A poet and short story
writer with an intense sense of place, Colleen McElroy was born in St.
Louis to Ruth Celeste and Purcia Purcell Rawls. After her parents divorced
in 1938, McElroy and her mother moved in with her grandmother, whose
full-length boudoir mirror and wind-up Victrola began what McElroy has
called "her romance with language." In 1943 her mother married
an army sergeant, Jesse Dalton Johnson, and McElroy began the life of an
"army brat," moving often. By the time she was twenty-one, she
had lived in St. Louis; Wyoming; Munich, Germany, where she attended
college; and Kansas, where she received her B.A. After studying in
the speech and hearing program at the University of Pittsburgh, she
returned to Kansas and did graduate work in neurological and language
learning patterns, married, had two children, and was divorced. She then
migrated to Washington State and became the director of Speech and Hearing
Services at Western Washington University. After receiving a Ph.D. in
ethnolinguistic patterns of dialect differences and oral traditions from
the University of Washington, McElroy became a professor of English at
that university. As her poems dramatize, she has traveled extensively, to
Europe, South America, Japan, Majorca, Africa, and Southeast Asia.
It was in her thirties that McElroy started writing seriously. She
lived in Bellingham,Washington, the home of many writers. At the same time
that she was receiving encouragement to write from poets such as Richard
Hugo, Robert Huff, and Denise Levertov, she was also discovering the works
of black poets such as Langston Hughes, Joseph S. Cotter, Anne Spencer,
Robert Hayden, Gwendolyn Brooks, and Margaret Walker. Both her realization
that Keats and Yeats need not be her only role models and her developing
passion for the landscape of the Pacific Northwest- the mountains, the
ocean, the rain-triggered the writing of her first poems, works that would
be collected in 1973 chapbook, The Mules Done Long Since Gone. Another
collection, Winters without Snow, was published in 1979; McElroy
acknowledges that it details the pain of her second divorce. In 1983,
McElroy became the first black woman to be promoted to full professor at
the University of Washington. Also that year her collection Queen of the
Ebony Isles was selected for the Wesleyan University Press Poetry Series.
Queen would receive the American Book Award in 1985.
Since 1985 McElroy has published two short-story collections and two poetic memoirs. In addition, she has demonstrated a talent for drama, writing with Ishmael Reed the choreopoem The Wild Gardens of the Loup Garou as well as the play Follow the Drinking Gourd, based on the life of Harriet Tubman. She is a visual artist as well as a photographer, the latter culminating in a photojournalist collection of her work in Madagascar, exhibited at Duke University's Center for Documentary Photography, and other places.One measure of McElroy's increasing importance as a poet is the publication of What Madness Brought Me Here: New and Selected Poems 1968-1988. She was editor-in-chief of the SEATTLE REVIEW from 1995-2007, and from 2007-2010, she served on the faculty of the Cave Canem Poetry Foundation. Throughout her career, her research into the oral, tradition and her sense of cultural differences and similarities remain crucial themes in her work. As she herself has said, "Each piece of writing is a new port of call, full of surprises and disappointments, pleasures and intrigue."
Music from Home: Selected Poems
Winters Without Snow
Lie and Say You Love Me
Queen of the Ebony Isles
What Madness Brought Me Here: New and
Sleeping with the Moon
Jesus and Fat Tuesday
Under the Cardboard Pines
Speech and Language Development of the Preschool Child
Long Way from St. Louie: Travel Memoirs
Over the Lip of the
World: Among the Storytellers of Madagascar
Page to Page: Retrospective from the Seattle Review
The Mules Done Long Since Gone
Looking for a Country Under Its Original Name
© 1999 Colleen J. McElroy
ima gonna tattoo me on you for
leave my creases inside you creases
St. Louis evenings
spoiling under electric lights
We leaned out the window above the tavern roof.
Her name better than any song on the juke box.
