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Colleen McElroy, poet and University of Washington’s first full-time Black female faculty member, dies

By Alexandra Yoon-Hendricks, The Seattle Times
Published: January 1, 2024, 3:04pm

SEATTLE — Colleen J. McElroy, a nationally known poet and the first Black woman to serve as a full-time faculty member at the University of Washington, died of natural causes Dec. 12. She was 88.

Rising to prominence at a time when few Black female poets were visible in the Pacific Northwest, McElroy would become a prolific writer and dominant force in the American poetry world. As a professor, she helped hundreds of students hone their voice, shepherding future generations of writers and artists.

Possessing an insatiable curiosity and an adventurer’s spirit, McElroy was known for imbuing her writing with musicality and global perspective. Stories from her travels abroad mingled with excavations of her family history, as she spun threads in search of themes and emotions that transcended the individual.

Beyond poetry, McElroy, a gifted storyteller, wrote in nearly every genre, including plays, short stories, essays, fiction, television scripts, travel writing and memoir. Over the course of her life, she published 16 books and poetry collections. She was also a painter and a devoted dancer.

“She was one of the most deeply artistic people I’ve ever met,” said Frances McCue, a friend and former student of McElroy who now teaches literature at the University of Washington. “She had endless curiosity and the bravery to step into whatever art she was doing.”

Few topics were off-limits for McElroy. She tackled thorny subjects — war, family, race, death, sex, aging, guilt, love, estrangement, legacy, abortion, homelessness, lynchings in the South, environmental catastrophe — with diamond-sharp honesty and lyrical enjambed lines.

“I know now that I am here to give / voice to tongues never silent / and doors closing too quickly,” reads the opening poem of McElroy’s 2016 poetry book, “Blood Memory.”

Just before the pandemic, she completed her final manuscript, a poetry collection she titled “Done.” She continued to write new pieces of poetry during lockdown, keeping busy even as her health declined in the last six months.

“Through her illness she had me bring her notebooks to the hospital as thoughts and words came to her,” said her friend and literary executor Michael Faucette. “She was always a wordsmith.”

In 1985, she won the American Book Award for her poetry collection “Queen of the Ebony Isles,” and in 2008, she won the PEN Oakland National Literary Award for her poetry collection “Sleeping With the Moon.”

McElroy’s greatest legacy may be her work as a dedicated teacher and mentor for scores of young writers, serving as a paragon for aspiring female poets and poets of color. As a professor, McElroy taught outside the Western canon, frequently including writers from around the world.

“She wanted people to fall in love with language as much as she did,” said Jan Wallace, a friend and mentee of McElroy. “As I say that, I can hear her, banging her fist on the table, saying, ‘There is power in language.’”

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In 1994, Ada Limón took her first poetry class under McElroy as an undergraduate student. Limón recalled how seriously McElroy took her work, believing that poetry “was not just an art form, but a dedication for your whole life.”

Limón remembers sitting in McElroy’s office and McElroy asking her what she planned to do after graduating. Limón said she was thinking about an MFA in acting. McElroy thought otherwise.

“She said, ‘I think you should really think about going to grad school for poetry,’” Limón said. “She was really the first person to put me on that path.”

Limón followed McElroy’s advice, and with a letter of recommendation from McElroy, would go on to attend New York University. In 2022, Limón was named the 24th U.S. poet laureate.

“Her encouragement came in such a beautiful way, because she wasn’t necessarily easy,” Limón said. “She was generous and caring, but she was tough, and so when she gave her praise, it was hard won.”

Outside her professional work as a poet, McElroy was an avid explorer, often using bits and pieces of her experiences abroad as fodder for future writing. McElroy would often tell people she had visited a country for every letter of the alphabet, except L and X.

She rode a Harley-Davidson across the Australian desert, dived in the Fiji Islands, drove shoulder-to-shoulder with lions in Tanzania. She visited ancient cities and holy places: Angkor Wat in Cambodia, Machu Picchu in Peru, Timbuktu in Mali.

McElroy won a Fulbright fellowship to travel to Yugoslavia in 1988, and five years later, won a second Fulbright fellowship to go to Madagascar. There, she documented the origin myths and oral traditions of the Malagasy people as an ethnographer. She would go on to share her travels in her 1997 book “A Long Way from St. Louie,” and her 2001 book “Over the Lip of the World: Among the Storytellers of Madagascar.”

“All those stories I hear when traveling force me to learn how to describe things,” she told The Seattle Times in 1997. “I can’t be complacent. If I see something wonderful, I must ask, what it is that makes it wonderful?”

It was on one of those adventures eight years ago that McElroy would meet her partner.

