Poet travels the slow track to success

June 15, 1995|By Diane Scharper | Diane Scharper,Special to The Sun

Michael Collier believes good poems can't be rushed. "A poem is not a volcano," he says from his home in Catonsville. "Poems work on a geological scale. They develop the way earth plates move and separate."

Associate professor of English at the University of Maryland College Park and director of the Bread Loaf Writers' Conference in Vermont, Mr. Collier describes himself as a slow writer. "I write eight to 10 poems a year, partly because writing is about revising and partly because a poem develops very slowly."

Working slowly and steadily, Mr. Collier has written three well- received books of poetry and has edited "The Wesleyan Tradition," a watershed anthology of the last four decades of American poetry. Mr. Collier will read some of his poems at the Raven Bookshop at 7:30 tonight.

Born in 1953, Mr. Collier grew up in Phoenix and attended Catholic schools there. Many of his poems look back on those times. "Drill" recalls air-raid drills, when children "would tuck/ ourselves beneath our sturdy desktops./ Eyes averted from the windows,/ we'd wait . . . until/ the nun's rosary no longer clicked and we could hear/ her struggling to free herself from the leg-well/ of her desk."

In high school, Mr. Collier was taught by Jesuit priests. The Jesuits, he says, taught him to explore, to be skeptical and to figure things out on his own -- necessary skills for a poet. His English teachers awakened his love of literature, as did a philosophy teacher who had a penchant for suddenly spouting entire poems by the priest/poet Gerard Manley Hopkins.

Mr. Collier's background is evident in his religious allusions, although the poems are not about religious topics per se. In a typical poem, "The House of Being," he puts a "trellis holding passion flowers, nectar for hummingbirds and bees, nails, and a crown of thorns" beside a back alley.

Mr. Collier began writing seriously while in college. He was successful almost from the start, with his first published poem printed in the prestigious journal Poetry when he was only 21.

Many of the poems in his three books -- "The Clasp and Other Poems," "The Folded Heart" and "The Neighbor" -- were also published in highly regarded magazines. Several poems won individual awards, including the 1990 Pushcart Prize.

His second book, "The Folded Heart," received the Alice Fay Di Castagnola Award from the Poetry Society of America. Most recently, Mr. Collier was awarded a Guggenheim Foundation Award.

Asked to explain his success, Mr. Collier says playfully, "I write poems that come addressed from the muse to Michael Collier, not those that come addressed to 'occupant.' " He's paraphrasing his mentor, he says -- Pulitzer Prize-winning poet William Meredith.

Mr. Collier credits much of his success to the inspiration of Mr. Meredith, who was professor at Connecticut College when Mr. Collier studied there in the mid-1970s.

"Meredith, who was close to eminent poets like Robert Frost, Robert Lowell, and W. H. Auden, introduced me to some of those poets," Mr. Collier says. "More importantly, he showed me how I could live my life as a writer." He also showed Mr. Collier that a poet must have a sense of himself as a person, not just as a poet, and must have a sense of his connection to the community. Mr. Collier's poems contain such connections.

Generally, the poems use domestic life -- Mr. Collier describes them as redramatizations of the landscape of his childhood -- to deal with questions of spiritual identity.

But this spirit broods on dark, sometimes angry waters, as in "Water Dream," where a voice tells the poet to walk on the water, but the poet finds himself "beneath black water, made blacker/ by the hull that bobbed above me."

Mr. Collier feels a special fondness for "Water Dream": "I don't know why the dream in that poem presented itself. Or why the images accumulated the way they did. This is typical of the process of writing a poem -- you feel the language resonating physically. It's filled with mystery."

POETRY READING

Who: Michael Collier, reading with Eileen Tarcay and Marigo Stathis

Where: Raven Bookshop, 1129 W. 36th St.

When: 7:30 tonight

Cost: Free

Call: (410) 889-7869

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