Before she was an internationally acclaimed poet, Colleen J. McElroy was a speech pathologist. In 1970, living in the Midwest, in landlocked Kansas, and the single mother of two young children, she was itching for a change. She set her son’s globe of the world on a table and gave it a spin. “Everywhere my finger touched down,” she explains, "so long as it wasn’t water, I applied for a job" (Reid interview). Offers ensued from the Caribbean and from Bellingham, Washington. The Caribbean intrigued, but they asked for a three-year commitment. No matter that it seemed the less glamorous choice, Bellingham became a portal to further change. As the director of Speech and Hearing Sciences at Western Washington University, McElroy discovered a diverse community of writers and artists -- "a kinship group," as she describes it -- that included a second husband. She once again began to imagine a more expansive life for herself. Aged 35, she embarked on doctoral studies at the University of Washington, and she began writing poems. These decisions launched her 35-year teaching career at the University of Washington, and 15 books of poetry, fiction, and travel memoir.
McElroy’s ninth book of poetry, Sleeping with the Moon (2007), was hailed by Yusef Komunyakaa (b. 1947) as a "voyage, a map of images ... a journey," and her fascination with maps and geography and travel informs McElroy’s entire body of work (University of Illinois Press website). They also inform her personal history.
She was born on October 30, 1935, in St. Louis, Missouri, to Ruth Celeste (1911-2012) and Purcia Purcell Rawls. After her parents divorced in 1938, McElroy moved with her mother to her grandparents’ home, also in St. Louis. A small move, but this relocation marked the beginning of her conscious journey, and her "romance with language," fueled by the feather boas, full-length mirror, and wind-up Victrola that she discovered in her grandmother’s attic. A lonely child amid adults, McElroy listened to the stack of 78 rpm records, and she danced and told herself stories. As she writes in A Long Way from St. Louie: "I tried make-believe conversations in worlds I dreamed would be there when I finally arrived."
When her mother remarried, in 1943, to an army sergeant named Jesse Dalton Johnson, McElroy’s actual travels began -- though she frequently returned to her grandparents’ home in St. Louis, living there off and on until age 14. She eventually attended university in Germany, Missouri, Pennsylvania, and Kansas, earning an associate’s degree at Harris-Stowe Teachers College (1956), and a BS at Kansas State University (1958), where she later earned her MS degree (1963).
From Storytellers to Telling Stories
Given her career in speech pathology, McElroy is often asked what motivated her to "suddenly become a poet," but her transition at age 35 into poetry was not a surprise to her. As she told interviewer James L. Hill in 2008, "I grew up in a family of strong storytellers." After his long days working at the Anheuser stables, her grandfather read aloud to her from his capacious library, her grandmother "had a story for every day," and McElroy's mother was "the queen of metaphor" (A Long Way from Saint Louie). As she grew older, her young, glamorous aunts deepened her acquaintance with the alluring narratives of music and film, inspiring her to spend her allowance on movies at the Antioch Theatre in downtown St. Louis. She absorbed the body language of performers such as Lena Horne (1910-2010), Dorothy Dandridge (1922-1965), Carmen Miranda (1909-1955), and another St. Louis girl, Josephine Baker (1906-1975).
In A Long Way from St. Louie, McElroy clarifies that her stint as a dance instructor for Arthur Murray was only one gesture in a history of dance that stretched back through jump rope games and teenage hi jinks all the way to her grandmother’s Victrola. While in college she channeled her creative interests by taking drama classes. She moderated a talk show that introduced her to other voices and other stories. Even in her work with speech-impaired patients, McElroy continued to find ways to intertwine her love of story.
Finding the Black Poets
Even as a speech pathologist, McElroy understood that her real work was to tell stories. Her narrative instincts were relentless. "At first I was just telling stories," she says of her early poems (Reid interview). Even so, it was not the path she had expected to find herself on. As a schoolgirl, McElroy thought poetry meant Thomas Gray’s "Elegy Written in a Country Churchyard," or Edgar Lee Masters’s "Spoon River Anthology" -- poetry not merely written by dead white males, but written about dead white people. Despite her fondness for "The Highwayman" by poet Alfred Noyes, she did not believe that poetry was her medium, to the point that one teacher excused her from the work.
But in Bellingham she encountered the work of black poets such as Langston Hughes (1902-1967), Joseph S. Cotter (1861-1949), Anne Spencer (1882-1975), Robert Hayden (1913-1980), Gwendolyn Brooks (1917-2000), and Margaret Walker (1915-1998), and she began attending local readings. She quickly gained enough sophistication to see through the "naiveté of a certain type of American poetry" (Reid interview). Her husband, a poet himself, told her that if she could do better, she should try.