The pair, on paper, couldn’t be more unlike: McElroy was a poet and former university professor living in Seattle, while James Fitzmaurice was a former sports broadcaster who lived in Sydney.

But the two bonded over a love of travel while on a boat tour of Myanmar. They held deep conversations daily, shared a compassion for the plight of others, and enjoyed lots of good humor. McElroy and Fitzmaurice would spend months at a time visiting each other’s homes and traveling to faraway locales — Lake Como and Amalfi in Italy among their favorite destinations.

“Two people coming from other sides of the world with no mutual background,” Fitzmaurice said, “logically they shouldn’t get together, but it’s amazing we did and we became very compatible. We had a lot of fun together.”

McElroy was born Oct. 30, 1935, in St. Louis, to a family of storytellers.

Hiding under the dining table at her grandmother’s house, McElroy would listen to her grandmother, grandfather, aunts and mother swap tales of their youth, read aloud from their library and share news from the war abroad.

She tuned in to radio shows and put 78-rpm recordings on her grandmother’s windup Victrola, learning “to listen, rather than watch the world unfold,” McElroy said in an interview for the African American Review in 2008.

“There I learned to love the sound of language, how words hold a cadence,” she wrote in an article for Oprah Magazine. “There I learned to listen, to know when a story was about to take a turn, when the ending played out slowly, like grosgrain ribbon let loose from a package, or suddenly, like a door slamming in a gust of wind.”

She traveled frequently as a child after her mother remarried to an Army sergeant, stationing the family abroad in Germany and other foreign locations. Her early college days were similarly circuitous, with McElroy eventually landing on speech pathology as a career after graduating from Kansas State University with a master’s degree in 1963.

Eventually, she moved to the Pacific Northwest in 1965, lured by its more temperate weather and a job offer to run speech and hearing services at Western Washington State College (which became Western Washington University in 1977) in Bellingham.

Poetry was always in her.

In Bellingham, she met another young poet, who would become her husband, and began attending open mic poetry readings and events held by civil rights activists. Her passion for poetry was rekindled. As she devoured the works of other Black poets, she found that the words poured out of her like water.

“She realized she did have a place there, and that was incredibly liberating for her since she had always been a writer,” said Bethany Reid, another former student of McElroy and poet.

Incorporating her expertise in speech pathology, McElroy was always hyperfocused on finding a melody in the staccato of syllables and the rhythm of sentences. Her poems didn’t just tell stories, Reid said. They sang.

After a divorce in 1971, she moved to Seattle to complete a doctorate at the University of Washington, writing a dissertation on the ethnolinguistic patterns of dialect differences and oral traditions.

After earning her doctorate, she became a full-time English professor at the UW in 1983, the first Black woman to become a full-time faculty member. From 1995 to 2007, McElroy served as editor of The Seattle Review, a literary magazine based at the university.

Eventually, she would go on to befriend titans of American poetry and literature she had once admired from afar, including Gwendolyn Brooks, Audre Lorde and Ishmael Reed.

Peeling away the stereotypes of what it meant to be a Black woman in America would be a consistent theme in McElroy’s work. She championed writing with precision, not only to illuminate truths of the human condition, but to also contribute to a collective effort of social change.

“What you have put down on paper has become part of a greater voice,” McElroy told The Times in 1978, in an interview about the depiction of women in literature.

McElroy was also an outspoken critic of the literary world’s racial bias against writers of color, particularly for literary awards and recognition.

“She made a lot of good trouble,” said UW professor and friend McCue. “The gates hadn’t been open in the ways they are now. She was brave when she saw injustice and she would call it out. … It was a sea of whiteness when she got here, and she charted the course for more writers of color to be visible.”

Nikky Finney recalled discovering McElroy in Essence magazine in the mid-1970s when she was a teenager, hungry for models of how to make a life as a poet. She would study McElroy’s work closely, cutting out her poems from the pages of publications and taping them in her journals.

In McElroy, Finney said she found not only a Black female poet who wrote about “any subject with their heart and head leading the way,” but also one who wasn’t afraid to leave home and write about that home — someone “breaking with whatever tradition they had been told and taught not to break with.”

“She refused to concede to any easy notions of what it meant to be Black and female and a human who knew the richness of being a storyteller,” said Finney, now a University of South Carolina professor teaching creative writing and Southern literature, in an email. “There were no boxes she would allow her life or language to be kept inside of.”

McElroy is survived by two adult children, Kevin McElroy and Vanessa McElroy, and her life partner James Fitzmaurice. A service is planned for early 2024 at a to-be-announced date and location.