The Writing Seminars Department welcomes a husband-and-wife pair of professors this year: Poet, lyricist, and playwright Mary Jo Salter and poet, novelist, and essayist Brad Leithauser (whose appointment does not begin officially until the spring semester). Coming from an unusual shared faculty position at Mount Holyoke College, Salter and Leithauser are award-winning writers and teachers who are "the kind of academic professionals we all want to grow up to be," says Department Chair Dave Smith. "We simply could not have selected two people more certain to make immediate contributions to the life of our university...[and] destined to become leaders here."
We caught up with the duo in late summer, as they were preparing to make the move to Baltimore.
Photo by Jonathan Olson
Specialization: The writing of poetry; poetry criticism; prosody; Emily Dickinson; W.H. Auden; Tom Stoppard
Stats: MA, University of Cambridge; BA, Harvard University
Awards and honors (a sampling): NEA and Guggenheim fellowships, Maribeth E. Cameron Faculty Prize for Scholarship at Mount Holyoke
Books and more: Her latest collection, A Phone Call to the Future: New and Selected Poems, is forthcoming in February 2008 from Knopf. She has written several other collections of poems, including Open Shutters (a New York Times Notable Book of the Year in 2003) and is co-editor of The Norton Anthology of Poetry. Oh, and she's also a lyricist and a playwright: Her song cycle, "Rooms of Light," was set to music by jazz pianist and composer Fred Hersch and premiered at New York's Lincoln Center earlier this year. She saw her first play, Falling Bodies, performed in 2004.
Coming to Hopkins: After more than 20 years teaching undergraduate women at Mount Holyoke College, Salter is excited to teach both male and female students, as well as graduate students. During a stint as a visiting faculty member at Hopkins last year, she was happy to see that fully half her students in a course about four American women poets were men, and that their presence did not stifle the voices of their female classmates. The graduate students she came to know here "were all very talented and very serious about their work-not in a boring way, in a fun way," she says.
Fall teaching: In addition to a graduate workshop on forms of poetry, Salter is again teaching Readings in Poetry: Four Women Poets, which explores the work of Emily Dickinson, Marianne Moore, Elizabeth Bishop, and Amy Clampitt. From the course description: "All are known for their originality, and shaped the course of poetry in our time-by both women and men-in significant ways."
Coming home: Salter grew up in Baltimore and is an alumna of Towson High School. "I've been walking and driving by Hopkins all my life," she says.
All in the family: Salter and Leithauser share not only two daughters (Emily, 24, an aspiring poet at Boston University, and Hilary, 19, a sophomore at the University of Chicago), but the same publisher and editor as well, and they shared the full-time position of Emily Dickinson Senior Lecturer in the Humanities at Mount Holyoke College. They did their first team-teaching at the Sewanee Writers' Conference this summer, but so far that's it for professional collaborations.
Alternate career: "If I weren't a writer, I'd be a composer-of large pieces like symphonies and operas and Broadway musicals," she says. "I admire the architectural imagination of composers, as well as their ability to move us without words."
Specialization: Creative writing (including poetry, novels, and essays)
Stats: JD, Harvard Law School; BA, Harvard College
Awards and honors (a sampling): MacArthur and Guggenheim fellowships, Ingram Merrill Fellowship, Maribeth E. Cameron Faculty Prize for Scholarship
Latest works: Toad to a Nightingale, a book of light verse and drawings out in September from David R. Godine, is a collaboration between Leithauser and his brother, Mark, an artist and chief of design at the National Gallery in Washington. Knopf published a recent collection of his poems, Curves and Angles, in 2006. Leithauser also has a novel in the works, The Art Student's War, which he says he's been working on for "a hundred years," set during World War II and based somewhat on a chapter from his mother-in-law's life, when she worked for the USO sketching soldiers in military hospitals.
Brothers in arts: Brad and older brother Mark first collaborated in 2002 on Darlington's Fall, a verse novel for which Mark did detailed drawings for each chapter (the New York Times selected it as one of the year's notable books). Then in 2004, they published Lettered Creatures, for which Brad wrote 28 light-verse animal portraits and Mark supplied 28 pencil drawings.
Coming to Hopkins: Leithauser's faculty appointment at Hopkins begins in January, and he's looking forward, in particular, to working with graduate students. "I do have a very happy sense of its being a collegial place," he adds.
Frozen muse: It's fair to call Leithauser's love of Iceland an obsession, his wife says. It began in 1989 when he taught there as a Fulbright lecturer. He returns every year and has written often about the country and its literature. For that work, the president of Iceland awarded him the high honor of the Order of the Falcon in 2005. "It's a kind of fanatical attachment," Leithauser admits, saying he prefers to go when it's cold, dark, and dreary-because it helps him write. He says he tells his students, "'The goal of a writer is to get into a state of productive self-pity.' When I go to Iceland, I get there and I start to feel very sorry for myself."
Alternate career: Leithauser trained at Harvard to be a lawyer before venturing into creative writing-with works that frequently touch on nature or natural history. "I do have fantasies in which I became some sort of specialist in one of those aspects of the natural world that feed my imagination," he says. "I would have liked to be a lepidopterist or paleontologist, particularly."