As part of the 2020 Dear Poet project, students around the country and the world wrote letters to Paisley Rekdal in response to a video of her reading her poem “Once” aloud. Paisley Rekdal wrote letters back to two of these students; their letters and her replies are included below, along with several additional responses from students.
Paisley Rekdal also wrote a response to all of the participants of this year's Dear Poet project.
Thank you all for your letters! I’ve really enjoyed reading what you wrote about my poem, and I’m grateful for your questions, many of which get to the heart of the poem. The first question many of you asked is whether the poem is true, and if it referred to a specific set of experiences I had with a particular dog. The answer is yes: my dog’s name was Shumai (which basically means “pork meatball” in Chinese) and he was my constant cross-country skiing companion when we lived in Wyoming. I had Shumai for 14 years before he got a cancerous tumor in his leg, which shattered the bone in a way that the vet said was impossible, at his age, to fix. He was my first dog, and when I understood that I had to put him down, all I could think about were the times we went skiing together.
Losing Shumai made me aware that the loss of a dog is also the “loss” of a particular period of time in your own life. This is partly what makes a pet’s life so precious to us, since we remember and mark time through them. A few people asked in their letters why I might consider loving an animal “hopeless”, and whether that same sense of hopelessness would then extend to loving a person. It’s a great question, since of course animals die before we do (unless you get a parrot, in which case all bets are off), which is why the love we have for them can feel, at the end, like a kind of willful blindness about the passage of time and the inevitability of death. We know that we are going to lose the animals we care for, and yet we love them anyway. Of course, people, too, can die: grandparents and parents are certainly meant to die before we do, but sometimes we lose friends and other people who are close to us, both in age and in our hearts. And when or if we have children ourselves, our hope is that they outlast us, in which case our love will have a life beyond us. But no love is truly wasted or hopeless, which is also something I hope my poem speaks to. As humans, we are designed to give love. I truly believe that we are meant to give ourselves up to others, both as a way of feeling more connected to the world, and to offer something back to it. Love is a great and sometimes foolish gift, and if we don’t give it often and gratefully, then we are wasting our time here.
One of the best questions I was asked was whether I think dogs get anxious or sad when they see suitcases. I travel a lot—or at least I did before the pandemic—and I know for certain that my new dog, Frank, understands the sad meaning of a suitcase. Frank also knows when I’m packing for a road trip to go hiking, and I can always tell how relieved he is when I put him in the car along with the tent. Dogs are very human in the way they express their emotions, and while it’s tempting to believe that dogs love us back in the ways we love them, I suspect the love they have for us is different because it is largely outside of language and memory, thus any ability to hold a grudge. I think dogs love as in a way that is like human love, but also essentially different. Which, to my mind, makes the connection we develop with them more touching.
Finally, some of you have asked if writing the poem made me feel better. I wrote the poem many months after Shumai died, and though initially it was painful to write, finishing it did actually make me feel as if I’d articulated something about my love for him that I hadn’t even been aware of myself. That, to me, is the best part of writing a poem: discovering, through the act of writing, what you believe about the world before you understand it completely, or consciously, yourself.
Thank you all again for your letters! I hope you all have a healthy and happy year.
Paisley Rekdal reads "Once" for Dear Poet 2020.
Dear Mrs. Paisley Rekdal,
Hello, my name is Kristina, and I attend an ordinary high school here in snowy New Hampshire. A couple of weeks ago, my English teacher introduced our class to the Dear Poet project, which is where I found your poem. As I scrolled through all the titles, selecting a handful of ones that piqued my curiosity, I chose to listen to your beautiful recitation of “Once.” The word once is so simple, yet reminds me of the memories close to my heart, particularly those of my childhood. What associations come to mind when you hear the word once?