She did, and her early efforts were rewarded with encouragement from poets Richard Hugo (1922-1983), Robert Huff (1924-1993), and Denise Levertov (1923-1997). Her first chapbook of poetry, The Mules Done Long Since Gone, was published in 1973, and her second, Music from Home: Selected Poems, was selected by John Gardner (1933-1982) and Knute Skinner (b. 1929) for their prestigious poetry series published by Southern Illinois University Press. These books and Winters without Snow, which appeared in 1979, may have been inspired by Bellingham’s rain-soaked landscape, and by a second divorce, but with them McElroy mapped out a new career, once again serving the world notice that observing boundaries was not what she was about.
University of Washington
When she first enrolled at the University of Washington, McElroy intended merely to further her career in Speech Pathology. Poetry shifted her focus and in 1973 she earned a Ph.D. in Ethnolinguistic Patterns of Dialect Differences and Oral Traditions. While doing graduate work, she began teaching at the UW, and that work, too, transformed into something more. From 1973 to 1981 she supervised freshman composition in the Equal Opportunity Program (EOP). Soon afterward, she began teaching poetry classes.
In 1984, as the first African American woman to become a full professor at the University of Washington, McElroy began directing Creative Writing at the university and was crucial to the initiation of its Master of Fine Arts degree. As faculty advisor for the Watermark Reading Series, she helped to bring award-winning writers to campus. She also established an award to honor her maternal grandparents, Anna Belle and Perry Lee Long.
Her love of story and love of travel -- a passion for exotic locales and their inhabitants that make her feel oddly "at home" -- intertwine throughout her work. McElroy speaks, to various degrees (or, as she excuses, "depends what you mean by ‘speak'"), several languages, and her work has been translated into Russian, Italian, Arabic, Greek, French, German, Malay, and Serbo-Croatian (Reid interview). A Long Way from St. Louie documents numerous journeys, including a motorcycle ride at age 58 across the Australian desert.
She has visited the ancient cities of Machu Picchu, Timbuktu, Djenne, and Angkor Wat. A Fulbright Fellowship enabled her to travel to Yugoslavia. In 1993 a second Fulbright Fellowship enabled her to travel to Madagascar, where she lived and worked as an ethnographer, collecting origin myths and other oral tradition tales of the Malagasy people. Despite declining health in recent years, she has traveled in retirement to Mali, Tanzania and Zanzibar, and to England and Wales. She defied her doctor’s direct orders when she was offered an opportunity to snorkel in Australia. Her excuse? "What’s a little asthma to the Great Barrier Reef?" (Reid interview). But defying authority is never a problem for McElroy: "I’ve stared down eighteen year olds with automatic weapons" ("How Not to Cross the Border").
A Singing Instrument
Her travel memoirs are mirrored in her poetic journeys, and her poetry croons to us from the pages of her memoirs. In his preface to her Music from Home, John Gardner describes McElroy’s poetic voice as "a singing instrument, flexible, capable of gentleness, humor, sorrow, unwhining pain, above all, love; a voice forgiving and wise as an old woman’s, sometimes shy and teasing, like the voice of a young girl." The Village Voice found her voice "sumptuous and scary."
In his review of What Madness Brought Me Here (1991), poet Al Young (b. 1939) compared McElroy’s voice to that of singer Sarah Vaughn: "lyrical, versatile, earthy, and always full-hearted" (Wesleyan University Press website). McElroy’s students agree that one lesson they learned in her workshops was that musicality matters; another is the simple mindfulness that the human voice can sing.
Juggling Roles and Writing
One of the ways McElroy mentored her student writers and editors was to demonstrate how not to neglect one’s own writing. In What Madness Brought Me Here: New and Selected Poems, 1968-1988, readers can trace the years of childrearing and teaching. Asked how she managed to juggle roles, she says, "We’re all busy. I had older relatives. I had children. I had a teaching career. You write anyway. The caretaker must take care" (Reid interview). In Bone Flames (1987) the trajectory of her own learning process is obvious in poems such as "Learning to Swim at 45," or the tributes to her children as young adults, for Vanessa (b. 1960), "To Welcome a Changeling," and for Kevin (b. 1959), "Putting My Son on Board the Columbia."
She also continued during these years to explore the intersection of her childhood with the lives of her ancestors in her short stories, plays, and in poems such as "Upon Viewing a Photograph in Which I Stand in Shadow behind My Grandmother," and "Years That Teach What Days Don’t Even Know." As she writes there:
"dead or alive they’re how I learned
the proper tense of verbs:
to be, to have, to own."
