Friday, May 14, 2010

Michael Collier

Michael Collier is the author of five books of poems: The Clasp and Other Poems; The Folded Heart; The Neighbor; The Ledge, a finalist for the National Book Critics Circle Award and the Los Angeles Times Book Prize; and most recently, Dark Wild Realm. He is also co-editor, along with Charles Baxter and Edward Hirsch, of A William Maxwell Portrait. His translation of Euripides’s Medea appeared in 2006 and a collection of essays, Make Us Wave Back, in 2007. Collier has received Guggenheim and Thomas Watson fellowships, two National Endowment for the Arts fellowships, a "Discovery"/The Nation Award, the Alice Fay di Castagnola Award from the Poetry Society of America, a Pushcart Prize, and an Academy Award in Literature from the American Academy of Arts and Letters. Poet Laureate of Maryland from 2001–2004, he teaches in the Creative Writing Program at the University of Maryland and is the director of the Bread Loaf Writers’ Conference. He lives in Catonsville, Maryland.


Cars could reach the mountain’s saddle,
a notch between two peaks, and there
survey the grid of lighted streets,
a bursting net of beads and sequins,
a straining movement cruising for release.

“As far as the eye could see,” though
few cared to look, was across the valley
to the other mountain, whose ridge
stood gaffed with broadcast towers, bright
harpoons quivering out our songs.

“Oh, wouldn’t it be nice,” the Beach boys
harmonized. And it was. Sometimes I saw
the Milky Way invade the grid, Andromeda,
Draco, and great Betelgeuse bridging
the avenues and lanes, filling up acres

of empty parking lots. Sometimes I stared
powerfully into space where glowworms
of matter spun in pinwheels of gas.
What did it mean to be alive?
a voice asked. What did it mean

to have a voice speaking from inside?
Once I found a cockpit canopy from
a fighter jet in my neighbor’s yard,
where it had fallen from the sky.
No one ever claimed it, such a large,

specific, useless thing, like the shoe
a giant leaves behind, like a mountain
from childhood—missing or pulverized—
it leaves a shape that once you see it
overwhelms the mind or makes a cloud

that is the shape of what the mountain was,
the sea floor covered with the sea.
“Oh, wouldn’t it be nice,” I used to sing
and the mountains all around me answered
but not the question I had asked.

When was this poem composed? How did it start?

I started writing “The Missing Mountain” on June 14, 2002 and, at least according to the last draft of it I have, I finished it July 10, 2003. I had made earlier but unsatisfactory attempts to write about a place I used to hang out on weekend nights with high school friends in Phoenix, Arizona, where I was born. The place was a saddle formed between two hills in the shadow of what was then called Squaw Peak, just off 12th Street, north of Northern Avenue. If you had a jeep, like one of my friends had, you could drive right up to the saddle and park. What you saw from it were the lights of the so-called Valley of the Sun running out to the south, east, and west—a huge twinkling, sparkling spectacle of lights. Overhead the sky was hammered full of stars, and if you turned north, away from the city, you reckoned with the tinny, jewel-like, spillage of the Milky Way. Sometimes we would go up there and drink beer and smoke dope, but often enough we just went for the vista and stood around scuffing the ground and spitting. The good thing, looking back, about being a teenage guy, especially in a place like Phoenix, Arizona, was that silence was a mode of comprehension, and for some of us it was the only evidence of intelligence.

And speaking about intelligence, it had always been my perception that the saddle was inside the boundary of municipal Phoenix North Mountain Park and therefore protected from development, and so, in 1979, when I was visiting Phoenix to attend a retirement party for my father, which happened to be in the vicinity of the saddle, I decided to swing by for a nostalgic view and was stunned to find that it no longer existed. The saddle, and the two hills that contributed to its formation, had been dynamited, leveled, and graded by developers who wanted to take advantage of the view. When you grow up in a place like Phoenix, where you can graduate from Arizona State with a B.S. in Residential Construction, and where development is the State’s most significant industry, not much surprises you when it comes to the destruction of the natural landscape, even so the erasure of this spot, which had been for my friends and me a kind of fulcrum between the virally-spreading but sublime electric lights of the city and the dark, oceanic, star-strewn vastness that lay behind us, was shocking.

This has been a long winded way to talk about how the poem started, and its’ only half of the story. The other half of the poem’s impetus is tied to another childhood event—the mysterious, and still unexplained, appearance in the front yard of 2209 W. Mulberry Drive, my address for the first eighteen years of my life, of a fighter jet cockpit canopy. I was about eight years old, and I remember walking around the huge, upturned, clear, but very thick, plexi-glass object that lay between two mulberry trees that grew in the yard. I tried to move it by myself but it was too heavy and so I divulged the discovery to a pair of brothers, Timmy and Tommy Thompson, a few years older than me, who lived behind my house, across the alley. Like me, they walked around it only a little less puzzled than I, before suggesting we drag it to their house, which we did, and where they immediately claimed ownership, although they said I could come see it any time I wanted.

We tried to invent uses for the sky-fallen gift, but the only one that was practical and fun was filling it up with water and then sitting in it as Timmy and Tommy rocked the ends with their feet or spun you around. I remember trying to break it by hammering with increasingly larger hammers, which the Thompson brothers seemed to have a good supply of, but no hammer of any size ever cracked, dented or chipped it. Mainly it was an exercise in avoiding the hammer as it rebounded off the glass in the vicinity of your forehead. It only took a few months to exhaust our interest in the canopy, after which it became a decade-long feature of the Thompson’s backyard. The strange gratuity of that object, like an icon jettisoned from a cargo cult, has never left me. I still ponder it, and now, in the mist of more than fifty years that shrouds its appearance, I wonder if it really existed. But it did.

