An Interview with Michael Glaser

An interview with Michael Glaser (b. 1943) by Susan Thornton Hobby, originally published in 2007 in Little Patuxent Review.

Think of Michael Glaser as the Johnny Appleseed of poetry. For the past three years, as Maryland’s Poet Laureate, Glaser has voyaged from the mountains to the shores of the Old Line State, dropping seeds of Rumi and Whitman, of Mary Oliver and Lucille Clifton.

Overblown analogies aside, Glaser does consider himself a sort of poetry missionary for Marylanders, hoping to reawaken a love of literature. He was smitten in college, when he read T.S. Eliot’s “The Love Song of J. Alfred Prufrock,” identifying with its iconic, tentative, “Do I dare to eat a peach?” protagonist. After picking English as his major and graduating from Denison University in his native Chicago, Glaser received both his master’s and doctorate in literature at Kent State University.

And for the last 37 years, Glaser has taught creative writing and literature at St. Mary’s College of Maryland. Though he’s planning to retire at the end of this academic year, he’s now the chair of the English department, where he co-founded the college’s literary festival and its reading series. So when Glaser addresses audiences, he is fully the college professor. He reads his own poems and the work of other poets, ruminates of the importance of poetry in today’s Google and iPhone world, and even guides audiences through writing a poem on the spot.

To write his own work, Glaser keeps notebooks, in which he records observances: the scrawled marginalia in a used Old Man and the Sea, the fold of his new baby’s ear, the curve of his wife’s cheek as she reads. Then he takes those literary snapshots and shapes them into poems.

His works include A Lover’s Eye (The Bunny & Crocodile Press), and In the Men’s Room and Other Poems, which was the winner of the 1996 Painted Bride Quarterly chapbook competition. His most recent collection of poems, Being a Father, was published in July 2004. Glaser has also edited two anthologies of Maryland poets, The Cooke Book (1989) and Weavings 2000: The Maryland Millennial Anthology. His next publication will be a chapbook, Fire Before the Hands, due out from Anabiosis Press in the spring.

He lives in St. Mary's City with his wife, Kathleen, and is the father of five grown children, Brian, Joshua, Daniel, Amira and Eva, and four grandchildren -- Ada, Allie, Caleb, and Lucy.


Susan Thornton Hobby: What can poetry do for our increasingly complex, hurried lives?

Michael Glaser: For me, it helps remind me daily about the choices I am making, how often I allow myself to get caught up in the chaos of our consumer-oriented lifestyle. I listen to Mary Oliver asking me: “tell me, what is it you plan to do / with your one wild and precious life?” I listen to Lucille Clifton urging, “oh pray that what we want / is worth this running / pray that what we’re running toward / is what we want.”

Poetry can remind us of the choices that are ours to make, it can help us examine what we are doing and think about what is most important to us. It can be our friend in the process of making the decisions that the pressures of modern life place on us.

STH: One of the poems you have published was about poetry itself, published on the cover of Friends Journal [the magazine for American Society of Friends, also known as Quakers], concluding that poetry was the "unexpected surprise of Beauty's human face." Can you talk about the role of poetry in your life? And I'm just curious, why Friends Journal?

MG: Both reading and writing poetry I often find that good poems, no matter the subject and no matter the emotion, connect me more deeply to my own humanness and thus connect me more fully to the world in which we all live. That is the human face I think I am speaking of. “Beauty is truth, truth beauty” Keats wrote. Bruce Weigl wrote, “Say it clearly and you make it beautiful, no matter what.” The complexities and ambiguities of being human absorb me. They contain “beauty’s human face.”

The Society of Friends has been important to my spirit. I value opportunities I have had, mostly in England, to share silence with Friends. If you asked me what religion I am, I would say Jewish; if you asked me what religion I embrace I would say with Whitman, “I embrace multitudes.”

STH: You've talked about poetry calling you to be present in the moment, to be awake to the world. Can you speak about the awareness that poetry requires of you, both as a reader and a writer?

MG: I think this is part of the same process – when I am “present” I am also open to possibilities and to seeing in new ways. I experience without judgment. I think this is essential to the artist. Stanley Kunitz spoke of living life as fully as one can and “reporting out” on the experience.

STH: How do you find time to write? What's your process?

MG: I don’t think one “finds” time to write – I think one makes time. Discovering this has made a lot of difference for me. Maybe when I retire I will find time. Until then, life makes too many demands and the muse’s voice is so sweet and understanding that her call is often drowned out – so the call has to come from within. I find that I need to make time – establish writing as a priority in my life, let other things slide. I try to be aware of the power of the “shoulds” yammering away in my ears. I try to be aware of the hungers of my spirit, its needs, its lonely crying out for attention.

STH: Does the iambic structure restrict or free you, or both?

MG: I’d say it challenges me – I try to feel my way into understanding the rhythm of language a poem wants – when I have discovered that, then the structures become a wonderful challenge to get things right. I think it is the poem that determines what “right” is – not some external, structural belief system.

STH: You speak about being the poet laureate as being Maryland's poetry missionary — is that a difficult job? Why is it an important job?

MG: Much of what I enjoy about being Poet Laureate of Maryland is that I am invited to share with others why and how it is that I find poetry so astonishingly vital and useful. I treasure the opportunity to share my experiences with poetry, to share with others some of the poems that I love, the processes of thinking about poetry, and of writing about those things that matter most essentially to us.

STH: How does teaching affect your writing?

MG: I think that both good teaching and good writing require an authentic and very “present” relationship with the material before us. I hope I bring the same self to my classroom that I try to bring to my poetry – someone who is open, curious, and genuine.

STH: Has your relationship with poetry changed over the years?

MG: The more I have been able to move away from my own “schooling” and from my own ego, the more I have been finding what Walter Kauffman speaks of in his introduction to Martin Buber’s I and Thou: I learn more and more to feel addressed by the voice in the poem – “the voice of a thou, speaking to me, requiring a response.” Poetry – all good art I think -- offers an intimacy that is rarely found in everyday discourse. In fact, I think most people are somewhat afraid of risking such intimacy. Artists – at least in their art -- are not. In fact their art demands it of them. I have grown to treasure the kind of authentic humanity I find in such art, such poetry.

STH: Your poetry is frequently about relationships, your family, your observations of the natural and human world. I noticed with "April Thoughts," a creeping in of current events — I suppose it can't help but creep in with your teaching at a college. Is that a change in your work?

MG: I think my work is often connected to current events. My relationships with members of my family are interwoven with current events. To write about my family’s Passover Seder is to write also about the anger and frustration in the Middle East. To write about lighting the Sabbath candles is also to explore the daily frenzy of the world we live in. To write about my grandchildren is to write a prayer for the future. To write about loving my wife is to grieve for those who have lost their loved ones, especially through violence. To write about the natural world is also to acknowledge the fear of the eco-terrorism that is being committed all over the globe.

STH: What do you plan after your impending retirement from teaching?

MG: In the words of Paul Simon, I plan to continue to continue. I look forward to the opportunities retirement will create. I don’t believe I will ever stop writing, thinking, being involved in education, loving my family. I’m excited to see what shape and form that will take.

© Susan Thornton Hobby, 2007. All rights reserved.