Poet 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,” Walsh said of his time reading pastoral works. “I honestly couldn’t find a book of poetry which traced the childhood of a gay kid, and 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, which was 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, revealing that what first seems peaceful is actually visceral and bizarre. Within “The Dirt Riddles” are descriptions of his mother artificially inseminating a cow and a prayer to manure, that substance which makes the earth yield prolific. 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 which is in its eleventh 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,” Walsh said. “I wouldn’t have expected it. I feel subversive.”
By no means is this the first time that Walsh’s poetry has garnered attention. In 2008 he was a semifinalist for the Phillip 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 popular syndicated radio program “The Writer’s Almanac,” hosted by prairie celebrity Garrison Keillor.
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. One poem, he recalls, even “more or less survived” from his time as an undergraduate.
“I edited it down quite a bit from the version I wrote as an undergraduate,” said Walsh. “And that’s the one poem that I can clearly trace. But all the fiction and poetry I wrote [as an undergraduate] lived in the same world, had the same kind of images going on in it. All the lines are different, but it’s still the same place.”
Perhaps no one had as much influence in solidifying Walsh’s concern with place as Phillip Sydney Post Professor of English Robin Metz, for whom Walsh worked as a secretary and teacher’s assistant.
“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.”
A distinctive quality in Metz’s teaching, Walsh recalled, was his “uncanny gift for helping young writers see what they are doing in their writing that they don’t know they’re doing.”
But Metz’s influence was not merely artistic; in his professor, Walsh also found a trusted friend.
“Sensitive and extroverted—it’s a weird combo,” Walsh said of his former professor. “He can really read you and feel what’s going on with you and then say really directly what he thinks, in a way that isn’t intrusive.”
Yet in describing his mentor, Walsh has also described his own work, which couples a sharp poetic awareness with a surprising 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.
“I’m certain my great interest in the craft of painters, photographers and sculptors informs my feelings about declarations,” Walsh told Lambda Literary last year. “I always prefer to evoke.”