A Generous Talent: The Gifts of Colleen McElroy
Seattle is a vital city: a city of art and culture, biomedical research and high-tech enterprise, human concerns and social activism. Like her adopted city, Colleen McElroy is a vital woman of broad experience, interests and skills. She is a researcher, poet, writer and activist.
Her first career was in neurological and language learning patterns, and she was the director of Speech and Hearing Services at Western Washington University. McElroy came to Seattle as a speech pathologist to work with patients who had neurological injuries; she earned her PhD in ethnolinguistic patterns in oral traditions at the University of Washington.
Later, while teaching English at the University of Washington, McElroy introduced her classes to important cultural and societal works, such as Maya Angelou’s I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings, and Toni Morrison’s The Bluest Eye. This put her on the path to becoming a writer. “Some of my work thrust me into Black literature, and so I taught several survey courses on Black literature. Then my book Music from Home was published in the mid-1970s and that really pushed me into the literary scene,” she says.
Writing poetry and prose that explores what it means to be African American and female, McElroy joined Seattle’s United Black Artists Guild and quickly became an active force in Seattle’s minority arts scene. It didn’t take long for her to become published once she started writing seriously. “I think because I had been in drama and speech pathology, I had a sense of language, rhythms and movements that go into creating poetry.” Soon after she began publishing, other female black poets began writing to her. “I was astonished that there were so many,” McElroy recalls.
Colleen is the author of several books of poetry, as well as two books of short fiction, several memoirs, plays and television scripts. In addition to being a prolific writer, she is also a professor emeritus at the University of Washington and in 1984 became the first African American woman to achieve the status of full professor at that university. She has just retired after more than 10 years at the helm of the literary journal, The Seattle Review.
Review poetry editor Linden Ontjes says that “during her stewardship,” McElroy transformed The Seattle Review. It now features sophisticated full-color covers, retrospectives of famous writers, an international bent rather than a focus on only regional work, and colored photo essays of contemporary art. Her accomplishments are just as impressive on the management end: She established the nonprofit that governs and funds the journal. Throughout her tenure as editor-in-chief, McElroy mentored young editors and offered readers one of the best contemporary literary journals in the country.
“I am most proud of the retrospectives,” McElroy says. “I cannot offer enough praise to the 20 writers who trusted me with family photos and answered the endless questions needed to complete each project. And of course, I would have to thank the countless number of students and volunteers who kept the wheels grinding for each issue of the Review, along with the generosity of donors needed to sustain a nonprofit literary magazine.”
Since her early years at the University of Washington teaching freshman composition, McElroy has been a favorite teacher for a generation of students. She even encouraged her students to launch their own reading series called the Watermark Series. “They did everything but a car wash, and we had writers such as Tom Robbins, Derek Walcott, and Czeslaw Milosz, just to mention a few.”
Mona Lisa Saloy, a visiting professor at University of Washington, met some of McElroy’s students during a writing workshop. She was recovering from a car accident at the time. “I listened to them weave their stories and poems and share their knowledge of the works of Langston Hughes, Alice Walker and Sonia Sanchez, a new world of Black voices not yet in textbooks or discussed in schools. There I was, carrying a pillow to sit on, but mostly standing on crutches, and hungry for their voices, these stories and storytellers so new and so familiar, their lives touching mine, so I shared my work.”
The students, Saloy says, introduced her to McElroy, who in turn became a mentor to her. “I owe my academic and writing life to the power and presence, the direction and guidance, the encouragement and commitment of Colleen McElroy as an artist, educator and mentor,” Saloy says.
I first met Colleen McElroy when she gave a lecture through Fields End, a Bainbridge Island community of writers. Later, while I had volunteered for a time as a board member at The Seattle Review, she was always happy to answer questions about my own work. And when I was struggling with a long illness and discouraged about my own writing career, she would take me out to lunch and offer sound advice to put me on the right track. It is partially due to her encouragement that I pursued poetry when I felt I was up against impossible obstacles.
Having traveled extensively both in her childhood as an “Army brat” and later as a distinguished poet, McElroy’s writing draws from her experiences on most of the world’s major continents and many cultures. She continues to travel the globe teaching and giving readings. “If you go to foreign countries, which I have because of my research, poetry is perceived in a different manner. I have gone to places where I have 1,000 people in an audience, unheard of in the U.S.” In Greece last spring, at the University of Cyprus, she was applauded by more than 300 students upon entering the auditorium. “After reading the poem ‘Teaching the G.I.s to Dance,’ a couple of students were crying. One came up to me and said, ‘We could hear the dance, the dance of death, the dance of the tango, all in that poem.’ It’s not a rarified art form. It’s what poetry was meant to be.”
Colleen McElroy will be missed by students and coworkers alike at the University of Washington and at The Seattle Review when she retires this year. Her dynamic personality and encouraging spirit have been a foundation for many young Seattle writers for decades. But her work continues with new travels and publications. Her next collection, Sleeping with the Moon, will be published in 2007.
©2006 Caliope Publishing Company
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