As Valerie Trueblood observes of Sleeping with the Moon, "The women in these poems go on and on; their narratives do not come to a gentle halt in domesticity or motherhood, or in illness or chemo or loss" (Poetry Foundation website). McElroy’s poems are peopled with "outrageous and grim" women, in Trueblood’s view, and poems that bury novels in 30 lines.
Poet as Editor
Although McElroy never had an ambition to be a magazine editor, she recently admitted in a radio interview that she is "apparently rather good at it" ("Nebraska Girl Lit Hour"). In her work for Dark Waters and Callaloo and as a contributing editor for the Pushcart: Best of Small Presses and Magazines, she found another venue for expressing "the ear by way of the heart" ("Nebraska Girl Lit Hour").
In 1991 she began her tenure as poetry editor of The Seattle Review, eventually taking over as editor-in-chief. In that capacity, from 1995 to 2006, she transformed the Review from a regional journal to one with an international focus, including feature articles and interviews with well-known poets (collected in 2006 in Page to Page: Retrospectives of Writers from The Seattle Review), and full-color photo essays of contemporary art. In this capacity, as in her teaching career, she mentored numerous students who have gone on to publish and edit -- and teach -- throughout the country. After retiring from the University of Washington in 2006, McElroy taught for two years at the Cave Canem Foundation, an organization committed to the artistic development and growth of African American poets.
Accolades and New Work
McElroy has been the recipient of numerous awards, including two National Endowment for the Arts Fellowships, two Fulbright Research Fellowships, a Rockefeller Fellowship, a Reader’s Choice Award, a DuPont Visiting Scholar Fellowship, a Pushcart Prize, and Washington State Governor’s Distinguished Artist Awards for Jesus and Fat Tuesday and Other Stories, and Bone Flames (both 1988).
Queen of the Ebony Isles was selected for the Wesleyan University Press Poetry Prize, and also received the Before Columbus American Book Award in 1985. A Long Way from St. Louie was the 1998 Book-of-the-Year in Travel Writing. In 2008, Sleeping with the Moon received a PEN/Oakland literary award.
In 2012 McElroy’s 15th book, her ninth book of poetry, Here I Throw Down My Heart, was released by University of Pittsburgh Press. Here I Throw Down My Heart carries readers across twenty-first century boundaries, including the rigid but permeable lines between genders and class and age. It circles back, curls back like a slumbering beast, to McElroy’s early life as an Army dependent, as a little girl living in both awe and fear of men. She brings to life the voices of women warriors serving on the front lines in Iraq and Afghanistan, and she plays with language in the way only a speech pathologist possibly can, in poems that call us to see below surfaces, and consider how the lines have deepened between the haves and have-nots. In the words of reviewer Katherine Hastings, it “beats a tattoo in four distinct chambers, adding up, magically, to pure connection.” As Richard Wakefield phrases it in his Seattle Times review, "Thoughout this marvelous new book, she makes it her job to open our eyes" (The Seattle Times, December 7, 2012).
Not Staying Put
In her essay "Somewhere from Here," McElroy defines herself as "a woman who will not stay put." Deliberately conflating writing with traveling, particularly as a black woman, she explains that both demand "patience and surprise, rebellion and conformity, the kindness of strangers sprinkled with a little imagination and a lot of observation" ("Somewhere from Here"). She brings all of these things as gifts to her students and to her readers. Retirement from full-time teaching has allowed McElroy to explore other passions -- painting, for instance, a vice she returned to after a long absence.
But for the most
part retirement has meant more travel and more writing. Whether working in
fiction, memoir, or poetry, she continues to weave stories that make sense of
the world and its crucial issues for her audience. After an afternoon listening
to McElroy’s stories, one suspects that as a corollary, she’s also become able
to define out-of-body travel. There is in McElroy’s story a sense of the
sojourner, someone always away from home, beyond familiar maps, and yet at home
in any landscape, so long as she can make a poem about it.
Speech and Language Development of the Preschool Child (1972)
The Mules Done Long Since Gone (1973)
Music from Home: Selected Poems (1976)
Winters without Snow (1979)
Lie and Say You Love Me (1981)
Looking for a Country under Its Original Name (1984)
Queen of the Ebony Islands (1984)
Jesus and Fat Tuesday and Other Short Stories (1987)
Bone Flames (1987)
Driving Under the Cardboard Pines (1990)
What Madness Brought Me Here: New and Selected Poems, 1968-1988 (1990)
Travelling Music (1998)
Over the Lip of the World: Among the Storytellers of Madagascar (1999)
Sleeping with the Moon (2008)
I Throw Down My Heart (2012)