Author and Poet
Winner of the Miller Williams Prize in Poetry and Thom Gunn Award
by Christopher Poore '14
Michael Walsh '97 feels almost certain that his book, The Dirt Riddles, is the only volume of gay farm poetry existent today -- but he's willing to be challenged on that claim.
"I didn't find any essentially gay farm poetry," said Walsh. "That's one of the main reasons why I kept working on this book. I felt like I would be really contributing something to the larger mythology."
Walsh's book, published after winning the University of Arkansas's 2009 Miller Williams Prize in Poetry, locates itself firmly within the 120 acre dairy farm of his childhood. Within The Dirt Riddles are visceral and bizarre scenes; in one poem, for instance, we find the speaker's mother artificially inseminating a cow. But if the poems stray occasionally on the gritty, they also demonstrate an unyielding compassion for the land. In "Wind," for instance, we find a moment of startling sympathy with the rural landscape:
"If you sprint fast enough,
the corn runs with you,
whole rows quick on their roots."
Given his distinctive and unconventional allegiance with the agrarian, Walsh was surprised earlier this year to hear that his book had won the Thom Gunn Award, a prize that is in its 11th year and run by the Publishing Triangle, a prestigious association of GBLT publishers.
"I'm really thrilled that I got the award for a book of farm poetry," said Walsh. "I wouldn't have expected it. I feel subversive."
In past years, Walsh's work has also earned other awards. He was a seminfinalist in the 2008 Phillips Levine Prize in Poetry, and in 2005 he won a Jerome Foundation Emerging Artist Fellowship. His work has also appeared in magazines such as The New York Quarterly and Fifth Wednesday and on the nationally syndicated radio program The Writer's Almanac.
Of course, like most things of the earth, Walsh's poems have taken a long time to grow -- the seeds of The Dirt Riddles were planted in the late 1990s as he studied creative writing at Knox, working for Catch, and taking any workshop class he could find. While at Knox, Walsh studied with and worked as a secretary and teacher's assistant for Philip Sydney Post Professor of English Robin Metz.
"Robin was a very, very influential mentor for me," said Walsh. "Honestly, I think he is one of the best teachers I've ever had in all the years that I've taken creative writing courses."
Metz's influence was not merely artistic; in his professor, Walsh also found a trusted friend.
"Sensitive and extroverted -- it's a weird combo," said Walsh of his former professor. "He can really read you and feel what's going on."
Yet in describing his mentor, Walsh has also described his own work, which couples a sharp poetic awareness with candor. And even as Walsh's imagination expands beyond the pastoral -- he has an upcoming poetry chapbook about sleepwalking -- what abides is his concern over crafting an aesthetic that is at once sensitive and direct. As Walsh told Lambda Literary last year, "I always prefer to evoke."