Local poet inspired by nature
Resident Joyce Phillips recently won awards from the Poetry Society of Colorado
Buy the book
"Aspen Reflections" is at Downtown Books in Craig and at Epilogue Book Company and Off the Beaten Path Bookstore in Steamboat Springs.
Solitary aspen leaf
Held prisoner by pine needles
When will you be free to join your kind
Mingle amid the moisture
To create life anew
On a Ute trail in the fall of 1972, Joyce Phillips stopped to take a nap.
Phillips had trouble keeping up with her husband, Oliver, on hikes when she first moved to Colorado, so she settled among the aspens and bugling elks.
When she awoke from her nap, she saw a single, yellow aspen leaf that had gotten caught in the branch of a pine tree as it drifted to the ground.
She took out the pad and pen she always carries with her on adventures and wrote a poem.
“And that’s the moment I knew I was going to be a poet forever,” she said. “It just captured the essence of what I was seeing.”
Phillips, who now lives in Craig, released her first book of poetry titled “Aspen Reflections,” three months ago through Outskirts Press.
She grew up on a dairy farm in western Pennsylvania, where she fell in love with nature. Her father, whom she called an “unusual farmer,” read her Shakespeare, and she grew up loving language and the possibilities it presented.
In elementary school, she found herself impressed with a six-line poem called “The Cat,” by Carl Sandburg.
“I just liked the way poems fit,” she said. “It just sounded right to me.”
In junior high and high school, she wrote her own poems, which she claims were not very good.
At Clarion College in Pennsylvania, Phillips studied to be an English teacher and share her fascination with language. But she encountered one obstacle.
She had a lisp, so she had to take speech therapy lessons before she could go on to student teaching. She was touched by the difference speech pathologists could make in other people’s lives.
“I decided that in speech therapy, you can make a great difference to a few kids,” she said. “You can change their lives.”
The seed remains to sustain life
and so memories of love shared
do not fade, but grow strong
until again we meet.
The poem “Departure” was written for the boyfriend she left behind when she moved west to get her master’s degree in speech pathology at Colorado State University.
“At one point, I thought we would marry,” Phillips said. “But then I thought, ‘I want to travel now.’ So I broke up with him, moved out west and never looked back. There’s a time when you have to decide what your life’s going to be.”
Her life became her relationship with nature and all the fishing, hiking and camping she could find time for.
And she kept her pen and pad in hand for all of it.
She was particularly drawn to the shaking leaves of the aspen tree, the subject of many of her poems.
In the Christian faith, the aspen leaves did not bow down to the Lord and were sentenced to trembling for eternity, Phillips said.
For her, there always was something different and alluring about the aspens.
“They’re not like other trees – they just do what they do,” she said. “Here they are, moving in the wind. Other leaves get blown around, but they just flitter and quiver.”
She draws inspiration from the not-so-peaceful side of nature, as well.
“Confrontation” arose from a camping trip on Rabbit Ears Pass with Oliver. She was taking a midnight stroll to the outhouse, where she encountered a small spider, whose shadow loomed at her while she took care of her business.
She wrote the poem in her head then and there.
“I’ve always liked poetic images, and I just see things that way,” she said. “Sometimes I write a poem and I think I’m writing about one thing, and as it evolves, it ends up being about something else.”
After college, she moved to Steamboat Springs but found the altitude aggravated her asthma condition.
She moved about 1,500 feet lower in elevation to Craig, where she worked at the Moffat County School District, teaching speech pathology to middle and high school students.
She encountered a student in Craig who was so tongue-tied, almost no one could understand what he said.
By the end of the year, Phillips saw him talking with the girls in his class, something he had never done before.
“His whole social life changed that year,” she said. “It was amazing.”
suspended by slender twig
as the autumn breeze makes
the leaf quiver in the early
– “Aspen Leaf”
Health problems, including asthma and a short bout with breast cancer, inspired some of the more disheartening moments in “Aspen Reflections.”
She said she was very fortunate that her cancer was caught early, and it inspired two of the poems in her book.
“I remember lying in a bed at St. Anthony’s, looking at the snow-capped mountains outside,” she said. “And I thought to myself, ‘How am I going to ski?'”
She doesn’t ski anymore but continues to hike and fish with her husband, translating what she sees as the power of nature into her own form of expression.
Wind makes this last day of summer
like autumn. A few aspen leaves,
blushing gold already,
invite the season to change.
– “Seasonal Aspen”
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