Beyond words

November 16th 2015
Arts & Humanities
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Ron Wallace, the 'father' of creative writing at UW-Madison, is retiring after 43 years

Ron Wallace glanced up from his desk in the hallway of the cramped efficiency apartment in Ypsilanti, Mich., allowing himself a short break from sifting through the words of 19th-century novelist Henry James.

It was a rainy spring day, and the aspiring literary scholar and doctoral student caught a glimpse through the window of a toddler joyfully running and splashing her way through the drizzle.

"I thought, 'That's more important than this research on Henry James. I want to write about her,'" Wallace recalls. "And so I wrote the first poem I'd written in two years."

The moment of inspiration solidified Wallace's resolve to write for a living, a decision that launched a remarkable career and shaped the course of creative writing — and the lives of thousands of young, aspiring writers — at the University of Wisconsin-Madison. Wallace, who has since founded or co-founded nearly every aspect of the highly-ranked Creative Writing Program in the Department of English, is retiring at the end of the semester after 43 years on campus.

The Halls-Bascom Professor of English and Felix Pollak Professor of Poetry will mark the occasion with a special on-campus poetry reading from his two most recent books, For Dear Life and You Can’t Be Serious, Thursday, Nov. 19 at 7 p.m. at the Pyle Center.

[caption id="attachment_18111" align="alignright" width="250"]Wallace teaches Intro to Modern Literature to about 300 first-year students in 1978. (Submitted photo) Wallace teaches Intro to Modern Literature to about 300 first-year students in 1978. (Submitted photo)[/caption]

Wallace was selling underwear in a Famous-Barr department store in St. Louis — "They knew I had a Ph.D., so they called me Professor; I was Professor of Underwear" — when he got a call from the UW-Madison English department in the summer of 1972. He had applied for a position teaching literature the previous winter, but now the department had an urgent opening in creative writing, and the eight poems on Wallace's application had made an impression.

Those poems were crafted while traveling around Europe with his wife, Peg, after finishing his Ph.D. at the University of Michigan in 1971 and selling "everything we owned." A month-long stay in a rustic chalet on the edge of Grindelwald, a small Swiss village tucked into the Bernese Alps, in particular, provided lyrical inspiration.

"That's where I wrote some of my first real poems," he says.

Wallace arrived in Madison in the fall of 1972 on a one-year appointment carrying a simple piece of advice from an alumnus and family friend: "Make yourself indispensable." He saw a need in creative writing — students were lined up in the halls during registration time, jockeying for spots in his two upper-level courses.

"It just seemed to me that we needed an undergraduate program," Wallace says, and so he established the creative writing emphasis within the undergraduate English major in 1978.

Eight years later, he started the Wisconsin Institute for Creative Writing, a post-MFA fellowship program, and the University of Wisconsin Press poetry series (the Brittingham Prize and, since 1994, the Pollak Prize). And in 2002, he helped found the university's MFA program in creative writing. UW-Madison is the only school in the country to boast creative writing programs at the undergraduate, graduate and post-graduate levels.

"He built the creative writing program, so he is, in that sense, the father of us all," says Jesse Lee Kercheval, the Zona Gale Professor of English and a colleague since 1987.

"You take out your anger, your frustration, whatever those feelings are, through writing." — Ron Wallace, Halls-Bascom Professor of English and Felix Pollak Professor of Poetry

As the Creative Writing Program as a whole has grown, Wallace has maintained a deep connection to the undergraduate program, where he says he is energized by witnessing students "moving from one level of writing to another." Colleagues marvel at his ability to earn exemplary teaching evaluations semester after semester, whether in a small poetry seminar or a large introductory literature lecture.

"He seemed to know exactly when to coax you, to admonish you, to applaud you, wheedle, whatever it was," says David Clewell (B.A.'77, English), a former student and longtime friend who is an English professor at Webster University and a former poet laureate of Missouri. "He had such an eclectic variety of things to draw on, but it was such a down-to-earth way of talking about those things."

Song of Myself by Ron WallaceAnd that unpretentious manner is also a hallmark of Wallace's writing. His poetry is accessible, with light-hearted riffs on topics like gardening, pets and outhouses (he built one at the farm he and his wife own in Richland County). But Wallace also explores complex and painful topics, including his late father's extended struggles with multiple sclerosis and their contentious relationship.

"You take out your anger, your frustration, whatever those feelings are, through writing," says the 70-year-old Wallace, whose recent work has, by his own admission, taken on a slightly darker tone.

But regardless of subject matter or form — Wallace once wrote a sonnet a day for a year, resulting in his 1998 collection The Uses of Adversity— his witty, humorous voice tends to shine through.

"It speaks to people. It's clever and engaging and it makes you smile while he's shooting the arrows into your heart," says Professor of English Judith Claire Mitchell.

Wallace will continue to edit the Brittingham and Pollak Prize series. And the man who, as a ninth grader, was drawn to poetry by Emily Dickinson's "We Play at Paste" will keep writing in retirement.

"Somebody said, 'You can do what you've always wanted to do.' And I think that's what I've been doing for 43 years," he says. "I can't imagine anything else better. This is what I've always wanted to do. So what am I going to do? I've got at least one more book in me — maybe more."