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Leaving The Convent And Finding Passion Through Poetry

Madeline DeFrees published her first poem at the age of 12.

It was called “Sympathy,” written for a Portland newspaper poetry contest.

“Dreadful poem,” she laughs.

No one would use that adjective to describe the large body of work DeFrees has published in the eight decades since.

DeFrees has won a Guggenheim and grants from the National Endowment for the Arts. She’s taught at colleges and universities around the Pacific Northwest.

Madeline DeFrees’ path to this esteemed career was, by every measure, non-traditional.

At 17, just out of high school, DeFrees entered the order of Sisters of the Holy Names of Jesus and Mary. Turns out, it was a good move for an aspiring poet.

“Everybody wrote poems in the novitiate,” says DeFrees. Then she laughs. “I would just look around and think, the difference between them and me is that they’ll quit, and I won’t.”

Actually, it wasn’t that easy to find time to write. DeFrees had to steal it from daily tasks, like housework or errands.

“We went everywhere in twos. So if I was the companion to go to the dentist, I’d put an old envelope in my pocket.”

Those pockets were deep enough to hold a pen and pencil set, too.

Because her order maintained a vow of silence, she didn’t get to read her words out loud. DeFrees says she learned to carry an entire stanza in her head, and to revise it without writing anything down.

“I just followed the swish of black serge beside me. And then when I got to the dentist’s office, I wrote down the stanza. And that cleared my head for the next one.”

DeFrees published her first poetry collection in 1964, under the name Sister Mary Gilbert. When she worked on poetry, though, DeFrees felt guilty because she wasn’t fulfilling her obligations to her order. On the other hand, she felt confined by the Church’s expectations.

“As a writer,” she explains, “I was supposed to write these jubilee addresses, or verses for the Christmas card.”

The more DeFrees wrote, the more she wanted to spread her wings. She earned a college degree, then a masters in journalism.

Eventually, in 1973, DeFrees moved to Missoula to teach at the University of Montana.

“When I went to Montana, I began writing things that were much bolder.”

She began to explore issues of identity, of love and of loss in her poetry. And she pushed for even more freedom; she got permission to remove her veil, to live on her own.

Ultimately, after almost four decades as a nun, Madeline DeFrees decided to leave the order. It was a monumental decision.

It found its way into her poem “The Register.”

“I think of the last line, which says, ‘Father I am signing in,’ that I’m signing into the human race!” she says.

Another four decades have passed since then. In that time, DeFrees has written about everything from the serious issues that occupied her middle age to Marilyn Monroe and her own cataract surgery.

She won awards: In 2013, the University of Oregon inducted her into its Hall of Achievement. And her 2002 collection, “Blue Dusk,” won the Lenore Marshall Poetry Prize, as well as the Washington Book Award.

Despite the critical acclaim and prizes she's received as a poet, DeFrees has never rested on her laurels. She was always hungry to write.

She recalls the poet Richard Hugo’s words of advice to her: “Dick Hugo used to say it wasn’t the person who could write the best double sestina, but it was the person who needed to write. I think I have that need.”

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