I'd say: Senesta, Look! That one and That
The sights male and musk: new smells inside some
Teenage fantasy and no one more surprised
Than us when the answer - deep as Wardell's
Cool bass jazz - floated up through the window
And grabbed us by the scruff.
Left us feeling bad as any tough girl
Worse even - knowing we could never be.
And the lights flickering Bud Bud Budweiser
And the night inching toward dawn
And the two of us hanging forever over the sill.
2. Kay Frances
Led that prairie town
around by the nose she did
As if her tar paper house wasn't built right
On Kansas tracks and her hair wasn't a dead give-away
Even with light skin, grey eyes and all.
She was townie queen and I rose to her summons, floating
With the others from college across double iron rails.
Left me singing: Don't the moon look lonesome
When passing trains rattled the wallpaper pattern.
And I pretended not to hear the Great Northern
Or Eastern Flyer shaking coffee cups filled with gin.
While bidwhist plays danced on the Naugahyde table
Ice cubes slammed against my teeth like home runs
And mulatto-boned Kay behind a sweet curtsey smile
Watched me play, shivering in the tunnel of sounds.
No doubt we
always thought of leaving
That town reeking of beef on the hoof
The heel and toe of rundown cowboy boots
12th and Vine littered in bad blues.
We said we had plans to cross more lines
Than the packing house bridge separating states.
We wanted to make it big in some place
Where colors meant more than they appeared
And prairies were no more permanent than celluloid.
Now I hear pregnant with baby boys you turned
Almost religious-- could have sworn-- nearly did
After I skipped town singing: Rocky Racoon.
I held your voice miles away and that last
Phone call so far so close to my ear.
Behind your back we said it was your
But something more elusive made us marvel
At the stance you took, feet toed out and ready
With the part of you that was hoodlum trapped
In a crazy mix of caprice and avarice.
If there had been tracks down the middle
Of this town, I would have met you crossing
And no matter what, asked whether
I was going the wrong way -- Let me guess
You never needed anyone to tell you
It's tough out here and nobody dared
Call you half-pint even with that gravelly
Voice and nail hard way you don't touch, your skin
Velvet shadows as we reach and you turn away.
Even when I tell you Seattle rolls up
At midnight you won't take no for an answer.
Hell, you couldn't take no for a question.
So we drive miles for the sake of Ethiopian
Cowpeas, kifto and spongy bread served
Under fading posters of drylongso countries.
By word of mouth we stay alive, you say
Out here, you say, justice wears a newspaper hat
A single word in print dissolves whole families.
Over your shoulder, sidama stones rise from a poster.
We talk about moods and shrugs and why paths cross.
It's the stories, you say, the stories and I watch
You wet your finger in a bowl of rough salt
Lick it clean and say: Sometimes even this is sweet.
Perhaps in your
You are still dancing in the living room
Rug thrown back to the quick kiss
Of your feet on bare wood floors.
Perhaps each visit merely interrupts
A day you remember best wordless
Behind the slow flutter of eyelids.
Perhaps you still guide us halfgrown
Girls through hours of etiquette on how
To pour the proper rise of champagne
In water glasses or how right to find
Four leaves on clover growing in gutters.
Perhaps sweet Auntie the moon you taught me
To dream is still lovely and you remember to believe.
Marked by a time when there were sidewalk games
And boundaries of the heart and home, we broke
Rules: don't cross the tracks, step on the cracks.
What our mothers didn't know didn't hurt them.
We grew like Topsy into women
No roads to pave our way and no looking back.
I'd like to say we never attended to skin color
Slapping palms for Mary Mack, pick-up sticks and Jacks.
I'd like to say I can recall your faces clear
As the day I tore my seersucker dress climbing a fence
Or took my first kiss under a night sky full of fireflies.
I need to tell you this: how memory is served up in bits
And pieces and yesterdays become so deja-vu, I swear
I almost see you standing there in the corner of the room.
reprinted from Black Scholar