While you recited “Once,” the only aspects I could pay attention to were your soft articulation and subtle eye contact. Your recitation evoked a sense of calmness as if you were telling me a story. Earlier this year, my English teacher had us recite poems as well. I am more on the reserved side, so I had no idea how to recite a poem that would capture the attention of my classmates. But, after our class delved further into the world of poetry, I recognized that there is no “one size fits all” as everyone seems to gravitate towards different poems for varying reasons. What styles of poetry do you enjoy, and have you always admired poetry from a young age, or did you find your passion later in life? In the last several months, I discovered that I love to write haiku. All the time, I find myself deliriously typing brief lines or phrases that will eventually end up in one coherent poem.
My whole life, I have been surrounded by dogs. I smile every time I think of them. Over the years, I lost two dogs both when I was away from home, so I never had the chance to say a final goodbye. Your poem resonated deeply with me because you spoke for everyone who has had to let go of an animal whom they loved dearly. Where did you find the inspiration to compose “Once”? I could not imagine my life without my dogs and empathized with the narrator, who would soon lose a beloved dog. Are you the narrator of this poem? Considering you never gave a definitive name for the dog in your poem, I wondered if he was real. If the dog in your poem was once as you described, could you share more information about him? Throughout my early upbringing, I remember playing with my two dogs: Molly and Skyla. Because the memories with Molly and Skyla become more and more faded as the years go by, I enjoy looking through old photo albums of them.
As I scanned through “Once” a second or third time, I noticed that you used the word gold twice. Both times, the color gold described the dog’s fur, which leads me to believe he was a golden retriever. However, gold is a symbol of fortuitous circumstances, so I also wonder if the word gold was an allusion to the golden days you shared with your dog, a time where he could roam freely through the snowy fields and chase smaller animals. In essence, the differing interpretations of a single poem further convey that poetry is a form of art.
Given that you were recently named the poet laureate of Utah, what does being a contemporary poet mean to you? How will you share your voice as a writer across the country? As a small town girl who has read your poem, I would like to thank you for reading my letter. I am grateful to be given this opportunity to write to you, and I hope you and your family stay safe during these uncertain times.
Thank you for your letter! In answer to your comments about “Once,” my dog’s coat was indeed gold, but “gold”—as you noted—also suggests newness, vitality, good fortune, and the “golden” days of youth. In answer to your other questions about being a poet laureate, what I plan to do for my community, and what being a contemporary poet means to me, I have longer answers. As poet laureate of Utah, I run a state poetry festival each spring that celebrates Utah poets, and I’ve also created a web archive of Utah writers, past and present, from all literary genres. There are YA writers and slam poets, cowboy poets and eco-essayists, among hundreds of others. The site is called Mapping Literary Utah (www.mappingliteraryutah.org), and it went live last spring.
The point of the site is to celebrate all of Utah’s writers, and to allow my fellow state residents to see the rich variety of writers that live in our state. When I was in high school (many decades ago now) in Seattle, I knew I wanted to be a poet, but I never saw any poetry anthologies or textbooks that had Seattle-based or Washington State writers in it. I’m also biracial, and I never saw any other poets with my particular background either out in the published literary world. Everyone in the books I read had attended Harvard or Princeton or Yale, they lived in New York, many were from very wealthy families, and almost all but a handful were white. None of this looked like where I came from, or where I was going. Of course, the lack of representation that I felt didn’t mean that I believed it was impossible to be a writer, only that it would probably be harder. Now, being from Seattle and biracial is a completely normal thing in the literary world, but that wasn’t the case thirty years ago. My experience as a young writer in high school made me, as an adult, want to create something like Mapping Literary Utah, so that K-12 students around my state could see that they, too, could be writers, and that they weren’t the only ones in their communities with literary dreams and ambitions.
To me, this is what it means to be a contemporary poet: helping open doors for other writers to find their way into print, and to see themselves reflected in the literary world. For me, being a poet isn’t simply about writing poems but about being part of a community, and as poet laureate you want to expand that community to include as many people as you can. Sometimes that means helping other people give readings at festivals or get published, sometimes that means translating work from other languages into English, sometimes that means writing book reviews or literary criticism, sometimes that means celebrating the work of your peers. All of this, for me, goes into being a poet, and the great thing about being a state poet laureate is that you have a larger platform, and more resources, to help more people.
