Between the Lines: Russell Thorburn

Oct 27, 2017

Russell Thorburn
Credit Gabe Thorburn

Russell Thorburn was the first poet laureate of Michigan’s Upper Peninsula. The Marquette resident and Northern Michigan University professor has also been honored by the National Endowment for the Arts, and is the author of several books of prose and poetry. His newest poetry collection is called Somewhere We’ll Leave the World (Wayne State University Press, 2017).

Many poems in this new collection bring to life vivid images of war and the suffering of soldiers, now and in the past. Thorburn himself never served in the military.

“But I was of the age in the lottery in the anticipation and worry of all that going on,” Thorburn says of the Vietnam War. “The 'Sergeant Reese poems' come from late night television and a movie called Hell is for Heroes, with Steve McQueen as Private Reese. I borrowed from that, and for the intergenerational poems about a grandfather, father, son, and grandson. And the Civil War series is about healing.”

Credit Wayne State University Press

During his year as the U.P. poet laureate, Thorburn says, he wanted to respond to nature in a different way. Writing poems about war gave him that opportunity. He heard about soldiers in all ages who have found healing by walking in the wilderness.

Somewhere We’ll Leave the World isn’t just about war, though. Thorburn says it also follows his own journey.

“It’s my journey to these different places: to the desert, through the snow. It’s the dreams that I have and imagined along the way,” he says. “It’s remembering music in Detroit, going to concerts for a mere pittance, and all that has stayed with me.”

Thorburn reflects on his youth, many long walks and bus rides, and other travel and wanderings, and puts it all into his poetry.

“Also the danger of being alive today,” he adds. “We don’t really know what’s going to happen in the world.”

Thorburn's latest collection also includes poems written during an artist residency with his son, a photographer, in the Mojave National Preserve in California. He also has a folk-rock band, Radio On, that combines poetry with the music of electric guitars, flute, and piano. The band is currently at work on its second CD.

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