He was hooked in high school by the Book of the Month Club. The deal was good—seven hardbacks for a dollar—so he ordered The Complete Robert Frost. Frost’s imagery was the kind a rural Virginia kid could understand, and before long Michael Chitwood realized he had something in common with the well-loved American poet.

Frost was writing about things that I also knew something about,” he says. “I thought: You can make poetry out of this. It’s okay to write about people using chainsaws.” Soon he developed a writing habit that he hasn’t kicked since.

Chitwood, visiting professor of English, laughs when he remembers those days. “I guess my ignorance kept me strong—I didn’t know what I should and shouldn’t be doing. I knew at some point I would probably have to go to New York City, because I thought all writers lived in New York City.”

In the meantime, he settled on college, becoming the first in his extended family to leave home for school. He kept writing all along. When his school offered a course in creative writing, he couldn’t believe his luck. “It was like nirvana to me,” he says, “to actually be able to take a class in the thing I was doing on my own anyway.”

Since then he’s gone on to get a master’s degree in fine arts from the University of Virginia. He’s also received a fellowship from the North Carolina Arts Council, published five books of poetry, and taught advanced poetry writing classes at Carolina. His work appears in poetry journals from coast to coast, and his commentaries air regularly on National Public Radio affiliate WUNC FM.

Chitwood finds poetry in things most of us are too busy to notice, let alone write about. Opossums, dirt bikes, dew-soaked shoes, the end of first shift at the cloth mill. “I’m hoping for those moments in everyday life where the ordinary can become something else,” he says.

He doesn’t consciously set out to transform the ordinary. But he knows what makes his poems work. “I like a poem to retrieve something that I hadn’t known needed retrieving—an image, or a smell, or a sound from another time—and maybe connect it to its emotional twin or its meaning in my life,” says Chitwood. “It’s wonderfully surprising when you write a poem that goes someplace you hadn’t planned on it going. Or it brings back something that you hadn’t known was back there.”

Chitwood likes the poem to do the same thing for the reader. “I hope to connect with the reader’s experience,” he says. “They might think: I’ve felt the same way, but I haven’t put it in those terms.” But he says he’s after more than a mere connection—he wants communication: “When a poem really works, it’s a silent dialogue between us.”

He loves it when a reader continues the dialogue. People approach him to say things like “I’m not a Southerner, but your grandmother is just like my Jewish grandmother in New York.” He was particularly touched after giving a reading at Florida International University. “A graduate student came up to me,” Chitwood says. “He was Chinese, and in fairly broken English he said, ‘your little village is like my little village.’”

It’s easy to see why Chitwood’s readers experience that sense of connection. He fills his poems with everyday people—the telephone interviewer, the mayor’s invalid mother, the commuter pausing at the Stop-N-Go. They’re familiar but fascinating. “I think you become attracted to any character in a poem by viewing them as a real person,” he says. “They have good and bad qualities. If people are presented in their fullness, other people will be attracted to them.”

A few years ago, one of Chitwood’s poems was selected for an anthology of poems about work. When the book was released, he was struck by the way most of the poems depicted working people as joyless, depressed, and in dismal straits. “As I read it, I thought: this is not my experience of working people.” He felt they deserved more.

That dissatisfaction was still smoldering in his memory when he next visited his hometown. Rocky Mount, Virginia, is a blue-collar place—the hills crawl with bass boats yoked to pickups, and the men inside them have likely punched the silk mill’s clock a time or two.

Silk Mill. It hasn’t produced silk in ages, but the locals hold on to the name. The mill’s proper name—the Angle Plant—comes from the wealthy family who once owned it. Parachutes, choir robes, second shift, third—the Angle Plant turned them out for seventy years. Chitwood’s father retired after giving the mill 35 years. Chitwood spent two college summers working there.

He hadn’t been back home long when the two of them decided to pay the mill a visit. “We walked into that noise—the sound of the place is what hits you first—literally hits you, you can feel it. I saw my father leaning in to talk to people, putting his hand on their shoulder, getting right up in their ear. Suddenly, all these memories of the weave room started to flood back.”

He knew right away what he had to do. He started working on The Weave Room, a book of poems about the people of the mill and their struggle with unionization. Far from being dismal, the workers in The Weave Room form a choir of memorable characters—one man can heal burns, another woman’s gospel quilts bring her fame. They’re people of joy and dignity. The mill makes them kin, even while the unionization issue threatens to drive them apart.

Some of the workers from the Angle Plant have read The Weave Room. One, a weaver who used to haul Chitwood home after work, bought four copies for his children and had Chitwood sign them. The weaver said, “I never dreamed while I was spending thirty years working in this place that somebody could write a book about it.”

It’s the first of his books to connect with a diverse audience, says Chitwood. “It’s great to think: in one university it’s been taught in classes, and here are the children of mill workers reading it.” He says it seems like everyone who reads the book has family who worked in a textile mill.

The Angle Plant’s parent company, JPS Textile Group Incorporated, plans to close the mill this year. One hundred eighty people will walk away from their looms for the last time, making The Weave Room an especially bittersweet taste of the South.

Chitwood doesn’t hold up the South as his shield, but he knows
where his voice comes from. “Being labeled a regional writer is almost always pejorative,” he says. “But I do consider myself a regional writer—a Southern writer—and I take that on gladly and actually genetically.” He says he can’t imagine being anything else: “I’m gonna dance with who brung me.”

Hear and read Chitwood’s poetry.