Volume 12, Issue 33 ~ August 12 -18, 2004
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Crowning a Poet with Laurels
Bay Weekly Interview ~ with Sara E. Leeland Michael Glaser Maryland Poet Laureate

Back in the early 1700s, a young and feisty English merchant named Ebenezer

Cook who published an acidic account of his visit to colonial Maryland named himself Maryland’s first poet laureate.

Cook described Annapolis as “A City Situate on a Plain, Where scarce a House will keep out Rain.” Maryland, he wrote, was made of “Regions waste Where No Man’s Faithful, Nor a Woman Chaste.”

Charles Calvert, the third Lord Baltimore, had commissioned the poem and was distressed. But the satire, called The Sotweed Factor, got read, was re-published in the colonies first in 1730, then again and again, becoming part of Maryland lore. Those who read the work of Maryland novelist John Barth may know the story as part of his book by the same name.

Laureating has changed since the 18th century.

In 1959, the General Assembly made the poetic post official, insisting that the state pick the poet, not the other way around. On August 2 this year, Gov. Robert Ehrlich named the ninth (counting Cook) state poet laureate: Michael S. Glaser of St. Mary’s College of Maryland.

Glaser’s poetic credentials are more sound than Cook’s. He has published over 300 poems. He has anticipated his new, salaryless job, bringing poetry to people through library programs, radio and poetry-in-the-schools. He’s even linked directly back to the upstart Ebenezer: Glaser’s first major book presented the work of poets from the Ebenezer Cook(e) Poetry Festival at St. Mary’s City. Adding a final E, he called it The Cooke Book: A Seasoning of Poets.

Glaser follows a series of other major Maryland poets, including Lucille Clifton, now also of St. Mary’s College but then of Coppin State College and George Washington University (1979-1985); Roland Flint of Georgetown University (1995-2000); and Michael Collier of the University of Maryland (2001-2004).

The new laureate operates out of a small, book-cluttered office that looks out toward student dormitories at St. Mary’s College of Maryland. The sign on his door says simply Michael Glaser, poet. Huge files hold information on the long series of poets he’s invited to the Southern Maryland campus. The names themselves cast poetic light into the room: Joy Harjo, Adrienne Rich, W.S. Merwin, Edgar Silex, Mary Oliver and more. Glaser’s students even get to talk with these nationally and internationally known poets.

Glaser answers his own phone. He glares at the computer screen, trying to find the right place to click so he can add more names to his list of contacts. During the academic year, it’s unusual to find him alone. Students with a poem of some sort inside are drawn to him. He responds with seemingly endless attention.

A low-key person, Michael Glaser circulated the announcement of his elevation to friends with the short note and the heading: “May be of interest.”

To see what’s behind the official crowning of this poet with laurels, Sara E. Leeland drove to St. Mary’s City to that very office to interview Michael Glaser.

Bay Weekly Becoming a poet isn’t on the list of occupations usually suggested to young people. How did you decide to become a poet?

Michael Glaser I’ve always been attracted to the arts. What I love most about writing is the crafting of language to get it as close as I can to what I want it to be.

I spent a lot of time alone as a child growing up in Chicago, and I treasured the imaginary world opened up by reading about Mike Mulligan’s steam shovel and the Little Engine that Could. Then there was Johnny Appleseed, traveling across the county, giving away what he loved. And, later, writers like [theologian] Martin Buber with his idea of “speaking with one’s whole being.”

But I didn’t really start writing poetry until I was in graduate school at Kent State University in Ohio. I think it became a kind of positive addiction, the way running is for some people.

The 1960s were tumultuous and exciting. This was right around the end of the war in Vietnam, and then Watergate. It was a shock to me that maybe my government wasn’t telling me the truth. Poetry helped me give voice to experiences that troubled me. I began to feel I was living in a community of writers, of seekers, of people who were questioning, trying to find truth and come to some understanding of living in an increasingly international community and interdependent world.

Back then, people still thought that poets should not write about anything political. Denise Levertov was criticized for her poems about the war in Vietnam. But others were saying, Wait a second. Art is not separate from life.

Wanting more than hope
I turn to poetry for revelation,
Instruction for my spirit,
Courage for my re-awakening soul.
—Friends Journal and A Lover’s Eye

Bay Weekly It must be wonderful to think of words as art?
Michael Glaser Absolutely. Art is important in seeking truth, and it demands humility because of never ever being able to get it just right. Really reaching the truth is a much larger process than any one poem.

