Life and Work
Teacher, Poet, fiction writer, essayist and memoirist, Colleen McElroy began her life in St. Louis where she lived until relocating after her parents divorced. Her mother married an army sergeant in 1943, which began McElroy’s traveling experience. By her early twenties, she had lived in such places as Germany, Wyoming, and Kansas City, where she received her bachelor of science degree.
She furthered her education at the University of Pittsburgh where she studied in their speech and language program. After this, she returned to Kansas City where she did graduate work in neurological and language learning patterns. Then moving to Washington State, she became the director of Speech and Hearing Services at Western Washington University. She earned her Ph.D. in ethnolinguistic patterns of dialect differences and oral traditions from the University of Washington and taught English there. In 1983, she became the first Black woman to be promoted to full professor at that University.
When McElroy began exploring writing in her mid thirties, she was influenced by such African American writers as Langston Hughes, Robert Hayden, and Gwendolyn Brooks. Her works are often also influenced by her journeys, both physical and mental, drawing on the landscapes that she has seen. About this influence, she once told one of her students “you’ll probably always write from where you aren’t, you’ll write from elsewhere, and the past landscapes you’ve known will filter in somewhere down the road.” Her varied careers have led her to many successes such as publishing fourteen books, being editor-in-chief of the literary magazine the Seattle Review, and being the recipient of numerous awards. However, she does not count these as successes, She “finds success in a much simpler and less anguishing manner: in becoming a member of a community of writers and remaining true to her literary vision and unique way of using the music of language” (“Walking”).
Colleen McElroy is a woman of broad experience, interests and skills; therefore her works take on a range of subjects. Since 1973 McElroy has published fourteen books of poetry, two short-story collections, and two poetic memoirs. She has co-written plays as well as television scripts. She has written a text book on language development and some of her works of poetry have been the subject of study in text books. Her works tell of her adventures among the storytellers of Madagascar. They tell of journeys, travels and imagination. They tell of growth and humor. In all her writing, McElroy draws from the specifics of her immediate surroundings and personal experiences which allows her to have an emotional investment in it. And because she has an emotional investment in her work, she is passionate about what she writes.
One way she expresses this passion is through her play with words. During an interview she explained that she has “to have some investment in the subject” because it “allows you to play with language in ways that you can’t play with language if you’re writing about [something like] death (“Walking”). The poem, “Caution: This Woman Brakes for Memories,” for example, embodies McElroy’s play with language. This poem talks of her memories of her home, and of herself, and of the larger world to expose her growth over time. She writes: “no easy idiot graffiti of girl / into gril, but loan / into god and home into bog (Traveling Music 87). In these lines, McElroy uses alliteration and assonance by stressing the “g” and “o” sounds in these words. And though her meaning with some of these words such as “bog” and “gril” is indefinite, the way the words roll off the reader’s tongue and slip into alternate and associated forms is suggestive of the theme of transformation, change, and of her passion.
These words show that she pays attention to the subtle effects that the sounds of language can have on the meaning of a poem. As McElroy explained in a conference presentation in 1994, “Words are illusive stuff. They are the clay of writing, the muscle, the orchestra of sounds and palettes of colors. Words hold a wellspring of ambiguity, music and emotion. Each word is like a crystal, faceted to reveal its various shades and tones of meaning. If you look at the crystal through only one angle, the level of nuance is restricted to that facet alone. But turn the crystal slightly and your perspective changes” (qtd. in “Walking”).
When writing, McElroy draws on the details of the actual world that she has seen. And she believes that her experiences traveling have enhanced her ability to notice the world around her. Traveling, according to McElroy, “has been eye-opening,” it “helped me gain a sharper sense of detail” (“Interview with Colleen J. McElroy”). In her short story “Sun, Wind and Water,” this sharp sense of detail serves McElroy’s exploration of the power of nature and what it brings to a lonely fourteen year old girl. For example, in explaining a simple thing like the sun in the sky, she writes “The sun swayed before her, a red ball growing larger and brighter than she had imagined” (Callaloo 11/13 39). In another instance, when describing the sky as the girl watches it, McElroy writes that it “was streaked with light and a few wispy tendrils trailed the edges of the sun like faded pieces of ribbon” (Callaloo 11/13 44).
As “Caution: This Woman Brakes for Memories” and “Sun, Wind and Water” show, McElroy’s artistic abilities with language are impressive and diverse. And clearly, she is a writer who is very interested in exploring the possibilities inherent in the stuff of language itself. Perhaps she said it best when she explained that “you can make language elastic… By making language elastic, I mean you acknowledge there are different ways of saying the same thing, that language is not fixed. You can explore it and use it in different ways” (“Walking”).
But perhaps the most intriguing thing about Colleen McElroy’s writing is its potential to appeal to a wide audience due to the diverse topics she addresses. Being influenced in the beginning of her career by both the Harlem Renaissance and such European American artists as Richard Hugo and Denise Levertov helped her to become an innovator. And her stylistic approach and ability to draw inspiration from her travels makes her works new, unique and very worth reading.
Publications and Awards
By The Author
Books of Poetry
- The Mules Done Long Since Gone. Seattle: Harrison Madrona Center, 1972.
- Music from Home: Selected Poems. Carbondale: Southern Illinois U P, 1976.
- Winters without Snow. New York: I Reed Books. 1979.
- Lie and Say You Love Me. Tacoma: Circinatum, 1981.
- Looking for a Country under Its Original Name. Yakima: Blue Begonia, 1984.
- Queen of the Ebony Isles. Middletown: Wesleyan U P, 1984.
- Bone Flames. Middletown: Wesleyan U P, 1987.
- The Effects of the Moon on Man. Goshen, IN: Broadside, 1987.
