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Colleen McElroy is a poet, dramatist, essayist, and short-story writer with an intense sense of place. One of the country’s leading African American female poets, she explores questions of identity and belonging, and her writing has been credited with expanding readers’ perspectives on what it means to be a black woman in today’s world.
Works in Biographical and Historical Context
A Childhood on the Move
McElroy was born on October 30, 1935, in St. Louis, Missouri. Her parents divorced in 1938, and she and her mother moved in with her grandmother. Her mother remarried an army sergeant in 1943, and this event began McElroy’s childhood as an army brat.” The family moved often, and by the time she was an adult, she had lived in St. Louis, Kansas City, Wyoming, and Munich, Germany, where she attended college for a time. She graduated from Kansas State University with a bachelor’s degree in 1958. Her travels as a child had a profound effect on her life and writing. As her writings indicate, she has traveled extensively in Europe, South America, Japan, Majorca, Africa, and Southeast Asia, and much of her work both in poetry and essay form focuses on her experiences during these travels.
Education and Teaching
After finishing her undergraduate degree, McElroy moved to Pittsburgh, where she studied in the speech and hearing program at the University of Pittsburgh. She then returned to Kansas City to work with the speech-impaired at the Rehabilitation Institute. Later, she went back to Kansas State University to earn a master’s degree in neurological and language learning patterns.
At the same time she was pursuing a career in speech therapy, she was teaching English. She moved to Belling-ham, Washington, to become the director of Speech and Hearing Services at Western Washington University, and from 1966 through 1973, she served as an assistant professor of English. During this time, she continued her education and earned a PhD in ethno linguistic patterns of dialect differences and oral traditions from the University of Washington in 1973. That year, she became an assistant professor of English at the University of Washington at Seattle in 1973, where she still teaches. In 1983, McElroy became the first black woman to be promoted to full professor at the University of Washington.
McElroy began writing seriously in her thirties, when she lived in Bellingham. She developed a passion for the landscape of the Pacific Northwest, and this passion led to the writing of her first poems, which would be offered in her 1973 chapbook, The Mules Done Long Since Gone. Her first full collection, Winters without Snow, was published in 1979, and in 1983, her Queen of the Ebony Isles was selected for the Wesleyan University Press Poetry Series. That collection received the American Book Award in 1985. Since 1985 McElroy has published two short-story compendiums and two poetic memoirs, and she has also written several plays and television scripts.
Works in Literary Context
Having traveled extensively throughout her life, McElroy often focuses her writing, both poetry and prose, on her travels and what she has taken from them. She is not, however, a travel writer but a writer who is directly inspired by her travels. She says about her poetic memoir, A Long Way From St. Louie (1997), that it is about ”impressions of journeys, memories held in fragments: like footprints on a sandy beach, the familiar scent of perfume, or the special spice in a dish prepared by a favorite cook.” Her 1990 collection of poems, What Madness Brought Me Here, contains a number of ”shoe” poems about her travels by foot. In these poems, McElroy takes the reader on journeys not only to different places, but to the questions that arise in her mind as she travels there and contemplates the people and objects she encounters.
McElroy’s writings demonstrate her energy not only as a traveler but as a writer as well. Often employing a stream-of-consciousness style, she moves playfully but thoughtfully through a variety of observations and questions. In her poem ”A Pied,” she spots a single shoe on a highway, leading her to explore a series of questions about how the shoe got there. Using loosely related images and similes, McElroy takes the reader on a journey that transcends the simple object seen on the road, using sensuality and excitement to explore questions of loneliness, uncertainty, and relationships.
Works in Critical Context
McElroy’s work has been well-received by reviewers and readers. She has won several awards for her writing and received support from prestigious institutions, including two fellowships from the National Endowment for the Arts.
What Madness Brought Me Here
McElroy’s best-known work is probably What Madness Brought Me Here (1990), which includes poems from 1968 through 1988. Denise Levertov writes, ”McElroy’s work has long interested me. Her poems combine the authenticity of the personal with a strong sense of history. They can surprise and delight the reader.” McElroy is particularly praised for her style; as a reviewer for the San Francisco Review of Books notes, ”McElroy is the master of long, finely-crafted poems, each with a particular melodic intensity and tone.” Peggy Kaganoff elaborates a bit more on McElroy’s strengths, writing in Publisher’s Weekly that ”language, according to the poet, embodies our madness and cannot succeed in communicating. Madness also serves as a convenient metaphor for her style, which often emphasizes stream-of-consciousness and rifts in association.”
A Long Way from St. Louie
McElroy has also received praise for her travel memoir, A Long Way from St. Louie. Veronica Chambers describes the book as ”humorous, engaging and intelligent,” going on to argue that ”what is most impressive is how brave she is, how she is willing to try anything once. She is free in the broadest sense: not anchored to any one place or any one identity.” Other reviewers note that McElroy’s sense of what it means to be a black woman infuses the book with a particular spirit. As a Publisher’s Weekly reviewer puts it, ”Although skin color is not the primary focus of this delightful book, it is never far from her consciousness, nor from the memory of her grandmother’s … belief ‘that there are black folks everywhere on this earth.”’ Chambers points out, ”What sets the book apart is that McElroy broadens our definition and perspective of what it means to be a black woman today.”
- Duke, Charles R. and Sally A. Jacobsen, eds. Poets’ Perspectives: Reading Writing and Teaching Poetry. Portsmouth, N.H.: Boynton/Cook Publishers, 1992.
- Koolish, Linda. African American Writers: Portraits and Visions. Jackson, Miss.: University Press of Mississippi, 2001.
- Page, Yolanda Williams. Encyclopedia of African American Women Writers. Westport, Conn.: Greenwood Publishing Group, 2007.
- Chambers, Veronica. ”A Long Way from St. Louie.” The Women’s Review of Books (December 1997): 5.
- Kaganoff, Penny. ”What Madness Brought Me Here: New and Selected Poems, 1968-1988.” Publishers Weekly (December 14, 1990): 62.
- ”A Long Way from St. Louis.” Publishers Weekly (March 10, 1997): 57.
- Parker, Mary Ann. ”A Long Way from St. Louie: Travel Memoirs.” Library Journal (April 15, 1997): 104.
- Watson Sherman, Charlotte. ”Walking across the Floor: A Conversation with Colleen J. McElroy—Black Writer and Teacher.” American Visions (April-May 1995).
- University of Washington Web site. Biography of Colleen McElroy. Retrieved October 31, 2008, from http://faculty.washington.edu/dragnldy/pages/Biography.html.
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