About: A Poet’s First Person Look Back

I was born in Ohio, where I studied at Wittenberg University (B.A.) and Ohio University (M.A., Ph.D.). Later I lived in Connecticut, Pennsylvania, West Virginia (where I founded the journal Kestrel at Fairmont State), and Costa Rica. But since 1997, LibbyandMartyGermanyI’ve called Georgia home, where I live with my wife, Libby, a native of Atlanta. Since 1995, Libby and I have traveled to Costa Rica, Spain, and many other countries. Here we are in Germany, where Libby was a Fulbright Scholar in Berlin. My mother’s family were “Volga Germans” (Wolgadeutsche) who emigrated from Russia’s Volga River Valley to Ohio in 1908. My mother’s family name Lichtenwald means, literally, “light in the woods,” but more colloquially, “a clearing.”

See Professional Profile information

In 1997, we moved to Milledgeville, where we both started jobs at Georgia College (famous fiction writer Flannery O’Connor grew up and went to college here). FrontcampusSpringLibby worked in the International Education office, where she served as International Student Advisor (and later as Associate Director). And me? As the “Fuller E. Callaway endowed Flannery O’Connor chair in Creative Writing,” I founded the literary journal Arts & Letters; established a “Visiting Writers” series (featuring such distinguished authors as Judith Ortiz Cofer, Billy Collins, Mark Doty, Ernest Gaines, Donald Hall, Maxine Kumin, Frances Mayes, W. S. Merwin, Charles Simic, Natasha Trethewey, and many more); and developed a new creative writing program. That program later became in 2001-2002 the nationally competitive Master of Fine Arts Creative Writing graduate program at Georgia College.

Mrs. Pat Young, my 7th and 8th grade English teacher, first inspired my love of poetry. Each year, she required her students to memorize a poem and perform out loud for the class. Most of my friends chose the shortest poem they could find (I think William Carlos Williams “The Red Wheelbarrow” was a favorite). But I chose long poems: Tennyson’s “The Charge of the Light Brigade,” and my favorite back then, Edgar Allan Poe’s “Annabel Lee.” Even back then I was a brooding romantic! Here’s my best effort to recreate how I read the poem to the class so many years ago.

You can follow the written poem at the Poetry Foundation web site.


1976-1980: Wittenberg University in Springfield, Ohio

Excelling in sports (especially baseball) mattered most to me, even if I wasn’t a typical jock. I loved poetry, singing solos in the choir, and studying advanced anatomy and physiology (my biology teacher, Mr. Mitchell, was also my football linebackers coach). I loved learning a new language, studying French all four years in high school. (Read my essay “My Name Is” for insight into my love of learning new languages.) But back in high school, I loved hitting a home run or scoring a touchdown even more. The problem was, by the end of my senior year, home runs and touchdowns were scarce for me. Then, that summer, I broke my hand, had to wear a cast until Thanksgiving, so my first term in college marked the end of my athletic career, even if I never stopped being a big sports fan. (Read my essay “Homeward: World Series 1995, Costa Rica,” for proof).

I was a science major in college, planning to follow in my favorite teacher’s footsteps, coaching football and teaching biology. But in college, I also fell in love for the first time, and my new girlfriend wasn’t thrilled about marrying a high school teacher/coach. Back then, I could have chosen almost any field of study: science, literature, history, politics, religion, linguistics. She thought Political Science/Pre-law would be a good choice, so I switched my major in the winter term. A year later, our young love fell apart, but I decided to add a minor: English studies would be a good fit for a future lawyer.

By the end of my sophomore year, after taking Dr. Richard Veler’s Modern Poetry course, I found my new and lasting love, and I changed my major again. I was not quite 20 years old, and I knew what I wanted to do with my life: write poems and teach in a college. At Wittenberg, I studied the canon: Beowulf, Chaucer, Shakespeare; Hawthorne, Emerson, Whitman, Melville, Dickinson; Blake, Wordsworth, Coleridge, Keats; Yeats, Eliot, Pound (and dozens more, of course). Dr. Allen Koppenhaver’s T.S. Eliot seminar explored the modernist’s complete works, poems and plays and criticism. Dr. Conrad Balliet’s course on Irish Literature introduced works beyond those by W.B. Yeats and James Joyce.

Kicking the LeavesBut I also started to discover more contemporary poets, a few from Wittenberg faculty (James Dickey and Nikki Giovanni in that Modern Poetry course, for example), others who visited the college to read from their works: Gwendolyn Brooks, Daniel Mark Epstein, Philip Schultz, Howard Nemerov, and Robert Bly. But my junior and senior years, I discovered many more new poets on my own. In the summer of 1979, one book would change my life, Donald Hall’s Kicking the Leaves (read the title poem online; follow other links to Hall’s work, available in this site’s “Poems, Essays, and More” section). I wrote about Hall’s work for my senior English project (guided by Dr. Koppenhaver), and when Robert Bly visited campus in May, I asked if he’d consent to be interviewed about his longtime friendship with Hall. That interview would be published two years later (Ploughshares, Spring 1982); the interview (“Something Hard to Get Rid Of: An Interview with Robert Bly”) can be found online through JSTOR. Later in the Spring, I’d meet Hall for the first time at Otterbein College near Columbus, Ohio.

Witt ReviewMy senior year, I became the literary editor of The Wittenberg Review, the college’s student magazine of literature and art. Most contributors were students, sometimes a faculty member, but I was determined to improve the magazine. So I solicited works from writers I’d met or who would be visiting the campus that year. Appearing next to Wittenberg students were Robert Bly, Daniel Mark Epstein, Terry Hermsen, Errol Miller, Howard Nemerov, David Pichaske, and David Ray. I laid out that issue, page-by-page, using a brand new electric, eraser-tape typewriter, and meticulously lined up rub-on, large-letter stencils to create the title page hovering above a graphic the art editor designed. That year, I did not seek a faculty advisor (the young professor I looked up to my junior year, Ron Cummings, left teaching to pursue his own calling, advocating for social change and citizen-centered community change, with the woman he loved). That year, I began what would become a pattern: create a journal, organize readings, advocate however I could for students, faculty, and others interested in poetry, literature, and the arts. I was creating the blueprint for my life.

1980-1991: From Ohio University to Juniata College, Pennsylvania

Forthcoming, plus 1991 (Fairmont, West Virginia) to the present (Georgia)

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s