I was born on February 18, 1945, in Cedar Rapids, Iowa, and grew up in St. Louis, Missouri. My first stories, written in block letters at the age of four, were modeled on the Dick and Jane primer I read in pre-school: “I HAVE A FATHER HIS NAME IS BILL-WALLACE. I LIKE HIM HE IS A NICE FATHER. SOME TIMES I PLAY WITH HIM. HE GAVE ME SOME PAPPR. I DREW ON IT.” “I HAVE A MOTHER HER NAME IS LO-WALLACE. ONE TIME SHE PLAYED BALL WITH ME. SHE GAVE ME TWO HATS ONE HAT IS BLUE ONE HAT IS DARK BROWN AND LIGHT BRAWN.” “I HAVE A HOME. IT HAS A KICTH AND A LIVING-ROOM. IT HAS A BASEMENT AND A ATICK. MY MOTHER WROKS IN THE KICTH.” My mother, always my biggest fan, kept these efforts, along with all my subsequent writings, on a special display shelf devoted to my published work. The domestic themes–the importance of family, home, play, writing, and parent-child relations–have remained a central strand in my fiction and poetry.
In grade school I read all the books in the classroom libraries–Clara Barton: Girl Nurse; Thomas Alva Edison: Boy Inventor; Bartholomew and the Oobleck–and won a spelling bee and an award for penmanship. At the age of ten I moved to Rock Hill, a suburb of St. Louis, and although I was not particularly happy there, it is a time and place I keep coming back to in my writing. It was 1955. The cold war was in full swing; the Russians were about to launch Sputnik; I was in love with a red-headed girl with thick glasses; and my father had contracted multiple sclerosis, a progressive degenerative disease which would slowly paralyze him and foster a conflict in our relationship which would find its way into every book I would write.
I kept a diary–a little gold affair with a lock–something only girls did and which, therefore, had to be kept secret. Writing for me was necessary, useful, and dangerous–if my friends found out, I would be laughed at. I read voraciously–Uncle Scrooge comics, Mad Magazine, Humbug, The Hardy Boys, Nancy Drew, and later (a result of sneaking downtown to inner city St. Louis on the streetcar to used bookstores) pulp horror and science fiction by H.P Lovecraft, August Derleth, Ray Bradbury, Theodore Sturgeon, and Robert Heinlein. It was there that I also discovered Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein, Shirley Jackson’s “The Lottery,” and William Faulkner’s “A Rose for Emily.”
In ninth grade I had my first revelation about the power and mystery and exhilaration of poetry. It was in Mrs. Alexander’s English class, the last class of the day. The class clown had brought some plastic vomit, and, toward the end of the period he placed it on the floor beside him, gagged loudly and raised his hand. Mrs. Alexander sent him off to the nurse and called for the janitor, who, seeing the prank for what it was, played along by sprinkling some sawdust on the vomit and sweeping it up into his dustbin. The class by now in hysterics, Mrs. Alexander gave up trying to restore order and instead just passed out some mimeos for us to read silently. They were Emily Dickinson poems, and, as I read them, the class and its laughter faded, Mrs. Alexander, asleep on her desk, faded, and I was left in the presence of the rare and strange, feeling (as I would later learn Emily Dickinson herself had put it) as if the top of my head were taken off. I didn’t understand the poems, but I felt their power–their joy and exhilaration and surprise and whimsy–and when the bell rang, I didn’t hear it. I knew at that point that I wanted to be able to do what Emily Dickinson had done for me. I wrote poetry in secret, I read poetry in secret, and I dreamed of one day being a real poet and writer.
I attended The College of Wooster where I edited the school newspaper and co-founded a literary magazine, The Shaft, and met my wife Peg, who, with my daughters Molly and Emily, and my sister Teri-Ann, and more recently my grandchildren (Lucy, Ernie, Elsie, and Ruby) would provide central themes for my work. After college, I attended graduate school at the University of Michigan, specializing in English and American literature from 1780-1970 and writing a PhD dissertation on Henry James which would later become Henry James and the Comic Form, the first of three books I would write on humor in American literature (The Last Laugh: Form and Affirmation in the Contemporary American Comic Novel; God Be With the Clown: Humor in American Poetry). My own poetry and fiction has always reflected the accessible comic voice I discovered in Donne and Marvel, Whitman and Dickinson, and Frost and Stevens, along with the intense lyricism I found in Gerard Manley Hopkins, Dylan Thomas, and Sylvia Plath.
In 1971, my wife and I sold everything we owned and traveled in Europe where, in a farmhouse in Grindelwald, Switzerland, I committed myself to seriously writing poetry. These, my first published poems, were instrumental in securing me a teaching position at the University of Wisconsin-Madison where, since 1972, I have developed a creative writing program, established a poetry series (Brittingham and Pollak prizes) through the University Press, founded a literary magazine (The Madison Review) and implemented an MFA program in creative writing and a post-MFA Institute for Creative Writing, while teaching poetry and fiction workshops and introductory literature. My eight books of poetry–Plums, Stones, Kisses & Hooks (which was rejected ninety-nine times before finding a publisher), Tunes for Bears to Dance To, People and Dog in the Sun, The Makings of Happiness, Time’s Fancy, The Uses of Adversity, Long for This World: New & Selected Poems, and For a Limited Time Only--and my one collection of interconnected short stories–Quick Bright Things–have all explored themes of childhood, family, illness, father-son conflicts, domestic love, parenthood, mortality, art, travel, the natural world (my wife and I own an old farm on 40 acres in the Bear Valley hills of Richland County, Wisconsin, where we’ve raised goats and chickens and several large gardens, and where I’ve done considerable writing–the farm provides the setting for many of my stories and poems), and the importance of tolerance, good temper, sympathy, and humor in human affairs.
I’m an avid volleyball player, and for thirty-five years my co-ed team, The Grapes of Wrath, continued to whup the youngsters–at least occasionally.