Award-winning poet and children’s book author Rich Michelson was featured in The Whole Megillah‘s first interview. When Rich was named the Poet Laureate for Northampton, Mass., it provided an opportunity to catch up with him about this latest accomplishment.
The Whole Megillah (TWM): What exactly does Poet Laureate in Northampton mean and entail?
Rich Michelson (RM): It means whatever the current Laureate wants it to mean and it entails whatever the Laureate wants to do. Each of the five previous Laureates (Martin Espada, Janet Aalfs. Jack Gilbert, Lesléa Newman, Lenelle Moise) have taken on their own projects. I have begun a twice monthly radio show that interviews poets (last show was Mark Doty; next is David Kherdian) and discusses local and national poetry happenings. I am also incorporating poetry events into the local Gallery walks; and inviting poets to write “food related” poems which will be printed on local restaurant menus (and the chosen poets will a complementary get dinner for two); can’t beat the food and poetry combination! And of course I will be doing school and community talks and readings.
TWM: How is the title bestowed (how is it earned)?
RM: The title of Northampton Poet Laureate is given by a committee of City Arts Council Members who meet in very secret enclaves and pull straws out of the mayor’s Sorting Hat. So it is officially a government position. You do not apply for the job, and the reason that I was selected is, I imagine, that I hadn’t known any of the council members beforehand, so I never had the opportunity to offend anyone personally. Seriously though, the fact that the Northampton City Council even has a Laureate is encouraging, and an indication of how wonderfully serious the arts are taken in our community.
TWM: You have such a distinguished background in poetry. What got you started?
RM: I started writing fairly late — as a senior in high school. I was fortunate to have a teacher who saw beyond the “class clown” persona I had adopted, and he encouraged me to put my class disruption skills toward good instead of evil. Like many poets, had I been better at baseball, I might not have forgone the literary route. But eventually I fell in love with words and the rhythms of sentences.
TWM: Did you have any formal training in writing poetry?
RM: I attended the Goddard and Vermont College MFA in Writing programs. These are
“correspondence” programs with twice yearly residencies. It allowed me to give myself permission to carve out time for writing and study. That was crucial. I did not go back to school for the degree or for “job advancement” as I had already started the gallery, but for some reason I needed the program as an excuse to force myself to take my writing seriously.
TWM: Will you be reading your work outside of Northampton?
RM: Just invite me!!
Have poems, will travel. I enjoy readings, and regularly speak at libraries, conferences and schools with my children’s books. I do have a few Boston and other New England gigs lined up.
TWM: What advice do you have for aspiring poets?
RM: This is always the most difficult question, because every poet learns and writes in their own way, and has their own needs. Patience and thick-skin are the best I can offer. Every writer has the experience of thinking they’ve written a masterpiece, and then rereading it a year later and being embarrassed by the work (noticing all the flaws). So consider all well meaning critiques but don’t let them paralyze you. Write because you love to and need to, and if there is a little ego involved, that is okay too, as long as it doesn’t overwhelm the original poetic impulse. And read read read, of course–both your elders and your contemporaries.
See excerpts of Rich’s inaugural reading.