Bay Weekly What happens to you when a poem arises?
Michael Glaser An idea occurs to me or an experience, and it calls to me. It’s a clear call: Write that down. Something resonates, like a musical instrument with a string vibrating or the ping of a bell. I know that there’s something to explore here. So I do that.

Arm
Yesterday I studied the contour
of a man’s arm at a stoplight.
The light was long, the arm deep brown
and curved like an old banister.
I looked at my own arm, wondering why I never noticed it.
—The Cooke Book: A Seasoning of Poets

Bay Weekly Do you think that your poems call others to explore their own experiences?
Michael Glaser I’m very gratified with the response from both fathers and mothers to my latest book, On Being a Father. One woman told me “We take so many pictures of our children, to save the moment. But these words have helped me remember even more than the pictures.”

The idea of being a poet is so shrouded in mystery, often with negative connotations: It’s poetry, I don’t understand it. I think a poem in that book can evoke the parent in readers, the whole emotional realm inside that we have a hard time honoring in our culture. It evokes a sharing of our humanness.

This Morning
This morning, at 7:15am
I watched my youngest child
get into our car, back it into the street
and drive two tons of danger
toward her school.
The sun had barely risen.
—Being a Father

photo courtesy of Michael Glaser
Poets Allen Ginsberg and Lucille Clifton on campus at St. Mary's College for a poetry reading, with Michael Glaser.
Bay Weekly You’ve been a poet here at St. Mary’s College for upward of 30 years. What have you learned about the role of the poet in our society?
Michael Glaser There are many roles. One is to remind us of our human generosity and frailty. To remind us that our spiritual and emotional lives matter — and perhaps matter more importantly than the work-oriented aspects of our lives. The artist reminds us that love matters. When we take time to experience art, we take time to remember that.

A Blessing for Children
Blessed be our children
who take us out of ourselves,
who teach us
even as they grow from us.
—Greatest Hits: 1975-2000

Bay Weekly Could poets bring something to the concern and action for the health of Chesapeake Bay?
Michael Glaser Yes. The arts can help people make connections. Somebody was telling me yesterday about how many people can’t see the connection between our lives and the Chesapeake Bay. I thought, What if, for a day, we just could plug up all those water-connections? Plug up every place where waste is being poured into the Bay? Plug up every place where we’re taking water out? Stop the taking of seafood out of the Bay? We’d be in trouble.

I am witnessing the desecration of the shoreline
the Army Corps of Engineers was sent to save.
Jobs for the Corps,
and for the wealthy, more shore —
ringed with rock to keep the waves
and common folk off. …

more and more
to protect the shore
from storm and tides
and winds that blow
as if we could somehow stop
the breathing, the ebb and rise
of nature’s constant flow.
—Water

From the positive side, I think the Calvert seahorses displayed around the county are terrific. They remind people how beautiful these creatures are. They might lead us to ask What are we rushing for? Where are we going? What are we leaving behind for our grandchildren?

Bay Weekly The seahorses were painted by school children. Do you think the message is special because it’s from children?
Michael Glaser I agree with Tom Wisner that children are more able to understand the connection between the natural world and their own lives than adults who haven’t thought about it. So they’re reminders. In our busyness, we can forget our responsibility to our children, the legacy we’re leaving behind environmentally and socially.

The seahorses are dependent on the sea grasses, which are dependent on what we humans do, interfering with the Bay’s own ability to nurture itself.

Bay Weekly Do you hope to evoke more poetry in the schools?
Michael Glaser Part of what’s important is to get children to write. But it’s also important to share with children the wonderful poems that already exist. There are many fine, fine poems that elementary school children can read. I think poetry has been made difficult. A lot of poems say what they say with easy readability. We can find strength in our humanity by reading poetry that honors who we are.

In my poetry, I celebrate my back yard, seahorses, the beach I go to in the summer, my mother, my dog, my kids. This is who I am. For students, it can be recognizing that I’m someone who likes to sit alone at night and stare at the stars and wonder what it’s all about. Or I’m somebody who’s in love with a girl who doesn’t even recognize me.

A Blessing for the Woods
Let me stop to say a blessing for the woods:
for crows barking and squirrels scampering,
for trees and fungus and multi-
colored leaves,

for the way sunlight laces shadows
through each branch and leaf of tree,
for these paths that take me in
for these paths that lead me out.
—Christian Science Monitor & Greatest Hits 1975-2000

Bay Weekly After 34 years of teaching, with multiple terms as department chair and division head, you’re still highly energized. Has poetry helped you sustain your interest in teaching and in life?
Michael Glaser When you’re young and go to college, you keep trying to find all the answers. Then, at some point in time, you realize that there aren’t final answers.

