As part of the 2022 Dear Poet project, students around the country and the world wrote letters to Chelsea Rathburn in response to a video of her reading her poem “Shocks and Changes” aloud. Chelsea Rathburn wrote letters back to eight of these students; their letters and her replies are included below.
Chelsea Rathburn also wrote a response to all of the participants of this year's Dear Poet project.
Thank you for reading my poem and engaging with it in your classrooms and in the quiet of your own thoughts. When we write poems, we work in a vacuum, mostly alone or with feedback from a few trusted friends. We don’t know how a poem will be received once it goes out into the world and meets its readers, so it was really moving to read your letters.
I especially loved hearing that details in my poem reminded you of things that have happened in your own lives. You told me about the glow-in-the-dark stars you had and the stars you’d wanted (my parents said no to putting stickers on our ceiling, so I was always jealous of those in my cousin’s room). You told me about periods of great change in your own lives, and how sometimes you failed to fully understand those changes until they were in the distant past.
While I can’t respond to every letter personally, I wanted to address some of the questions that came up. Many of you asked what prompted me to write the poem and whether it was a true story. Who was the other child who put those stars on the ceiling? I also got a lot of questions about the last line, and I’ll try to explain it below.
First, the poem did grow out of a true event. When my daughter was very young, my husband and I took new jobs at a college in a rural area. We left a city we loved and sold our home, and we rented a house from a professor who was moving away with her husband and two boys. I’m afraid that we did not take well to rural life, and this was a period of hardship and stress. One night, my daughter woke up crying, and I went up to soothe her. I don’t know why I turned her overhead light on since I was trying to get her back to sleep, but I did. When I turned it back off, I happened to glance up and see, for the first time, that her ceiling was covered in glowing stars. We’d been living in the house nearly two years, and the fact that I had never looked up shocked me and set the poem in motion. I was simultaneously very aware of the stars on the ceiling, the stars above us in the sky, undimmed by city lights, my small daughter in her bed, and my landlords’ son, who had once arranged those glow-in-the-dark stickers so carefully. I tried to pull all of these elements into a sonnet whose rhymes would be scattered across the poem like the stars in the night sky.
Some of you were puzzled by the paradox in the last line: “This night will always and never quite exist.” What I meant was that the night as I tried to capture it, more or less true to my perception, would “always” exist in my memory because I noticed it and recorded it in a poem. At the same time, it would “never quite exist” because of my human failure to see everything that was happening before my eyes. My daughter was changing even then on a small scale that I couldn’t register. And if I hadn’t seen the stars above my head for two years, there were surely many other things I failed to notice.
Because I wrote the poem from my own perspective, it was surprising and delightful to read how some of you identified with the crying child or the absent boy who put the stars on the ceiling. I love how poems, through the specifics of one person’s experience, can open our eyes to other perspectives.
Thank you again for reading my poem and for connecting with me. I hope that you will continue to read poetry and perhaps write it yourselves.