Editor and director of the prestigious Bread Loaf Writers’ Conference since 1995, poet Michael Collier has long been an influential member of the writing and teaching community. About teaching poetry he has said, “I think poetry does have this ability to help us deal with things that aren’t black and white and make our thinking more subtle.” Collier is the author of five poetry collections and editor of three anthologies.
He grew up in Phoenix, Arizona, studied at Connecticut College and the University of Arizona and has received numerous awards for his poetry, including fellowships from the Guggenheim Foundation, the National Endowment for the Arts, and a Thomas Watson Fellowship. From 2001 to 2004 he served as Maryland’s poet laureate. He has taught for many years at the University of Maryland, is married and the father of two sons.
Collier writes his poetry in a studio above the detached garage of a brown shingled home in Catonsville, Maryland. First drafts are hammered out on one of several old garage sale typewriters—a habit from youthful days in Phoenix. In recalling those years the poet says, “I remember very distinctly when writing became more than just keeping a diary and more than just trying to characterize an emotional state. There was a little bit of technological intervention." Collier received an electric typewriter as a graduation gift from his parents, a Royal typewriter and no doubt the result of an uncle working for the company. “Every day I would put a sheet of paper in it, and I would fill it up with words,” says Collier, recalling that he started without any kind of goal other than trying to fill a page every day, subject never important and never going back to revise. “It was the joy of feeling language come out on the page.”
The poem “Robert Wilson” first appeared in The Atlantic Monthly in August of 1990 and was later included in the 1995 book of poems, The Neighbor. The story in the poem certainly has shades of being created from the poet’s own experience, possibly built upon a recollection of his high school days at Brophy College Preparatory.
Though he is dead now and his miracle
will do us no good, I must remind myself
of what he gave, plainly,
and without guile, to all of us on the crumbling
flood-gutted bank of the Verde River
as we watched him, the fat boy,
the last one to cross, ford the violent shallows.
And how we provided him the occasion for his grace
tying his black tennis shoes to a bamboo fishing pole
and dangling them, like a simple bait,
out of reach, jerking them higher each time he rose
from his terrified crouch in the middle
of the shin-high rapids churning beneath him,
like an anger he never expressed.
And yet what moved us was not his earnestness
in trying to retrieve his shoes, nor his willingness
to be the butt of our jokes. What moved us
was how the sun struck the gold attendance star
pinned on the pocket flap of his uniform
as he fell head first
into the water and split his face,
a gash he quickly hid with his hands,
though blood leaked through his fingers as he stood
straight in the river and walked deftly toward us
out of the water to his shoes
that lay abandoned at our feet.