The great joy of always learning is deeper perception of life, of human relationships, of how and why things change. Our challenge, it seems to me, is to walk the walk of peace, positive energy, and to put that energy into the world. I don’t see bitter people accomplishing much.

Bay Weekly What poets do you read?
Michael Glaser I treasure [Pulitzer Prize winner] Mary Oliver’s work. T.S. Eliot’s Four Quartets enriches me over and over again. I’ve been reading Hafiz and Rumi, the Sufi poets, with appreciation for the gentle humor and spirituality of their work. Galway Kinnell has always been a favorite poet. Children poets in the school astonish me. There are hundreds of thousands of people writing excellent poems who just aren’t known.

Bay Weekly If people feel a lack of community around them, would gathering poetry and sharing it be a way to build a community?
Michael Glaser There’s a line from Harvard philosopher Josiah Royce that says: If you can’t find the beloved community, create it!

The person that brought me that quote was Charlie Hewitt. He was then head of the St. Mary’s Arts Council and a wonderful artist. He really did create community through the arts council. He encouraged me to do that and to pick up on the Ebenezer Cooke poetry festival. To create a place where poets feel welcome is valuable.

It’s essential to value differences. There is no single right way to live. If we can honor how astonishing it is that each person does things in his or her own way, then what a wonderful world it can be.

It took three years to teach my son
not to say that things or people were weird.
“Unusual, Daniel, or different,” I’d repeat
over and over to his 9 then 10, then 11 year ears.

Trying as best I could to help him value differences …
—A Lover’s Eye

photo courtesy of Michael Glaser
Michael, far right, and his family, from left, Kathy, Eva, Brian, Amira, Dan, Josh and daughter-in-law Jamie.
Bay Weekly What are some of the influences that shaped your life as a poet?
Michael Glaser My wife, Kathy; my children, my students; the opportunity to be teaching for almost 40 years now. Students keep you alive. There are also gentle kinds of things, opportunities that different people created for me. My being able to take over the Oxford Program at St. Mary’s College opened travel for me and the opportunity to experience different cultures and meet new people. I treasure people who have passion in their lives.

There have been so many people whose work I read. I took encouragement, for example, from Martin Luther King’s statement that “I cannot stand in your place and you cannot stand in mine. But there is nothing to stop us from shouting encouragement to each other!”

Bay Weekly You’re known for your May literary festivals and workshops. Are they an influence on you?
Michael Glaser Having two weeks to do nothing but writing, in a community of writers that you’re involved with: Yes, that has been very helpful. On weekends, for example, we begin the day with morning poems — a shared wake-up. It’s a lovely meditative way to enter into the day. In the workshops, people discuss their writing. We do exercises that lead to poems. We connect to the other arts, especially music, in the evening events.

For me, it comes down to what I call the important things: love and community, celebrating our uniqueness as human beings. Art is about that. It asks us: “What are you doing with your life?”

Mary Oliver’s poem that ends with the line —Tell me, what are you going to do with one wild and precious life? — says it all. The job of the poet is to ask that question, not to answer it.

Bay Weekly Is there a poem growing about becoming poet laureate?
Michael Glaser Indeed. I have the first lines:

On my first day of being poet laureate,
the stock market fell 56 points.

I am truly grateful for the opportunity to be a more vocal advocate for the quality of life and spirit that poetry can bring to our world.
p

Michael Glaser can be reached at msglaser@smcm.edu.
Publications of Maryland’s Poet Laureate

Michael Glaser’s poems have been published in periodicals and anthologies such as The Spoon River Quarterly, The Christian Century, The Christian Science Monitor, The American Scholar, Piedmont Literary Review, Friend’s Journal and the Center for the Chesapeake Story’s Water. His books are:

• The Cooke Book: A Seasoning of Poets. College Park, Md.: SCOP Publications, 1987.
• A Lover’s Eye. Washington, D.C.: The Bunny and the Crocodile Press, 1989.
• Weavings 2000: The Maryland Millennial Anthology. Maryland Commission for Celebration 2000.
• Greatest Hits: 1975-2000. Johnstown, Ohio: Pudding House Publications, 2001.
• Being a Father. Washington, D.C.: The Bunny and the Crocodile Press, 2004.

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