel or dime or quarter, depending on the length. I made pretty good spending money, probably more than I make off poetry these days.”

His first of many awards and recognitions came while he was still living in Mississippi, when he won first prize in a statewide poetry contest sponsored by the Mississippi Arts Commission. He was presented a check after reading some of his poems in the Old Capitol Building in Jackson.

“The best part about that whole thing though, was that Eudora Welty sought me out after my reading and told me how much she enjoyed my poems; she also said to me, ‘You look like a Florentine painting,’ which I never did understand but certainly liked,” Ruffin said. “I have an essay on that experience titled ‘The Lady with the Quick Simile.’”

After that, Ruffin began seriously sending poems out for publication. After landing a few in journals and magazines, he was encouraged to utilize his talent even more.

The author of more than 1,500 poems—he doesn’t know the exact number—Ruffin feels that poetry is often misunderstood, “mainly because too many poets like to be obscure,” he said.

“To be misunderstood is to be great, you know. The fact is that anybody can write poems that can’t be understood,” he said. “The challenge is to write poetry that can be understood and appreciated on one level and yet possess sufficient depth to appeal to a more critical audience, and that’s what I try to do.

“The poetry of Robert Frost is an example of what I’m talking about,” Ruffin explained. “The general reader loves Frost’s poetry, and so do scholars. He could operate at both levels. The same with James Dickey, George Garrett, Theodore Roethke, etc.”

Although his sixth collection of poetry, entitled Cleaning the Well: Poems Old and New was recently released, most of Ruffin’s efforts these days have ventured away from poetry. He has a new book of essays due out later this year, and five novels in different stages of development, and he also works on essays and stories “all the time.”

But even so, his older poems often find new life in his fiction and nonfiction prose.

“I find myself revising my older poems and occasionally writing a new one,” Ruffin said. “I often pull from them when I write an essay or a story.

“Back when I had a little cattle operation just outside Huntsville, I wrote a lot of dramatic poems about my experiences out there, and several of those poems became essays or stories,” he said. “I hope to have a collection of those dramatic poems out next year.”

When The Texas State University System Board of Regents honored Ruffin in November 2008, he was recognized for “his sense of humor, cultivation of the creative and intellectual abilities of his students, his gift of storytelling, and ability to gain the admiration and affection of his colleagues, students and a national audience.”

In April, he might be honored by the State of Texas for his talent in poetry as well.


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SHSU Media Contacts: Julia May
February 27, 2009
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