"One thing that a poet needs more than anything else — well, you need a sense of language — but you need people who love you. And I have that," the poet Michelle Boisseau told New Letters on the Air host Angela Elam earlier this year. "I have incredible colleagues, and of course my husband Tom [Stroik], and people who believe in your work. Just keep doing it."
Boisseau died on Wednesday of lung cancer. But her advice to "just keep doing it" will resonate through the work of the students she taught at the University of Missouri-Kansas City (where she had been on the faculty since 1995), aspiring poets who read the textbook she helped write ("Writing Poems"), other writers whose work she improved as associate editor of UMKC's BkMk Press, and poetry readers across the globe.
"'Writing Poems' was the first textbook I used when I first started teaching poetry many, many years ago, long before I ever knew Michelle," says Hadara Bar-Nadav, Boisseau's colleague on the faculty at UMKC. "It was the best textbook on writing poetry out there — insightful, inspiring, challenging, practical, and user-friendly, which is super important for students who are early in their writing careers."
Boisseau's writing about poems by Shakespeare, William Carlos Williams, and Whitman is "exquisite and even visionary," says Bar-Nadav, who would go on to co-author the book's 8th edition.
"'Writing Poems' is still a best-selling poetry textbook, and I'm honored I had the chance to work with Michelle," she says.
"Michelle had a brilliant mind, always fired up about language and science and the world and how we reveal ourselves in words. She was always a great and faithful friend," says Steve Paul, a writer, retired journalist and longtime book critic. "I think it's hugely poignant that her most recent book, 'Among the Gorgons,' navigates us through this landscape of death that we are now experiencing so intimately."
"Among the Gorgons" (University of Tampa, 2016) won the Tampa Review Prize for poetry. Boisseau wrote four other books of poetry: "A Sunday in God-Years" (University of Arkansas Press, 2009); and "Trembling Air" (University of Arkansas Press, 2003); "Understory" (Northeastern University Press, 1996), which won the Morse Prize; and "No Private Life" (Vanderbilt, 1990). Her poems and essays also appeared in Poetry, Gettysburg Review, Threepenny Review, Yale Review, Georgia Review, Kenyon Review, Southern Review, Shenandoah, Ploughshares, and elsewhere.
Among Boisseau's national honors was a 2017 Guggenheim Fellowship, whose recipients have "demonstrated exceptional capacity for productive scholarship or exceptional creative ability in the arts." As part of the Guggenheim Fellowship, Boisseau was working on a book of new and selected poems.
Boisseau also received prestigious National Endowments for the Arts fellowships and two prizes from The Poetry Society of America.
Earlier this month, students, colleagues and friends of Boisseau's "testified to the many ways she has made an impact on our campus, our community, and our profession," according to an announcement by Virginia Blanton, co-chair of the UMKC English Department. "A video of this event captures Michelle's essence as a mesmerizing poet, as a contemplative student of nature, as an charismatic national voice. Her family is touched that the video has been shared virtually hundreds of times."
Boisseau was born in Cincinnati, and earned her bachelor's and master's degrees at Ohio University; she earned her PhD from the University of Houston in 1985 and taught at Virginia Intermont College and Morehead State University before coming to UMKC. As a professor in Kansas City, she taught courses in American literature, modern and contemporary literature, and creative writing.
Much of Boisseau's recent work, particularly the poems in "Among the Gorgons," faced death directly.
"As we know from all myth, immortality is a terrible curse," Boisseau told Elam. "In a way, it's one of the subjects of all poetry: the beauty of mortality, because it gives the meaning to things. It's actually one of my aesthetics: that only with endings do we see the range of things. I mean, that's what art is. Art's only good about its frame, its ending; its limitations give us the flavor of life. That's what makes anything poignant, is that it's going to end."
That might have been Boisseau's aesthetic, but it appears to be one she transcended: In her poetry, Boisseau created internationally recognized poignancy destined to last well beyond her own mortality.
Listen to Michelle Boisseau's final interview with New Letters on the Air, recorded at the Kansas City Public Library, here. Additional Boisseau conversations, along with her interviews of other poets, are archived here.
C.J. Janovy is an arts reporter for KCUR 89.3. You can find her on Twitter, @cjjanovy.