Thank you again for your letter! I hope you all have a healthy and happy year.
Dear Paisley Rekdal,
My name is Claire and I am from Jacksonville, Florida. I really enjoyed how much I related to your poem and the imagery that you used truly brought it to life for me. This poem reminded me of the last day I shared with my dog, Reesey. It was a beautiful May afternoon and the weather was just right. Because I live in Florida, the weather was already typically too hot for Reesey to stay outside for too long, but on this day it was perfect. I can remember vividly how content she was as she sat happily in our backyard, comforted by the shade of our mulberry tree and the chirping of the birds. Two lines that struck me from your poem were “this idea of him, in his gold fur, being what I loved him for first” and “It is like loving an animal: hopeless, an extravagance we were meant for: startled, continually, by what we’re willing to feel.” These lines reminded me of my final moments with Reesey. I forgot how sick she was and instead tried to think of my happiest moments with her laying beside me and comforting me with her peaceful presence. I will never forget the heartbreak I felt as my parents drove away with her to go to the vet. Reesey was in the backseat with the windows rolled down and her was head poking out of the back. As my parents rounded the corner, I could see her beautiful face smiling with her tongue out. While the rest of that day was spent crying, I realized how much I truly, hopelessly loved and adored Reesey. I want to thank you for writing this poem because it reminded me of how pure it is to love an animal. Even though we know that their lives are short, as humans we chose to love them because we know that they will always love us back. No matter what choices we have made or how broken we are, the unconditional love we receive from animals reminds us how fragile and beautiful life truly is.
I also have a few questions regarding your poem. Why did you decide to write the poem in three line stanzas? I have always been curious of the way that poets decide to divide their poems. I was also wondering if this poem has another meaning than reflecting about your last day spent with your dog. Are you alluding to how humans feel before death, trying to remember their youth and how they once were? Overall, I thoroughly enjoyed your poem and am grateful that it brought me back to found memories of my Reesey.
Thank you for your letter! In answer to your question about line breaks and stanzas in “Once,” I wanted to create a poem that required the reader to move slowly across each word, but also built some visual momentum as the poem ran down the page. This is why only two stanzas in the whole poem are “end-stopped,” meaning that there is a punctuation mark at the end of the stanza. If a stanza is end stopped, it creates more finality to the stanza, and the reader pauses for longer. But if the stanzas aren’t end stopped, the reader is encouraged to move more quickly on to the next stanza, thus read more quickly down the page. Since the poem is about one moment of time recalling another moment in time, and because I am also describing a dog leaping across a snowy field, I thought having stanzas that “leapt” from one image to the next would mimic what I was writing about, and also replicate the way memory itself works, as the mind jumps from one memory to the next and, from this jumble of memories, assembles a narrative.
As for your second question about whether my poem also alludes to how humans themselves might feel before death, the answer is more complicated. I’m not writing about how humans feel about their own mortality really, but about how remarkable it is that humans can love so deeply and powerfully considering what we know about mortality. I think the death of animals really reminds us of the world’s essential impermanence, since (unless the animals we love are elephants or parrots) we outlast them, and yet choose over and over to care for more animals throughout our lives. In the same way, we love other people, even knowing that they might disappear from our lives—whether through happenstance, choice, or by death itself. Considering this, I think the fact that we love at all is quite remarkable, and a sign of our essential hopefulness and resilience. Thank you again for your letter! I hope you all have a healthy and happy year.
