About Michelle Blake
When my daughter graduated from college, our family gift to her was a trip to the Sawtooth Mountains and the River of No Return, in central Idaho. She had seen a series of photographs of the region and its people, taken by the photographer Laura McPhee, and had been so moved by the landscape and faces that she vowed to get there someday. From my point of view, this was an excellent gift, because I got to go with her. The picture of me with one of the horses was taken on our last day at the Diamond D Ranch, a hidden gem of a guest ranch inside the Frank Church Wilderness Area, the largest wilderness area in the lower forty-eight. That morning, two deer came up and fed at the trough with the horses. Linda, one of the owners, told us they had come to say good-bye.
Art doesn't need to serve some useful function, but despite itself, it often does. A photography show drew my daughter and me to Idaho for one of the great adventures of our lives. Dorothy Sayers's novel Gaudy Night introduced me to the possibility of a life of the mind, for women, where books and thinking and truth held sway over the polite lies and pincurls of my southern upbringing.
I've been a writer for all of my adult life, and most of my childhood. I wrote poetry for the first fifteen or twenty years (depending on when you start counting), and got my MFA degree from Goddard College in Vermont. Once I graduated, I became director of that program and taught literature and writing in the undergraduate degree program, as well. A few years later, I founded and directed the graduate writing program at Warren Wilson College. Later, I attended Harvard Divinity School, where I got my Master of Theological Studies and for a short while considered seeking ordination in the Episcopal Church. Instead, I switched from poetry to fiction and wrote a mystery series that features Lily Connor, a priest and activist in Boston.
This was the right choice. I would not have been a good priest. I am happiest when left alone with a good book or a blank page, or both, which is not to say I don't like people. I do. Most of the people I've met are trying their hardest to do the right thing, and that is not easy.
When our younger child left for college, I moved back to Vermont with my husband, the writer Dennis McFarland. For as long as I could remember, I’d had a dream of living in Vermont, and I hadn’t given up. I wanted to give it one more try.
We found a crazy, rambling house near the end of a long dirt road and settled in. And though I assumed I would continue to write fiction, that didn’t happen. My grown daughter talked me into putting together a collection of older poems. The chapbook was awarded publication in the New Women’s Voices Contest at Finishing Line Press. I clearly remember standing on our road, opening the mailbox, taking out the envelope and reading the acceptance letter. I felt as if something important had been returned to me.
Since then, I have written and published mostly poems and essays, with one wild failed attempt at a novel—failed only in the sense that it has not yet found a publisher. But it will. I have gotten much better at honestly assessing my own work, and I find that to be one of the most useful skills I’ve developed over time. I’ve been a writer and writing teacher for over forty years, and I know when something works and when it doesn’t, in my work and in the work of others. Of course, I am not %100 on this. I’ve written a few longer poems that I continue to admire, but no one else can make head nor tails of them.
That happens. For me, it’s much better to push too far and fail than rein it in and succeed mildly.
Most recently I’ve been instructed by the last two books of Jean Valentine, Break the Glass and Shirt in Heaven. These are brilliant, beautiful, heart-breaking poems and no one else other than Jean could have written them. In that way they make me think of the work of both Emily Dickinson and Wallace Stevens. But there is still a lot to be learned in there—I experience reading them as a lesson in shaking loose, letting it rip. I’ve included a couple of these newer poems in the WRITING section.
I am also starting the research and wailing required to get going on a non-fiction book. I’m keeping the exact subject, or approach, under my hat for now, but suffice it to say I will be writing about Zora Neale Hurston, Julian of Norwich, Helen Keller, Emily Dickinson, Ida B. Wells and, possibly, Claudia Rankine and Anne Carson. In my short weekly pieces for the WRITING section, I will share discoveries I’ve made about these remarkable women.