- What Madness Brought Me Here: New and Selected Poems, 1968-1988. Middletown: Wesleyan U P, 1990.
- Traveling Music. Ashland: Story Line, 1998.
- Sleeping with the Moon. Urbana: U of Illinois P, 2007.
Books of Short Fiction
- Jesus and Fat Tuesday. Berkeley: Creative Arts, 1987.
- Driving under the Cardboard Pines. Berkeley: Creative Arts, 1990.
- A Long Way from St. Louie: Travel Memoirs. Minneapolis. Coffee House, 1997.
- Over the Lip of the World: Among the Storytellers of Madagascar. Seattle: U of Washington P, 1999.
- “When the Shoe Never Fits: Myth of the Modern Mode.” Poets’ Perspectives: Reading, Writing, and Teaching Poetry. Ed. Charles R. Duke and Sally A. Jacobsen. Portsmouth: Boynton, 1992. 37-46.
- Introduction. The Stenographer’s Breakfast. By Frances McCue. Boston: Beacon Press, 1992.
- “If We Look for Them by Moonlight.” Where We Stand: Women Poets on Literary Tradition. Ed. Bryan Sharon. New York: Norton, 1993. 125-38.
- “Tapestries.” What Will Suffice: Contemporary American Poets on the Art of Poetry. Ed. Christopher Buckley and Christopher Merrill. Salt Lake City: Gibbs-Smith P, 1995.
- “Going Home.” Homeground. Ed. Kathryn Trueblood and Linda Stovall. Berkeley: Blue Heron, 1996.
- “Learning to Swim at Forty-Five.” Splash: Great Writing about Swimming. Ed. Laurel Blossom. Hopewell: Ecco, 1996.
- “Where the Past Takes Us.” New Letters 65.3 (1999): 17-29.
- “Writing Fellini.” Sleeping with One Eye Open: Women Writers and the Art of Survival. Ed. Marilyn Kallet and Judith Ortiz Cofer. Athens: U of Georgia P, 1999. 109.
- “Traveling with White People.” When Race Becomes Real: Black and White Writers Confront Their Personal Histories. Ed. Bernestine Singley. Chicago: Laurence Hill Books, 2002.
- “Where the Past Takes Us.” Face to Face: Women Writers on Faith, Mysticism, and Awakening. Ed. Linda Hogan and Brenda Peterson. New York: North Point P, 2004.
- Ed. and Preface. Page to Page: Retrospectives of Writers from the Seattle Review. Seattle: U of Washington P, 2006.
- African American Review
- Black Warrior Review
- Georgia Review
- Kenyon Review
- Manhattan Review
- Massachusetts Review
- Obisidian III
- Poetry Northwest
- Seneca Review
- Southern Poetry Review
- Wormwood Review
- The African American West: A Century of Short Stories. Ed. Bruce A. Glasrud and Laurie Champion. Boulder: UP of Colorado, 2000.
- Age Ain’t Nothing but a Number: Black Women Explore Midlife. Ed. Carleen Rice. Boston: Beacon P, 2003.
- The Best American Poetry, 2001. Ed. Davis Lehman. New York: Scribner, 2001.
- Breaking Ice: An Anthology of Contemporary African-American Fiction. Ed. Terry McMillan. New York: Viking, 1990.
- Calling the Wind: Twentieth Century African American Short Stories. Ed. Clarence Major. New York: Harper Perennial, 1993.
- Centers of The Self: Stories by Black American Women from The Nineteenth Century to The Present. Ed. Judith A. Hamer and Martin J. Hamer. New York: Hill and Wang, 1994.
- Children of the Night: The Best Short Stories by Black Writers, 1967 to the Present. Ed. Gloria Naylor. Boston: Little Brown, 1995.
- Dreamers and Desperadoes: Contemporary Short Fiction of the American West. Ed. Craig Lesley and Katheryn Stavrakis. New York: Laurel, 1993.
- Edge Walking on the Western Rim: New Works. Ed. Bob Peterson and Mayumi Tsutakawa. Seattle: One Reel/Sasquatch, 1994.
- The Graywolf Annual Eight: The New Family. Ed. Scott Walker. Saint Paul: Graywolf, 1991.
- The Medusa Reader. Ed. Marjorie B.Garber and Nancy J. Vickers. New York: Routledge, 2003.
- No More Masks!An Anthology of Twentieth Century American Women Poets. Rev. ed. Ed. Florence Howe. New York: HarperPerennial, 1993.
- The Norton Anthology of African American Literature. Ed. Henry Louis Gates and Nellie Y. McKay. New York: Norton, 1996.
- Poetry for Students: Presenting Analysis, Context and Criticism on Commonly Studied Poetry. Ed. Marie Rose Napierkowski and Mary K. Ruby. Detroit, MI: Gale, 1998.
- The Pushcart Prize: Best of the Small Presses. Ed. Bill Henderson. Yonkers: Pushcart P, 1976.
- Revolutionary Tales: African American Women’s Short Stories, from the First Story to the Present. Ed. Bill Mullen. New York: Laurel, 1995.
- Trouble the Water: 250 Years of African-American Poetry. Ed. Jerry Washington Ward. New York: Mentor, 1997.
- Whatever It Takes: Women on Women’s Sport. Ed. Joli Sandoz and Jody Winans. New York: Farrar, 1999.
- Breadloaf Scholarship for Fiction, 1974
- Pushcart Prize for Poetry, 1976
- National Endowment for the Arts Fellowship, 1978 and 1991
- Matrix Women of Achievement Award, 1985
- Before Columbus American Book Award for Queen of the Ebony Isles, 1985
- Fulbright Creative Writing Fellowship, 1990
- Rockefeller Fellowship, 1991