On the broad, covered front porch of Michael Collier's brown shingled home in Catonsville, Md., sit a pair of wooden slatback chairs: one painted a deep green, the other, a vibrant yellow. When asked about their distinctive style and colors, Collier explains that they are unique to the Bread Loaf Writers' Workshop in Ripton, Vt. To his poetic view, their tall slim backs remind him of people. For the past seven years, Collier has been directing the summer writing workshop (the nation's oldest, having been founded by Robert Frost in 1926), so in an apt gesture, they were given to him as a token.
Collier is a former Guggenheim Foundation fellow and a member of the University of Maryland English department faculty since 1984. He and fellow poet Stanley Plumly co-direct the M.F.A. creative writing program, ranked in the top 20 in the latest graduate program rankings by U.S. News & World Report. Since taking over Bread Loaf, Collier has been credited with reestablishing its credentials as a pre-eminent summer writing symposium. Recent faculty and fellows have included such leading writers as Andrea Barrett, Yusef Komunyakaa and Jhumpa Lahiri.
"Best-selling" is one adjective unlikely to be used in conjunction with a poet. A click on a popular on-line bookseller says it all. Despite its designation as a finalist for the National Book Critics Circle Award, Collier's new book of poems, The Ledge (Houghton Mifflin, 2000), is ranked 311,474 in sales on Amazon.com. When Collier first assumed his post as director of Bread Loaf, it was precisely such a point that attracted him. "It allows the conference to maintain a higher literary standard by having poets [as directors] because there's no way that poets can be commercial," he says.
Write at Home
Like those Bread Loaf chairs, Collier is tall and slim, with steel gray hair and piercing blue eyes. Dressed in a gray mock turtleneck and jeans, a pair of Icelandic-style gray wool clogs on his feet, he seems quite comfortable in this setting, as well he should; it is in this studio above the home's detached garage that he writes his poetry. He drafts first on one of his growing collection of garage-sale typewriters. Perhaps it's a holdover from his adolescent days in Phoenix, Ariz.
"I remember very distinctly when writing became more than just keeping a diary and more than just trying to characterize an emotional state," says Collier, adding, "There was a little bit of technological intervention." Like many of his fellow graduates of Brophy College Preparatory, Collier received an electric typewriter as a graduation gift from his parents. The brand, a Royal, no doubt chosen because an uncle worked for the company.
"Every day I would put a sheet of paper in it, and I would fill it up with words," says Collier. He recalls that he didn't start out with any kind of goal, but just found that he was trying to fill a page every day. The subject was not important, more of a stream-of-consciousness process. "It was just the joy of feeling language come out on the page. I never went back to revise it." At the same time, he says that summer he was reading voraciously--sometimes a book a day. Again, external forces came into play.
Collier worked as a lifeguard at a small pool at a condominium complex. He recalls sitting under the shade umbrella, completely unsupervised, taking the opportunity to read all day. He insists that he did look up on occasion to be certain that no one drowned. Fortunately, it was a small pool and there were plenty of mothers on hand
to help him out. "I was probably the only lifeguard in the country that
didn't have a suntan," he laughs.
Collier calls that combination of reading and then writing every day a "one-two punch." The process helped him realize he wanted to be a writer. Only later would he gravitate toward poetry as his medium of choice. In fact, during his undergraduate days at Connecticut College, he considered himself a writer of fiction. By the time he graduated, he had written a novel, a collection of short stories and a sheaf of poems. "College was a great pleasure to me because I never had to think about what it was I wanted to do," says Collier, who later learned that his decisiveness was a source of irritation to his college friends.
Listening to the Muse Within
It's clear that at some point poetry took hold, as evidenced by four published books of his own work, several poetry anthologies edited and his installation in April 2001 at a State House ceremony as Poet Laureate of Maryland. When asked if poetry chose him or he chose poetry, says Collier: "Really, it was a little bit of both and I don't think that this is unusual for a writer to not quite understand why he or she begins to write."
What does keep a writer writing is clear to him: the support of mentors. In fact, Collier's most recent work, The Ledge, is dedicated to three teachers, two of them Jesuit priests who were his mentors in high school. "One of them opened me up to challenge the world and not be afraid. They were both very literary as well as great teachers," he says. He still keeps in touch with one, Michael Moynahan, S.J., now dean of Gonzaga University's Florence Program. Collier and his wife, Katherine Branch, visited Moynahan in April when they traveled to Florence, Italy, to celebrate their 20th wedding anniversary. Moynahan was also the priest who married them. From the third teacher, Gabriele Rico, Collier says he learned much about the creative process. Rico was a nurturing mentor during Collier's freshman year in college who would review "tons of rough drafts and share what was working or not working." It is these three individuals whom Collier regards as "seminal influences."
The Pulitzer Prize-winning poet William Meredith, with whom Collier first studied at Connecticut College, would prove to have an influence on Collier's writing that continues to this day. Collier believes that he knew better how to be an apprentice under Meredith because he himself had become a more sophisticated writer. "I had practiced writing and reading for a number of years before I got to him, so he didn't have to start me fresh," says Collier.
Meredith was Consultant in Poetry to the Library of Congress--the precursor to today's Poet Laureate of the United States title, which was recently awarded to Billy Collins. Some of the best poets of the 20th century--Robert Frost, Robert Lowell and Robert Penn Warren among them--held the post in the past. Meredith was more than his mentor; he was also his landlord, renting out a basement apartment to Collier and his wife.