Dear Paisley Rekdal,
As a dog owner and animal lover, I feel very connected to your poem, “Once.” One of my dogs, Rudy, has had numerous health problems. He is a fourteen-year-old Cavalier King Charles Spaniel with a heart murmur. In the past few years, he’s developed cataracts in his eyes, has become completely deaf, and has arthritis in his back legs. I instantly thought of him when I read, “he trembles with what / he once was: breath / and muscle puncturing the snow… ” My dog used to gallop through our backyard, jumping over sticks, while today, his legs tremble when he stands. I often see my dog and feel sad, thinking about how healthy and rambunctious he used to be. I know dogs really aren’t humans, but I have always felt like he could actually understand me and that he had feelings too. Your poem explained this perfectly when you wrote, “It is like / loving an animal: / hopeless, an extravagance / we were meant for: startled, continually, by what we’re willing / to feel.” He seems almost distant lately and somewhat confused about where he is, what he’s doing, and who we are. I think about him a lot and whether or not we will have to put him down someday. We’ve had him since I was in pre-school, so it's hard to think about living without him. Why was the dog in your poem put down? Was it due to old age or to stop his suffering? Putting a pet down is a difficult decision to make. In your personal opinion, what is the best way to cope with the loss of a pet?
Your description of the dog running in the snow stirred memories of when I was younger and would make agility courses for my dog. On snowy days, I would grasp him tightly as we rode quickly down a hill in my backyard on a plastic sled. I think about memories like that a lot. My dog has always been my playmate, allowing me to push plastic stethoscopes onto his chest and putting him on the table as we played vet in my room. Did you grow up with this dog? Did your experiences with him play an important part in your life? My dog helped me develop such a strong love for animals and I will always be grateful for the lessons he taught me. It seems cliché to say that a dog is your best friend and has an impact on who you are, but pets really do bring out the best versions of ourselves.
All the best,
Dear Paisley Rekdal,
My name is Hazel. I’m a freshman living in San Antonio, Texas. Our school just began remote learning and this letter is one of the first assignments my English teacher gave our class. The shift has been jarring, but the act of writing this letter is bringing me back to a comfort of mine; poetry. I discovered that I want to be a writer in third grade when I received a letter informing me that I had been selected as one of the winners of a local poetry contest. I was shocked, but finding out that people enjoyed my silly little stories and rhymes has encouraged me to keep writing my ideas down.
The reason I chose to respond to your poem “Once” is probably similar to the logic of many others. I, too, had a dog that had to be put down. Her name was Dottie. She was my mom’s dog first; she adopted her when she moved to Mexico to conduct research. When my mom met my dad, she made it clear that her and Dottie were a package deal. My dad eventually grew to love Dottie, even when she chewed up one of his favorite frisbees. Three years later, when I was born, Dottie assumed the role of my protector. She wouldn’t let anyone other than my parents and grandparents come anywhere close to me. I grew up with her by my side, so when we had to put her down in December of 2014, there was suddenly an hole in my life that I didn’t know how to fill. I remember the strangest details about that day; the song playing on the radio while we drove to the animal hospital, the Subway sandwich I ate, the word game I played on my dad’s phone in a futile attempt to stop myself from crying. My parents and I hugged Dottie through her last breath. I’ve never had a good memory, but I know that day down to the tiniest detail.
What really struck me about “Once” was your imagery. The contrasting images of the snowy field and the animal hospital and the way you switched between them stuck with me even after the first read. Your writing is grief-stricken, yet you still manage to create the beauty of the memory with your dog. Did you base that image off of a specific memory? If so, I admire how you can so strongly describe a single event. I also wonder if it was painful for you to write this poem. Personally, recalling memories of Dottie and the other pets I’ve lost makes my heart feel like it’s about to burst open. However, poetry is a form of catharsis for me. Did writing “Once” help relieve any of your grief?
As I’m writing this letter, my two dogs, Sunshine and Danica, are lying at my feet. I call their names and they look up at me with the adoring look that only dogs can give. This reminds me of the lines in “Once” that read “It is like / loving an animal: / hopeless, an extravagance / we were meant for: / startled, continually, / by what we’re willing / to feel.” You are absolutely right. How wonderful it is to love something with such conviction, and how even more wonderful to know that it loves you back just as forcefully.
San Antonio, TX
Dear Ms. Rekdal,
“White field. And the dog/ dashing past me/ into the blank,” This first stanza hooked me into reading more of the poem because I have had almost the exact same experience. My family owns a ranch in Wyoming called the Pinto Ranch, and we visit there almost every winter. My golden lab, Dash, loves the snow so much that she will just run for hours on end in the white fields leading to a huge blank of nothing but trees and snow. This puts the idea in my head of life and happiness, but as I kept reading, I was presented with the idea of the dog no longer being alive, and inside I just felt empty and blank. My emotions went from such utter happiness and love to deep sorrow in an instant.
