For laureate, new post adds to his appeal

Honor: In his role, Maryland poet Michael Collier hopes to stay on the cutting edge of the writing craft.

March 01, 2001|By Stephanie Shapiro | Stephanie Shapiro,SUN STAFF

For Michael Collier, Maryland's new poet laureate, it is privilege enough to occupy the same position once held by other notable writers, among them Lucille Clifton, Linda Pastan and the late Roland Flint.

A day after his new appointment was announced, Collier also spoke of how his new title allows him to cast a wide poetic net across the Old Line state. "You're kind of invited to imagine what you might do with it," says Collier, who lives in Catonsville.

Flint, his predecessor and longtime friend, resigned in October and died in January. Flint's example will guide him as he spreads the beauty of the word. "If I could live in a tiny corner of his shadow, that would be an ambition for me," Collier says.

Like Flint, Collier, 47, wants to take poetry into schools and libraries in Baltimore and as many counties as possible. There will not only be poetry readings, but "talk about poetry and what poetry is, and what role it plays in the culture - or does it?" says Collier, co-director of the creative writing program at the University of Maryland, College Park and director of the Bread Loaf Writers' Conference in Ripton, Vt.

He also hopes to partner with the "terrific Maryland teachers who for years have worked with students, whether in middle school or high school."

In appointing Collier poet laureate on Tuesday, Gov. Parris N. Glendening called him "one of Maryland's treasures, a distinguished scholar who is respected by his peers, his students and the public for the richness of his craft."

As Bread Loaf's director, Collier is credited with reviving the country's oldest writers' conference, which turns 76 this year. By raising standards for applicants, and ensuring that the faculty stays fresh and diverse, admirers say, he has created a vibrant climate for aspiring and accomplished writers.

In that position, Collier is able to help steer the course of American letters. Since its founding, it has been a coveted pulpit for dozens of influential authors, including Stephen Vincent Benet, Sinclair Lewis and Shirley Jackson.

More recent conference fellows include Ursula Hegi, Michael Cunningham, Jhumpa Lahiri and Richard Ford.

Collier wears his accolades lightly and weathers well the frequent transition between rarified literary realms and pop culture goofiness. He's embarrassed to admit that he was a finalist in one of People magazine's "Sexiest" issues.

When talking about himself, Collier is more comfortable relating tales that speak obliquely to his even temperament and sound judgment. For example, there was the afternoon last summer when Bread Loaf's work-study scholars abducted him after class and took him for a ritual swim in Lake Pleiad, up the mountain road from Bread Loaf.

"He's an extremely generous, sensitive person," says his friend, Baltimore poet Elizabeth Spires. "I think to write poems you have to be kind of introverted. Some poets have an extroverted side as well. I think Michael's got both those sides: the introversion it takes to write poems and the extroversion it takes to be poet laureate and run Bread Loaf."

Collier recently edited a well-received anthology, "The New American Poets." He "really wants to give a hand up to the worthy and talented people out there," Spires says.

Collier and his wife, Katherine Branch, former director of the Anne Arundel Community College library, moved to Baltimore in 1983. After running the poetry and public relations programs at the Folger Shakespeare Library in Washington, he joined the University of Maryland faculty as a visiting lecturer. He was also a visiting lecturer at the Johns Hopkins University.

When Branch was named director of science libraries at Yale in 1988, the couple and their two sons moved to New Haven, Conn. Collier taught at Yale and commuted to College Park for five years.

In 1993, Collier and his family returned to Maryland and found a home in Catonsville. He was named Bread Loaf director in 1994.

Somehow, among his many responsibilities, Collier has found time to write. His fourth and most recent poetry collection, "The Ledge," is a finalist for the National Book Critics Circle Award.

Although technically on sabbatical from the University of Maryland this semester, Collier still tends to administrative tasks. And he's definitely a busy dad of two teens. He spoke yesterday in between taking a son to the doctor and picking up a prescription. Later in the afternoon, he would drive the same son to swim practice.

But Collier's entanglement with everyday life seems to enhance his poetry, which is often indebted to the web woven by families and their helter-skelter lives. It's almost as if he can't write poetry with all the domestic commotion; but he can't write without it, either.

His new post will add to the noise, but Collier, who loves to teach, isn't fazed. It's a good time to be poet laureate, he says.

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