"A mentor can take you to a certain place, can take you so far and then you have to move on from your mentor," says Collier, who believes he is fortunate to have maintained a good relationship with Meredith. In Collier's latest book of poems, "The Farrier" deals with shared experiences between two friends and is
dedicated to Meredith.
Now that Collier has achieved the poet laureate post in Maryland, a title of indeterminate length designated by Gov. Parris Glendening, he plans to make the most of his position during the current administration. Collier credits the role that the U.S. poet laureates have played, pointing to Rita Dove and Robert Pinsky in particular, for raising the visibility of poetry in the last decade and spurring far greater interest at the state level. The positive responses he hears from colleagues encourage him to believe that he can use his position to bring poetry more into the mainstream.
"This is good because it helps people understand what poetry is about," says Collier, "that it can be more at the center of culture rather than to the side of it, which is where it has been." Collier has an excellent role model in the late Roland Flint who held the post last. Flint made it his business to visit and read in all 23 Maryland counties and the city of Baltimore.
Kathy Mangan, fellow poet and faculty member at Western Maryland College, sees Collier "creatively re-envisioning this effort." Mangan, whose husband is Maryland Secretary of State John Willis, sees the poet laureate's role principally as one of outreach, of being an ambassador. The fact that Collier's own poems frequently involve everyday occurrences helps. Or as the dust jacket of his recent book says: "The poems in The Ledge are narrative and colloquial, musical and crystalline, at once intimate and sharp-edged. They render the world beautifully mysterious as they slide into unexpected emotional territory." The subjects that Collier chooses are apt to be familial relationships, childhood remembrances or a backyard view
of nature seen through his studio window, distilled to their exquisite and unflinching essence.
whose home is in the straw
and baling twine threaded
in the slots of a roof vent
who guards a tiny ledge
against the starlings
that cruise the neighborhood
whose heart is smaller
than a heart should be,
whose feathers stiffen
like an arrow fret to quicken
the hydraulics of its wings,
stay there on the metal
ledge, widen your alarming
beak, but do not flee as others have
to the black walnut vaulting
overhead. Do not move outside
the world you've made
from baling twine and straw.
The isolated starling fears
the crows, the crows gang up
to rout a hawk. The hawk
is cold. And cold is what
a larger heart maintains.
The owl at dusk and dawn,
far off, unseen, but audible,
repeats its syncopated intervals,
a song that's not a cry
but a whisper rising from concentric
rings of water spreading out across
the surface of a catchment pond.
It asks, "Who are you? Who
are you?" but no one knows.
Stay where you are, nervous, jittery.
Move your small head a hundred
ways, a hundred times, keep
paying attention to the terrifying
world. And if you see the robins
in their dirty orange vests
patrolling the yard like thugs,
forget about the worm. Starve
yourself, or from the air inhale
the water you may need, digest
the dust. And what the promiscuous
cat and jaybirds do, let them
do it, let them dart and snipe,
let them sound like others.
They sleep when the owl sends
out its encircling question.
Stay where you are, you lit fuse,
you dull spark of saltpeter and sulfur.
The book is in my hands then his.
The desk, the lamp, the carpet fragment,
the pictures of the poets on the wall,
and then the window, and out beyond
the window, the land drops off steeply
to the river. The river winds into the sound
and the sound into the ocean. The book
we are reading is not the thing we pass
between us. The book we are reading
has not been written. It won't contain
"The Poem of Two Friends." It won't be called
"Teacher & Student," even now that one of us
is old, the other idling fluidly in middle age:
the book won't be written.
So how will we sort
the hammer and tongs? Who will wear
the bright bandanna around his head
or forge the useless shoe?
What is the sound the anvil
no longer makes?
The worked iron
cools in its own steam. It's night
beyond the window. Inside, the light
is bright enough for reading.
A mist spreads upward from the river.
The book is in his hand then mine.
for William Meredith
"Brave Sparrow" and "The Farrier" reprinted from The Ledge by Michael Collier by permission of Houghton Mifflin Company.
Copyright (c) 2000 by Michael Collier. All rights reserved.
Poetry: A Shared Experience
There's something about poetry that cries out to read aloud, to share with others. It finds its voice in college coffee bars, in city cafes, at open-mike poetry slams. For the past eight years, the Office of Undergraduate Studies has sponsored the Terrapin Reading Society, which gives a committee-selected book to each incoming freshman and transfer student. Faculty members who agree to incorporate the book in their course are also given a free copy.
This year, for the first time, the work selected is that of a poet: Lucille Clifton. Clifton is a former Poet Laureate of Maryland, current Distinguished Professor of Humanities at St. Mary's College and the author of 10 books of poetry and 17 books for children. She is a Fellow in Literature of the American Academy of Arts and Sciences and a chancellor of the Academy of American Poets. In 1996, she was a National Book Award finalist for The Terrible Stories. She is the only poet ever to have two books chosen as finalists for the Pulitzer Prize in the same year.
Her latest collection of poems, Blessing the Boats: New and Selected Poems 1988-2000, (American Poets Continuum Series, Vol. 60) deals often with horrific events--children killing children, child abuse, the ravages of cancer--all presented in Clifton's spare, straight-forward yet elegant style.
As a woman of color, she has witnessed life's inequities and offers the reader insight, if not answers.
On Sept. 24 and 25, Clifton will spend two days at the University of Maryland, during which time she will share in an evening poetry reading event at the Clarice Smith Performing Arts
Center with Maryland's present poet laureate, Michael Collier, co-director of the university's creative writing program.
by Shara McCallum
JON FRANKLIN'S REALITY STORY
By Daniel Cusick
PRESERVING WORDS AND LIVES
by Carol Casey
by David Anthony Durham