Something that caught my ear in this poem as I read it aloud, was the use of enjambment: “a final hour, two/ before the needle.” It reminds me of the time when my family had to put down our small Jack Russel Terrier, Sophie, because she was almost 18 years old and ill. She lived a long and energetic life just like the dog in the poem. When the poem says, “a final hour, two/ before the needle,” I got a sense of a hesitation, like it is hard to say that your dog was put down. I had the same feeling when I heard from my family that Sophie passed away, and I did not want to believe it.
When I look at the structure of the poem, it reminds me of a long animal hospital hallway that keeps going on forever like it will never stop, and each stanza acts as a hospital room. As I continued reading the poem the description of the blank and white field makes me think that it is not actually a white field that is being described but instead a bright white light that you are presumably supposed to see when you go to an afterlife. What started as something so beautiful, like white fields that reminded me of my ranch, transitioned to a gloomy scene of a sterile animal hospital, but through the words of the poem it made me think of a beautiful white hallway and my thoughts moved back to a charming place like my ranch. I was able to convert the dreaded long hallway into a comforting and alluring bright light at the end of the hallway perhaps calling the dog to its afterlife. I think that the white field is a metaphor for an afterlife. And for Sophie, I think that her afterlife would look a lot like the acres and acres of fields blanketed in white snow.
Were you able to connect with the idea of happiness that your dog is running around happily in its afterlife? Was this a way for you to cope with the sorrow of losing your dog?
Your poem has helped me cope with my sorrow and I really enjoyed it. Thank you so much!
Dear Paisley Rekdal,
I have a little house dog that my family has recently picked up a few months ago. Her name is Smokey and she is a Malshipoo. It is a mixture of a Maltipoo and a Shin Tzu, a match made in heaven. As one of the caretakers of the dog, its face was like a diamond sparkling before your eyes. Before I had her, I never was one to care for dogs. All my life, I’ve never felt the desire to care for my own pet, as I see it as a stressful job to always make sure to feed them. Now that I have her, I will feed her nothing but everlasting love.
Your poem that you have crafted not only swayed me to near tears but warns of a brutally true distant future. The line that really spoke to me were when you said, “The needle moving in, then out, and now the sound of an animal rushing past me in the snow.” When you said those precious words, it hit me harder than a bullet to the heart. I know very well not everything lasts in our world, especially loved ones who are on their journey through life. There will come a time for me to say my good-byes to my dog and watch her fly to the moon. But despite the cruel tragedies you may have faced in your life, the bell has never rung yet. The gates to a better future are still open as wide as the sky with a long staircase waiting to be trampled on. After facing such a devastating loss, it takes a mountain full of resolve to get back up on your feet and step back into the ring. Many people of this world may give up easily and live in an eternal eclipse of the heart. I myself have experienced such a maze in my life.
