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A Response to "Degrees of Gray in Philipsburg" by Richard Hugo

Chandler Kirkegaard

For the last several years, Robert Stubblefield has invited me to talk about The Write Question with students in one of the classes he teaches at the University of Montana. We talk about specific programs, which, if students have done their homework assignments, they've listened to. Then I answer questions about the process of reading, interviewing, and creating programs for radio and the Web. I also invite each of them to send me an essay they've written in response to a writer they read during the semester.

The following essay about a poem by Richard Hugo was written by Chandler Kirkegaard.


As a student who planned to do grand things... I quickly learned that grand, beautiful, wise things are often encouraged and rarely supported.

Says Hugo, “You might come here Sunday on a whim.” And we might, looking for nothing. Empty buildings, that remind you of long-past vitality. Nearly-empty jails, in a town so gray there is no room left for crime. And “the best liked girls” flocking away. One might be shown a town through Hugo's eyes, and one might, like me, see one's own fear of stagnation.

“Isn't this your life?” asks Hugo. Waiting for one's life to crumble, or for any change at all? But instead, one endures. Isn't this the fear we all hold? More than failure, we fear narcosis. We fear enduring. We are told we cannot run from our problems; we must conquer them one by one. No one has told us what to do with a gray life, and a lack of problems.

As a student who planned to do grand things, and travel to beautiful places with the guidance of wise mentors, I quickly learned that grand, beautiful, wise things are often encouraged and rarely supported. We are told to shoot for the moon, and land among the stars. The world is our oyster. But behind the scenes, we are reminded that the sky is far from home, and subaquatic apartments are costly. And so I, like many of my peers, decided to get our Degree in Something Practical, in our hometown, where all is stable. There will be time later for adventures. So we burrow into textbooks, and the safety of student loans, and don't look up until we realized how distant the sea and the sky have become.

“The car that brought you here still runs.” And we look up. The girl Hugo shows us, carrying trays of food, has yet to leave for Butte. The light her hair throws on the wall is a beacon, and flash of color in this graydom. With this sudden, surprising brilliance, Hugo prompts. If this was a whim, and we came looking for nothing, what colors could we see with a plan and eyes wide open?


Chandler Kirkegaard is a freshman at the University of Montana pursuing at double major in French and German.  Her most noticeable accomplishment to date is her poem During Winter being set to music by composer, David Metzger and preformed by the Willamette Master Chorus as the opening piece of the Willamette Winter Suite in 2008. She is currently employed at the Village Senior Residence, where she works as a Care Attendant. When not writing or working, She enjoys listening to music and reading.

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Chérie Newman is a former arts and humanities producer and on-air host for Montana Public Radio, and a freelance writer. She founded and previously hosted a weekly literary program, The Write Question, which continues to air on several public radio stations; it is also available online at and
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