Poet Laureate: At 66, Michael S. Glaser has never been so prolific

Glaser, poet laureate, has taken the next step

Friday, April 3, 2009

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"For me, writing is a centering process," says Michael S. Glaser, "and when I am centered, I am most fully alive. That's where I really like to live." Poet Laureate of Maryland since 2004, Glaser's work took off at St. Mary's College, where he was a professor for 38 years.

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The shades drawn on the window to fend off a gray, rainy day, Michael S. Glaser's disposition is decidedly sunny as he turns away from a poem on his computer screen and shares an old saying among poets:

"A poem is never finished, it is merely abandoned."

Glaser's recent musings about this saying have been percolating in a poem which has survived several drafts, and while it is still too early to say whether the poem will ever be finished or abandoned or achieve both states at the same time, the work-in-progress reveals Glaser building an existential fire while issuing himself a challenge to stalk the "incorrigible dark" like he never has.

"A poem is never finished, it is merely abandoned."

Glaser, Poet Laureate of Maryland for five years, might be thinking about these words because he has never had so much time to write.

While his decision to retire last year after 38 years as a professor at St. Mary's College is not as newsworthy, in a sense, as the post awarded to him by former Governor Robert L. Ehrlich Jr. five years ago, Glaser believes retiring from teaching can provide him the time and the space to — believe it or not — fulfill his potential.

"My passion has always been teaching," he says. "My first priority is my family, and then it was teaching and then writing. Retiring is cool for me because it gives me time to change that dynamic. I really feel that I've never had a chance to see how good a writer I can be. I've been dillydallying around it for 40-some years."

He still spends just as many hours in his small office packed with books, but it has never been the office of a full-time poet.

Glaser is 66, and yet it is like talking to a young man who has recently made contact with the writer or writers who will inspire him to take his own leap into the abyss. Only Glaser has already been there (and even made it work), and now he's ready to do it again, this time with nothing to lose.

Born in Chicago, Glaser graduated from Denison University in Ohio and went on to Kent State University to pursue a doctorate in English in the late 1960s. Surrounded by a vibrant community of writers, Glaser began writing poetry and, "in a glancing kind of way," dabbling in the politics of the era — Students for a Democratic Society, anti-war protests, civil rights activism.

He was on campus May 4, 1970, when members of the Ohio National Guard shot and killed four students and wounded 9 more.

"I was sure they were blanks," Glaser says. "We were all sure they were blanks."

As a member of the American Civil Liberties Union, he began taking testimony from witnesses. It was a wake-up call, he says.

But Glaser was applying for jobs, and he landed one at St. Mary's College. He moved here. He stayed here. He developed as a poet.

"Looking back on [early poems], some of it is kind of embarrassing," he says. "One of the things I've treasured about St. Mary's is that there was plenty of space for me to develop slowly. If I were at a higher-pressure school, I think I would have felt, ‘I need to write like this, I need to write like that,' and I feel really good about this long process I've been engaged in to have my own voice. My writing, I think, is authentic. I don't think it's the poetry that most professors are writing, right? It's not the kind of writing that most famous poets write, but I like it. It's mine."

Glaser's poetry is daring in its simplicity. It is accessible, straightforward and, as it turns out, apolitical. In graduate school he says he took Wordsworth's advice to write in the language of the common man, and while his time at Kent State continues to influence his worldview, Glaser is at his best when writing about nature or his love for his family — his wife Kathleen and five children.

"I think I have probably written a lot of political poetry and not published much because it stinks," he says.

As poet laureate, Glaser has spent lots of time trying to demystify poetry through readings. He recites from his own books and chapbooks but also from the work of William Stafford, Mary Oliver and former Poet Laureate of Maryland Lucille Clifton. Like a salesman, he has hawked the idea that poetry is not just for academics, that reading it does not require intensive study.

His poems begin in spiral notebooks. When the pages are full, he breaks out a new one. And when there is time, or when he is ready, Glaser mines the pages for jewels, types them out and prints them.

He refines them more, types them again, prints them again and continues revising. "For me, it's a long process," he says.

When he is working well, Glaser fills a notebook every two or three months. He writes in the morning, the ideas sparked by what he is reading. It could be physics or theology or history.

The last step is to ask a poem what it wants.

Clifton says get out of the way. Stafford says let the poem decide.

"To me, part of the revision process is that this poem on the page has its own life," he says. "How do I honor that? You think of it almost like, and this might be a very dangerous analogy, raising children. You hold an infant in your hand and that child is totally dependent on you. And the whole rest of your life is the process of letting go and then honoring the otherness of your child — if you're good and lucky."

If he has a model right now it might be St. Mary's College's classical pianist Brian Ganz. They used to live in the same neighborhood, and Glaser would observe his friend's intense practice schedule.

Glaser leans over in his chair and whispers with great force:

"Now what the hell kind of writer could I be if I wrote for five or six hours a day?"

If you go

Michael S. Glaser and Neal Dwyer will deliver readings at 7:30 p.m. April 3 at the College of Southern Maryland, 8730 Mitchell Road, La Plata. Call 301-934-7828, 301-870-3008, 240-725-5499 or 443-550-6199.