Monday, November 20, 2017

In Memoriam: Michelle Boisseau

Michelle Boisseau. Photo courtesy UMKC.
The editors and staff of the University of Tampa Press and Tampa Review share a deep sense of loss at the passing of poet, editor, and teacher Michelle Boisseau. She died Wednesday, November 15, 2017, in Kansas City of lung cancer.

Click this sentence for a link to the notice posted by Kansas City’s public radio station KCUR.

Michelle won the Tampa Review Prize for Poetry for her last book, Among the Gorgons. When Michelle visited our campus last year to read selections from the book, I had the pleasure of introducing her.  In tribute to her, I would like to post that introduction here:

As many readers will know, the gorgons in Greek mythology are three sisters with serpents for hair. Their penetrating eyes are powerfully compelling, capable of destroying or turning to stone those who look upon them.  As ancient goddesses with origins going all the way back beyond six thousand years B.C., their irresistible monstrous beauty holds the power to both destroy and resurrect.  Their gorgon faces serve as both mask and mirror.

Through the words of Michelle Boisseau, “among the gorgons,” one gradually senses what it might be like inside those eyes, on the other side of the mirror and the mask. What unrelenting courage does it take to see with such eyes?  What dreadful humor, terrifying sympathy, or fierce and penetrating love is awake behind the gaze?

Each year I read hundreds of unpublished poetry book manuscripts for the Tampa Review Prize for Poetry, and I find myself looking for one manuscript that I cannot resist.  I set this as a challenge for myself.  If I can put it down, turn away, and stop looking at it, then I do, and move on to consider the next one. But my gaze kept returning to Among the Gorgons.

It was a manuscript with such impressive range, variety, and craftsmanship that I could not turn away. It leapt unexpectedly from personal to mythic, tender to satiric, or tragic to comic. It was beautifully crafted and artistically compelling. It simply had to be our winner.

Eventually I would discover the poet who submitted it: Michelle Boisseau.  When it comes to poetry, she literally wrote the book.  Her creative writing textbook, Writing Poems, is required reading in workshops around the country and is now in its eighth edition.

She is the author of four previous books of poetry: A Sunday in God-Years, published in 2009 by the University of Arkansas Press; Tumbling Air, a PEN USA finalist, published by University of Arkansas Press, 2003; Understory, winner of the Morse Prize, Northeastern University Press, 1996; and No Private Life, Vanderbilt, 1990. Her work has appeared in The Gettysburg Review, The Southern Review, The Hudson Review, The Kenyon Review, Poetry, Ploughshares, The Threepenny Review, The Yale Review, and Shenandoah, in addition to many other influential journals.

She was educated at Ohio University and the University of Houston (Ph.D., English/Creative Writing). She has taught at Virginia Intermont College, Morehead State University, and since 1995 at the University of Missouri Kansas City. She has received two National Endowment for the Arts fellowships and two prizes from The Poetry Society of America.  She serves as associate editor of BkMk Press and is a member of The Poetry Society of America and PEN America.

In writing judges’ comments for the unpublished text of Among the Gorgons, I tried to express some of the things that made the manuscript so compelling. They remain among the many reasons I am glad this manuscript existed, for I feel very grateful that it has given me the opportunity to get to know Michelle, and to come to know her book more fully during the process of publishing it. I also feel fortunate to be able to introduce her to you here, and in doing so, I would like to share the conclusion of my comments:

In a world where we are all aware of sudden reversals, Boisseau suggests the relevance of art. We are tasked with admiration for the artistic gift that frames contradiction and reveals its beauty. Her voice constantly surprises us with strength in unexpected places and shapes irony into an energetic force. Best of all, her poems in this collection work individually—satisfy and stand fully on their own—while at the same time gathering force and resonance as the book moves confidently into a whole that is greater than its parts.  As Boisseau writes of Henry James’s  meeting with George Eliot: “Ugly is the mother of the sublime—dreadful / and magnetic, it sucks you over the edges / with the torque of awe, so much like love / it must be love.” Boisseau renders and controls the torque through a collection that inspires both awe and love.

It was a deep pleasure to know and to publish editor, professor, poet, and half-sister to Gorgons, Michelle Boisseau.

-Richard Mathews, Director, University of Tampa Press