Cornwall poet reflects on four decades of work
On a given morning, Michael Collier wakes up (early), brews a pot of coffee and walks directly to his desk. This isn’t what he calls a ritual, it’s an “imperative.”
“Another is to avoid the blank page as much as possible,” said Collier, a distinguished poet who directed the Middlebury Bread Loaf Writers’ Conferences for more than 20 years. “I write the way a tortoise runs, although occasionally, instead of a hare, I pull a poem out of a hat.”
And he’s been doing it this way for over 40 years. Now retired from the conferences and from his work as an English professor at the University of Maryland, Collier has recently published “The Missing Mountain: New and Selected Poems.”
The publication draws poems from seven of his previous individual volumes, with the oldest poem dating back to 1980 and the most recent written just a few years ago.
“The time seemed right to put together a retrospective volume,” said the Cornwall resident. “It’s a way of self-assessing (curating) the work I’ve done, while the new poems point ahead to what might be possible in the future.”
Collier recently shared his reflections on his career with The Independent.
Where did you grow up?
I was born and raised in Phoenix, Arizona, at a time when the size of the inhabited city could be easily mapped in your head, its limits were another matter. They were vast, vacant, and harder to imagine. The sublime and awful difficulty of the imagination keeping up with reality is what the title poem, “The Missing Mountain,” tries to comprehend.
What brought you to Vermont?
The Bread Loaf Writers’ Conference, which I attended in 1981 for the first time. I returned to Bread Loaf in 1986 and then as an assistant instructor in the early 1990s before taking on the role of conference director in 1994.
Why did you stay?
No one would need the experience of 28 sessions of the Bread Loaf Writers’ Conference to come under the spell of what’s called “The Mountain,” less than a day will do it, nor that long to convince you to stay in Vermont. Katherine Branch and our sons, Robert and David, came with me to the Conference each summer, and so it was a family enchantment that led us to buy a house in Cornwall in 2005. Over time, we found we had a wonderful and growing circle of neighbors and friends in Middlebury, and over time, too, Katherine began to extend her stays in Cornwall until she became a full-time resident several years ago, and now that I’ve retired from the University of Maryland, where I taught for many years, I’ve become one as well.
What is the significance of the title “The Missing Mountain”?
On the edge of North Mountain Park in Phoenix, there was a saddle between two modest peaks that provided a spectacular vantage point from which to view the city, night and day. It was a hangout spot for my friends and me. As an adult, when I’d return home to visit my parents, I would sometimes drive to the saddle to get a sense of how crazily fast Phoenix was growing but also for the nostalgia of it. One time when I went back, it was gone, blasted away to make room for a sprawling resort. I suppose on one level it’s a poem about environmental degradation and how fast and inexorably the world has changed during my life, but more than that it registers the experience of a profound and shocking loss as well as a violation of the imagination.
Where do you find inspiration?
I don’t carry a notebook around. My head is rarely in the clouds because I’d miss the feel and texture of the lived life and the quotidian events and details that are the materials of my poems.
What is it like reading and re-publishing some of your older pieces?
I wanted to re-publish poems that were important in different ways to me when I wrote them — ones that demonstrated an advance in technique and ones that led more deeply into the forest of the imagination. They needed to feel fresh and alive, rather than perfect. The book is structured in reverse chronological order, except for the new poems, which come at the end. I thought it would be interesting for readers to have selections from the more recent books lead them back through time to the comparatively smaller sampling of the older poems. The image of nesting dolls comes to mind, if you don’t think about the outlier new poems at the end.
Do your older poems resonate in the same ways as when you wrote them, or have they taken on new meanings?
Resonance was one of the tests, especially with the early work, but also continuity. “In Khabarovsk,” which appeared in my first book, is a short piece written about an experience I had while traveling across the Soviet Union in 1977 on the Trans-Siberian Railway. Thirty years later, I published a much longer poem, “History,” in my sixth book, that is also about the Trans-Siberian trip. While the first poem was imagistic and romantic, the second explored the role I had in making friends on the train, and then carrying out a task for him when I returned to the States, with a former Nazi and, I came to learn, a Holocaust denier. As a young poet, I had access to the romance of the experience but it took decades for me to come to some understanding of my relationship to it in terms of history and my own sense of who I am.
Michael Collier’s book “The Missing Mountain: New and Selected Poems” is available at The Vermont Book Shop in Middlebury. You can get a signed copy if you order a book by Oct. 15; Collier will be signing copies on the 16th (unfortunately due to COVID protocols, this won’t be an in-person book-signing event).