During the summer of my 8th grade year, I signed up for a Geometry Summer Camp, where I learned a year’s worth of Geometry in a rigorous period of 6 weeks. The great thing about the camp was that if you completed the entire course and passed the final exam, you receive credit for the entire course. That is why I have decided to sign up. When I stepped into the classroom on the first day, I had spirits of hope that floated within my mind, whispering to me that I have what it takes to finish this course. Little did I know, a temporary staircase to heavens of hope soon turned to a journey through hell. Immediately, the teachers required us to fully understand an entire module worth of material in a single week. Unfortunately, Geometry did not flow as well as I would have wished, so I often struggled to understand a good majority of the subjects. Additionally, we also had to finish two kinds of homework that were given to us: one in a Geometry book the teachers gave us, and at an online website called IXL. The first version of homework we had to do was a problem in our Geometry book that corresponded with the lesson we were learning. The questions we were given were equivalent to a short free-response question on an AP exam, so not only did I have a hard time understanding what the material was, I also struggled to finish it on time the next day. Then there is IXL. IXL is an educational website that provides online e-learning for all students of varying grade levels. In IXL, there are many topics for students to learn, ranging from early math all the way up to 12th grade math. Each lesson provides students with randomly generated questions and earns you a certain amount of points depending on if the student got the question correct or not. What we had to do was that we had to go to certain assigned Geometry lessons and receive enough points to earn credit for the assignment. In order to receive a 100% on the homework assignment, you must keep answering questions until you receive 80 out of the 100 points IXL gives you. However, there is a catch. Whenever you get a question correct, you would usually receive around 10 points, but if you get the question wrong, you could lose up to 20 points! On top of that, there were also tests. Within the first two days of the summer camp, we had it easy and did not have any tests. But moving forward, we had tests every single day about the lesson we had learned 2 days prior. I was as miserable as a kitten without a mother. I come back home from school every day drowning myself with my own tears because the panthers of my homework tortured me with endless scratches and bites to my heart. I wanted to toss in the white flag. I was driving home with my dad and older brother from the local gym in tears, shouting that I do not have what it takes to complete this course and spend the rest of my summer playing video games. Then my dad looked behind his passenger seat, bearing a smile upon my wet face.
“There was a quote from one of my favorite presidents,” he said. “we do things not because they are easy, but because they are hard.” I went back from the gym, closed my bedroom door, and went back to my regular scheduled program of crying before my computer. Then, my brother came into the room. I slowly turned my chair around, tears painted on my face and choking on my own breath. He takes a few steps, kneels to my level, and puts a smile on his face.
“Are you alright?” he asked. I looked down to the floor in despair.
“I’m not sure I can do it. I have tried all I can, I’m trying my very best, but nothing seems to work.” He placed his hand on my chin and pulled me up to his face.
“There is a reason why we constantly push ourselves to our limit. Without pushing ourselves, we never face any tough challenges we face along our journey. If we don’t face these challenges, we will never grow to be the best people we can possibly be.” I sighed.
“I don’t know man. I don’t know if I would want to stay in my camp any longer. I don’t know if I have the ability to go through this suffering any longer.” He placed his hand on my shoulder.
“Dude,” he said. “Anyone in the world can get the golden armor without much effort. Anyone can earn the golden armor and simply call it a day. But it is those that strive and dedicate themselves that get the shiny, diamond armor.” He got back up on his feet and walked over to the door before turning back to me. “You got this.” The closed door echoed across my bedroom, ringing in my ears like the bang of a bell. Now, I finally understood what my dad meant.
Anyone in the world could permanently place themselves in the sidelines and watch the headlights beam down the arena. People often accept the shadow that covers over them, never experiencing the reward of achieving a long-desired victory. But not you. With a whitened fist, you hoisted yourself back up and pulled against the rope to continue the ever-lasting fight. Because of that, you have triumphantly KO’d your demons and gloriously earned the title “Poets Laureate Fellow.” Endless crowds of loved ones fiercely cheered for your victory, launching off their seats and rushed to give you a crushingly tight hug. That was your moment. That was excruciating long months desperately fighting back that finally paid off. That was your time to shine against the dreadful demons of your dark despair. That was your own glorious victory. Just like you, I have placed myself back in the ring to finish my course. I studied hard, I finished all the homework I can and when it came to take the final exam, I triumphantly passed! Now, as a sophomore in high school, I am now three years ahead in my math curriculum! Not only have you valiantly written a breathtaking poem, but a cruel, heart-breaking life story. Because of your poem, I have foreseen a waterfall of tears drowning my heart, but because of your accomplishments and your courage to fight against your demons, I have foreseen a blinding rainbow over the rocks. Because of your poem, it has reminded me to keep fighting for success despite future dreadful challenges, waiting to fiercely attack. Because of your poem, I have a reason to continue fighting in the ring to achieve the victory belt of accomplishment I have desired my entire life. Because of your poem, it inspired me to become a better man.