Saturday, March 29, 2008

Colleen McElroy

Thanks to a colleague of mine who invited her, poet Colleen McElroy read at my campus on Friday. What a wonderful 50 minutes. She's not just a fine poet but a real pro at reading, providing just enough background to each poem and, in cases where none is needed, none. She has a fabulous sense of humor and a warm sense of self-irony. She also loves movies from the 1940s, so I felt immediately that she and I shared at least one wave-length.

Chiefly she read poems from her new book, Sleeping with the Moon, published by the University of Illinois in 2007.

In addition to being a poet and having been a professor, she is also a trained linguist and a professional collector of stories and folklore--worldwide, from Madagascar to Tibet to Cuba. She reminded us that, sadly, languages are becoming extinct worldwide as quickly as species of animals and plants.

In addition to the systematic reading she has done as a professor, linguist, collector, and editor, McElroy clearly does the kind of indiscriminate, voracious, and impulsive reading that many poets do. There's a certain kind of poet who finds almost anything and anyone interesting and therefore almost any kind of reading interesting. Part of the impulse springs, I think, from finding even commonplace utterances or texts full of possibilities, and another part springs, perhaps, from a stubborn refusal to let go of that readiness one has in childhood to find the world fascinating. It's not so much that one remains childish or naive; in fact, McElroy is, I assure you, quite the opposite of that. She has lived and learned. It's really more of a tenaciousness, a refusal to agree to be bored by what other people find boring or to agree to ignore what other people ignore. In some ways, poets like McElroy use reading to forage, scavenge, rummage, and detect.

Not surprisingly, then, when a student asked for advice for young writers, McElroy's first word was "Read." But she didn't follow that up with "read poetry" or "read the classics." She said something like "read anything and everything, and read all the time [when you're not writing]." She also advised keeping a journal at the ready, and she advised a colleague of mine to keep a journal in almost every part of the house--what a great idea. A kitchen journal, a bedroom journal, a living-room journal, etc.

McElroy writes and reads poetry with great care; the poems are filled with precise, evocative imagery, and there is an easy but by no means careless voice in them all.

A poetry reading on a Friday afternoon: what a fine way to end a work-week.
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