Twenty-five years ago Michael McFee stepped into the student union. What he saw made him draw a sharp breath and hold it: A fellow student, sunk low in his chair and reading the Cellar Door, had opened the magazine to McFee’s poem-the first he’d ever published.

Michael McFee would someday publish five books of poetry. He would win a Pushcart Prize and a writing fellowship from the National Endowment for the Arts. And he would become an associate professor of English at Carolina, his alma mater, where he would win awards for teaching excellence and for artistic and scholarly achievement.

But at the time, McFee was an undergraduate waiting for another student’s reaction to his poem. “I was thinking he would jump up and say, ‘Hallelujah! I’ve been blessed!’” McFee says.

The student read on, cocking his head. His brow furrowed. He paused.

Then he threw the magazine to the table and stormed off, scowling.

Twenty-five years later McFee still remembers the lesson. “I’ve learned that it’s really okay to fail, or at least not to succeed the way I thought I was going to succeed,” he says. “I used to think you only sat down to write when you were really inspired by the Muses-and then when you did sit down, you wrote an immortal poem. And I’ve realized that’s fairly rare, at least for me.”

That’s not to say McFee doesn’t still feel butterflies when his poems go public. “I get this odd feeling,” he says, “because suddenly that poem isn’t mine any more-it’s a child and I’ve sent it into the world, and I’m watching to see where it ends up.”

But the places McFee’s poems end up-and the company they keep-would make any parent proud. He has published in the field’s heavyweights-Poetry, The New Yorker, and The Atlantic, to name a few-but also in publications as far afield as Bulls Illustrated: The Official Magazine of the Durham Bulls.

McFee’s poems are tautly bittersweet, suggesting worlds below the surface of words. Fellow poet and longtime friend Robert Morgan of Cornell University is moved by an undercurrent of humanity in McFee’s poems, one that “connects the reader with a sense of family and community across time and geography.”

That undercurrent flows through McFee’s second and third books-Vanishing Acts and Sad Girl Sitting on a Running Board-in which the poems are loosely based on family stories. “Cold Quilt” opens by describing a quilt stitched by McFee’s grandmother, who began sewing it “the day her husband died, a lifelong lament.”


At the funeral home, my uncle the soldier

draped her coffin with it, prayed, then handed

that life’s flag to me, compactly folded, her

crooked stitches and nearly-rotten panes still

tenacious after half a century, the sheep

I count now in the inherited dark, her cold quilt

a poultice I spread on my chest before sleep.


I love metaphor, simile, and especially strong imagery,” McFee says. “Often an unexpected image is like a glass of cold water in the face-it wakes you up, delights you.”

His fifth book, Colander, is filled with object poems, written to describe some particular physical thing. McFee calls the object poem a “verbal still life.” To his painterly eye, the humble colander is “Upside down, a holy helmet / crowning my son’s impressionable head, / its feet fierce horns.” By poem’s end, the colander has become “A mask of sweet ether / my blinded mother lifted to her face / over the still-steaming sink.”

In “The Napkin Manuscripts,” McFee wrote that a poet “pays attention; he sees and says; he saves his world from oblivion.” Easier said than done. “But I’m always carrying a little piece of paper,” McFee says, patting his pocket. “I walk around hoping to be struck by lightning, by some minor bolt. I jot down something and then take it to my desk and fool around with it. It might eventually turn into a poem, or it might not.”

Always a bit restless, McFee finds it hard to face the typewriter all day. “If I start writing at eight-thirty or nine,” he says, between bites of a Snickers bar, “then after about noon or one it’s really time to do something else-the mind can only stay focused for so long. So I go walk it off, shoot hoops.”

But that restlessness also leads him to try new things. “When a poet makes a step to another level of writing, or another kind of writing that’s really different from what came before,” he says, “then I think that really confirms him or her as a writer.” In To See, McFee wrote 33 poems responding to the photographs of Elizabeth Matheson. “I’d never done anything like it, and it was a blast.”

McFee’s aversion to sitting still has been a boon to other North Carolina writers. In 1994 he edited The Language They Speak Is Things to Eat, a book of poems by 15 contemporary North Carolina poets. Published by UNC Press, the book featured healthy helpings of some of our state’s best: Carolina faculty William Harmon and James Seay, along with Fred Chappell, Reynolds Price, Robert Morgan, and others.

Now McFee is at the helm of a second editing project. This fall UNC Press will release This Is Where We Live: Short Stories by 25 Contemporary North Carolina Writers. “The book’s authors are generally young,” he says, “while some of the stories are somewhat weird-strange, dark, edgy. It’s an exciting bunch of stories, really fun to read through.”

Admittedly, I’m editing a book of fiction, and I don’t write fiction. But as a poet, I like the language to be as intense as possible, as sharp and active as possible. I may have gravitated toward that kind of story, but in fact I think that’s the kind of story most of these writers write anyway. A good writer of fiction is not going to write a flabby, abstract thing. Instead, the story is going to be very pungent. And these are.”

McFee remains impressed by the state of literature in our state. “The number of first-rate North Carolina fiction writers and poets is unbelievable,” he says. The last couple of decades, he says, have produced “an enormous outburst” of talented Tar Heel writers.

Why the outburst?

My colleague Bill Harmon blames it on the diet: He says it’s all barbecue and Brunswick stew,” McFee laughs.

Diet aside, he says, no one really knows why North Carolina has been so blessed. “I imagine that writers in the English Renaissance had a problem figuring out what they were about-it’s hard to do that when you’re surrounded by it.”

McFee points out all the good creative writing teachers who have worked in the state-among them Doris Betts at Carolina, William Blackburn at Duke, and Randall Jarrell at UNC-Greensboro-and organizations such as the North Carolina Writers’ Network.

But there’s something more: “I agree with my colleague Alan Shapiro,” McFee says. “He’s from Boston and taught for a long time in Chicago. What he finds remarkable about North Carolina is not so much the writers, but the readers.”

He says he’s never been in a place where there are more serious readers of writers-that people actually buy your books, and read them, and will talk to you about them, and want to talk about other books they might want to read. He seems to see a real passion in readership in the state. I think that’s true, and I think we may have taken it for granted.”

McFee enjoys bringing North Carolina writers into direct contact with their readers. For the past four years he has organized the Second Sunday series of readings, held on campus once a month.

Now in its eighth year, the series has featured over one hundred North Carolina writers-two per reading-without repeating. McFee says our state is so rich in writing talent that the series won’t repeat an author for at least two more years.

It’s all been so much fun,” McFee says, “but I probably have an enormously simple-minded approach to life.” McFee once taught in Wisconsin, where a group of his students asked: Why do you do what you do? Why be a poet?

These were some very sober Lutheran kids,” he laughs. “They had a very serious worldview. I said, ‘I do it mainly because I really enjoy it.’ They seemed stunned. They were waiting for some sort of elaborate academic explanation. So again I said, ‘No, it’s fun.’ They didn’t seem to think that was right-to them, being a poet shouldn’t be fun; it should be a responsibility.

But that’s sort of the criterion for what I do: serious fun.”

McFee’s sixth book of poetry, Earthly, will be published by Carnegie Mellon University Press in early 2001. Second Sunday readings are held the second Sunday of each month during the academic year, in the Pleasants Family Assembly Room of Wilson library at UNC-Chapel Hill. Readings begin at 2:30 p.m. and are free and open to the public.