English MATTERS — SPRING 2011

Colleen McElroy

I believe retirement is equal parts planning and flexibility. Planning too far ahead is like putting a 1965 Chevrolet chassis on a 2010 Volt. I loved my Chevvie Super Sport, which I drove across country to Bellingham Washington, but these days, my routes out of town depend on air traffic. Therefore, planning and flexibility.

At first, I stuck to the familiar academic schedule, my sense of time framed in spring break and end-of-quarter rush. I signed up for a three-year summer faculty residency at the Cave Canem Foundation, culminating with a reading at the City of Asylum in Pittsburgh, which underscored my interests in writers outside of the U.S.. I have presented papers at the international conferences in Tunisia, Scotland, and Tanzania.

My first trip across the Sahara took me from Casablanca and Rabat to the majestic canyons of the Atlas Mountains. One view was not enough; the desert was put in sharper perspective when I traveled to Tunisia and Mali. In the ancient cities of Timbuktu and Djenne, I listened to stories told in the shadows of sculpted sand buildings erected thousands of years ago and under continuous upkeep. I journeyed several times to Southeast Asia.

After my research in Cambodia, the Angkor Wat region, I continued to Singapore and Vietnam to visit the University of Singapore, then on to explore the majestic Halong Bay. In India, I spoke with descendents of the original Romany Gypsies, and in Mali, struggled up the cliffs of Bandiagara to see the cave wall paintings in the Dogon circumcision caves (only after my translator assured the elders that I was hopelessly American, lost to salvation anyway).

My poetry is enhanced by essays on filmmaking and storytelling, specifically how archetypal storytellers can be characters in films. I am an Ambassador for the Seattle International Film Festival, my film viewing hovering around 100 each season. I published my 14th book, a collection of poems titled Sleeping with the Moon which received a PEN/ Oakland Literary Award. In 2012, my 15th book, Here I Throw Down My Heart, will be published by the University of Pittsburgh Press, and my collection of short stories, Jesus and Fat Tuesday, will be published in Italian translation. At 75, I realize that to be wise is to be observant. I still haven’t made it to a country with a name that begins with the letter “L” — but there are several months left in this year. We’ll see what I can do.

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