How many revisions did this poem undergo? How much time elapsed between the first and final drafts?

There are fourteen drafts of “The Missing Mountain.” I put a lot of initial work into the poem, using a staggered, three-line stanza initially, before settling on a five-line stanza made up of eight syllables, more or less, per line. I did not count the syllables so much as I followed my ear. The initial three drafts don’t mention the cockpit canopy, but when I came back to the poem after three months, in October, it makes an appearance in draft number four, which allowed the poem to gain some much needed lift and energy, and, I hope, strangeness. I must have been happy or even thrilled when it showed up, but I don’t remember.

In the poem, I say the canopy fell in my neighbor’s yard, which isn’t exactly true, but where the thing actually fell, give or take thirty feet, doesn’t have much to do with where the poem goes or how I use the detail. When I returned to the poem in October, I incorporated a bunch of lines I’d written in the margins of the last draft as well as lines I’d written on a blank sheet of paper. I do a lot of this kind of scribbling around and behind the drafts. I like drawing lines, arrows, insert carets, strike outs, etc., because it’s a form of working the surface of the poem; it’s a physical activity that helps me think through the problems the poem is posing. It also makes the poem malleable and elastic.

The October draft, with the first appearance of the cockpit canopy, was composed, like all of my early drafts, on a manual, portable typewriter, an Olympia, which I’ve worked on for more than thirty years. (Thanks to e-bay, I now have three back ups of the same model.) I don’t transfer a poem to the computer until I feel confident that it’s almost finished. But oddly, the next draft, December 5, 2002, was done on the computer, which makes me think there is a draft or two missing or that I did some work in my head, which is something that occasionally happens, and it was directly transferred to the computer text. At the bottom of this draft, I’ve penned in the date, December 24, 2002, and made a very small change in the final line.

Did you let anyone see drafts of this poem before you finished it? Is there an individual or a group of individuals with whom you regularly share work?

I must have felt the poem was finished, and so I sent it to Tom Sleigh, who is someone I’ve been sending my poems to for more than thirty years. When he returned it, he appended a one-word comment after the last line: “and.” There’s no question mark, no ellipses, or any other mark that might help to decipher his response, but I know he means, and go on or and isn’t there more? I hate it when I get that kind of comment because it means I’ve turned away from the poem too soon and that the problem isn’t necessarily with the ending, although this time it turned out to be. I’m not sure how much time lapsed before I started working in response to Sleigh’s cryptic suggestion, but on April 5, I filled a sheet of paper with new lines, one of which repeats the Beach Boys refrain, “Oh wouldn’t it be nice,” which becomes the beginning of the 3rd line of an additional stanza. I make a couple of very small changes after the new stanza is written but otherwise the poem is finished.

How long after you finished this poem did it first appear in print?

I didn’t send it out for publication until sometime in 2005, at least two years after completing the last draft, and then it was published in the Kenyon Review, Spring 2006. Four years from writing to publication is not unusual for one of my poems. I don’t have any rules about this, but such a languorous turnover rate is in keeping with the slow and deliberate approach I’ve developed over the years. I want the sentences to be as interesting, complicated and lucid as possible, and, for me, this takes time. Some writers think of composition as taxidermy, but, generally, I find it a strain to read poems that drown in their own watery facility. I prefer poems that find their transcendence and sublimity in the details of the natural world and in the sloppy mess of social interactions. In the end, there’s not one right way of producing poems. What matters is that we write the poems we are capable of writing. Some of us will write poems that have dark glass eyes and long snouts and hang on walls, and some of us will write poems that spread through neighborhoods like a thin sheet of irrigation water.

Do you remember who you were reading when you wrote this poem? Any influences you’d care to disclose?

If there’s an influence lurking behind “The Missing Mountain” it’s likely to be the “huge and mighty forms” of Wordsworth’s boat stealing scene, Book I of The Prelude.

Was this poem finished or abandoned?

It was abandoned many times until it was finished. I’ve tried to write poems that get at the experience of living in Phoenix, a city named after a mythical bird that rose from the ashes of the flames that consumed it, but I’ve found it difficult. I was never in love with my hometown or with the romance of origins, at least I don’t think I was. Phoenix was named after the mythological bird because an ancient civilization--the Anazazi—had once occupied the same area and, in fact, canals and ditches they had engineered had been revived and so a modern city was established on the site of an old one. When I return to Phoenix to visit my family, I can still surprise people at the airport car rental desks by the fact that I’m a native Phoenician. Almost sixty years after I was born, the idea of an indigenous population in Phoenix strikes even people who live there as odd, so great is its character as a place for transients and transfer.

Do you have any particular audience in mind when you write, an ideal reader?

The only audience I have in mind when I write is that part of myself that is the reader of my poems, which is oddly outside the part of me that writes the poems. I feel them as distinctive entities. The part of me that writes the poem can push back from the desk with immense satisfaction at produced something, but the part of me that reads it, silently or out loud, usually out loud, can tell fairly quickly if it’s plausible.

[Note: “The Missing Mountain” is from Dark Wild Realm, Houghton Mifflin, 2006.]


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