AN APPRECIATION OF MICHELLE GILLETT
Michelle Gillett contributed much to masspoetry.org. Several years ago she was one of eight bloggers for our site. In the years since, she has contributed many essays, including one on the State of Poetry and another on Poets Who Write Prose.
Michelle died last Thursday. Her two daughters flew in to be with her and their father during that trying time. Our thoughts are with her family.
Michelle was not only a wonderful poet, she was a gracious, thoughtful, loving person. I met her at Bread Loaf over 30 years ago, and we got our MFAs from Warren Wilson at the same time. She has been my poetry buddy—my close friend—ever since. For years we exchanged poems, by letters in the early days. Lately Michelle, Martha Rhodes, and I have created our own poetry retreats, writing for a few days together in Rockport, the Hudson River Valley, Long Island, etc. On our last retreat in October, Michelle insisted on taking my suitcase up a spiral staircase. She remembered I had had knee replacement surgery a few years before, a fact I no longer think about. But she did. A small thing in the entirety of our friendship, but so characteristic. Her thoughtfulness was the backbone of so many of her other endearing traits, even her ability to critique a poem.
When her death was announced on the Warren Wilson list serve, comments about her generosity, her quick wit, her smart poems poured in. Here's a sampling:
- "What a dear friend, what a phenomenal person and poet."
- "My heart is irreparably broken. I feel as though I've lost a sister-mother-best friend, all rolled into one."
- "She was a talented poet and a terrific teacher."
- "I never met Michelle, but shortly after I finished at Warren Wilson I read an incredible poem of hers online and emailed her to tell her how fine it was. She was so so welcoming and gracious."
- I remember the "residency when she arrived on campus with a wonderful energy and smile on her face."
Many commented on particular poems of Michelle's that they loved, on her paintings that she donated for the Warren Wilson scholarship fund, on her energy and drive.
Michelle’s poetry often seems to be about the natural world—loons, hornets, bears, hemlock, Persiad showers, owls, crows—a world often observed while gardening, walking, or boating. But hers are not simply poems that celebrate nature. The environment is there to reveal the fears, loves, and predicaments of the human psyche. Her poems also probe family traumas that occurred before she was born, the horror of World War II Europe that both her mother and father endured before coming to the States. Over the years her poetry became less overtly narrative and more suggestive. But it remained the poetry Hayden Carruth described when he chose her book for the Backwaters Prize: “No frills from the workshop, no ostentatious diction or imagery, but only the firm, quiet enterprise of authenticity.”
In a review of her chapbook The Green Cottage Claire Keyes says, "With her ability to marry the lyrical with the political, Gillett challenges her readers to open themselves to themes of death and dying, to a sense of time passing and the inevitable loss of loved ones, but also to sustaining love for other humans and the natural world."
Michelle was the author of two chapbooks, the Blackwaters Poetry Prize winner, and a second book, which was recently accepted for publication by Salmon Press. She was also the winner of numerous prizes, including a grant from the Massachusetts Cultural Council. She contributed much to the world of poetry, especially in the western part of the state where she taught poetry workshops for years. Many participants stayed in her workshops because of Michelle’s generosity of spirit and her precise critical mind. Hardly any activity involving poetry occurred in the Berkshires that she was not part of. She was also well-known there as a longtime, regular op-ed columnist for The Berkshire Eagle and as a contributing editor to the Women’s Times.
The Berkshire Eagle published an elegiac obituary of its longtime columnist.
Here is a list of Michelle’s books:
The Green Cottage, winner of the Ledge 2011 Poetry Chapbook Competition
Rock & Spindle, a letterpress chapbook, published by Mad River Press
Blinding the Goldfinches, Backwaters Poetry Prize in 2003, selected by Hayden Carruth
A Kitchen Gardener’s Cookbook, In Celebration of Motherhood, a collection of essays.
Michelle’s recently finished manuscript, Coming About, will be published by Salmon Press in 2017.
Here are links to some of her poems, including one—the first one--in our Poems of the Moment series: