From Michael Wolfe:
I began writing seriously at age 14. I happened upon a biography of Ezra Pound in my hometown library in a Cincinnati suburb, and the story of a poet’s dedication to the written word turned a tumbler in my being; that he got into trouble later, and occasionally wore an ear-ring, increased the mystique.
At fifteen, I sent some of my poems to John Ciardi, care of the Saturday Review, for which he wrote a column on language. This correspondence landed me at Bread Loaf Writers Conference the following summer. There I met Robert Frost, John Berryman, and Dudley Fitts. Later, Berryman and Fitts directed me toward Wesleyan University, and Richard Wilbur, and helped me enter university despite a lousy performance in high school math. I “studied” poetry with Dick Wilbur for 4 years at Wesleyan; this invaluable experience consisted of visiting his office once a week for an hour and showing him a new poem, if I had one. Rather than major in the literature of my own language, I studied Greek and Latin, French and German. How wise this was I am not sure; it left me badly read in English; I did, however, manage to read Homer, Herodotus, Catullus, Virgil, and Propertius in their own meters. I graduated in 1968.
In 1969, I applied for an Amy Lowell Traveling Scholarship in poetry. I was living in Tangier, Morocco, in 1970 when word arrived that I would receive this grant. It was a Godsend as by that time I was running low on funds. The scholarship was renewed several times, allowing me to travel in North and West Africa for about 3 years.
This African experience had two lasting effects on my career: first, it induced me upon my return to America to start a small press publishing company, Tombouctou Books, named after the African capital where books were worth their weight in gold. Second, my travels brought me face to face with Islam, a faith and culture about which I had known nothing and which I found very interesting.
I settled in Northern California. There as a very small-time publisher, editing a few books every year (and designing them on a light-board in my kitchen), I came into touch with writers at home and in Africa too. I continued to travel there, when the opportunity arose.
Between 1975 and 1980, I published three books of poetry and a small travel journal called In Morocco. My writing until this time, save for the travel journal, was all in verse.
Gradually, I began to take an interest in writing sentences and paragraphs. This, for me, remains a separate matter from writing poetry_ formally, socially, and psychologically. In the past, it had been quite enough for me to fill the middle portion of a single sheet of paper, when the notion struck me; in formal terms, you could say that the short lyric was really all I cared about. Now I began to consider the entire page, the relation between one paragraph and another, and the notion of story. I also began to write in a daily way, which no lyric poet would ever think of. Indeed, I became transfixed with all this and ceased writing verse for many years.
In the 1980s, I published a book of fiction, and produced other prose works, some half finished, others finished but failed or just abandoned. Something else was happening in this period, too: I was undergoing an emotional and spiritual transformation. To put it plainly, I had grown fed up with the limits of my own well honed, ironic, skeptical view of life, a view that had served me well in certain ways, but which nonetheless left me feeling too often outside my own experience, more an observer than a participant, less an emotional being than a summation of words and thoughts. In short, I was missing the texture of life, an indefinable quality, for the lack of which people wander off into deserts and don’t come back.
I found myself taking an interest in Islam (of all things) during this time. Now I think I know why, but at the time it was hardly conscious. Rather, I felt like a compass needle turning to the North. In time, I found a fresh direction there, a path to a hidden entrance that seemed to lead me back into the world. Being then more a beggar than a chooser, I followed the instinct, as dogs track a scent. Along the way, I taught myself about Islam, slowly, without asking why. (There was no one to ask. The nearest mosque, had I thought of it, was 100 miles away.)
In a year or two I began to consider traveling to Mecca, to take part in the annual Muslim pilgrimage. I wrote a friend in Morocco, the author Mohammed Mrabet; Mrabet wrote back, through our mutual friend, his translator Paul Bowles, encouraging me. This all sounds somewhat exotic as I write it, but there was nothing exotic about it, in my mind. I also laid plans to write a book about the journey, for writing had always been my way of defining, internalizing and sharing events. Also, the formal concerns of a Western travel book with spiritual dimensions intrigued me.
In 1989 I became a Muslim, formally. In 1990, I traveled to Morocco and spent some months there, before going on to Mecca. I went on my own. The experience was transformative.
I spent about three years writing a book about this journey: The Hadj: An American’s Pilgrimage to Mecca, which Atlantic Monthly Press and Morgan Entrekin gamely saw me through, then published in 1993. In 1997, I followed this with another book, from Grove Press, an anthology of Hajj travelers, drawing on authors from around the world who had visited Mecca during the last one thousand years. The title: One Thousand Roads to Mecca. My editor for both these books was Anton Mueller.
As I’m supposed to be treating literary matters here, I’ll finish by saying that after the publication of these two books, I slowly began to return to the writing of poetry. I look upon this as ground reclaimed after many, long years. Stranger things have happened, but not to me.
“Entering the Third World”
A storefront lit by candles
And the dial on a clock.
The clock’s quit ticking.
Twice now in six nights
Cuernevaca’s sea of light
Drowns in total blackout.
The modern world works all right
But it’s broken.
Long-legged shadows graze the earth.
From browsing weed
In cold volcanoes,
A mare has reached the gate.
Despite certain regrets
I wouldn’t part with,
What waits outside is more,
Dark though it may be:
Wet streets, real houses,
Stars enormous after all,
A planet still unfinished.
Linda camina como la noche.
A saddle stands at the gate
To mount, to depart with.
Taking Back Islam: American Muslims Reclaim their Faith, 120 pages, Rodale Press, 2003. Received a Wilbur Prize for “Year’s Best Book on a Religious Theme.”
One Thousand Roads to Mecca: Ten Centuries of Travelers Writing about the Muslim Pilgrimage, 620 pages, maps, glossary, and index. Grove Press. July, 1997.
The Hadj: An American’s Pilgrimage to Mecca, 331 pages. Atlantic Monthly Press, New York. September, 1993.
In Morocco, travel writing, Sombre Reptiles, Berkeley Ca. 1980
No, You Wore Red, verse, Tombouctou, Bolinas CA. 1980
How Love Gets Around, verse, Soft Press, Vancouver, B.C. 1976
World Your Own, verse, Calliope Press, Vermont. 1974
1968 Bachelor of Arts Degree, Classics. Wesleyan University. Middletown, Connecticut. Cum Laude, Phi Beta Kappa.
Publications, Broadcasts, Awards
2002 Television Broadcast Co-produced two-hour documentary film for PBS on the life of Muhammad. A two-year project.
Internet publications Various columns of travel and commentary written for the Internet magazine, Beliefnet.com
1999 Award Lowell Thomas Award,”Best Cultural Tourism Article, 1998,” Society of American Travel Writers
Lectures University of California, Santa Barbara; University of
California, Santa Cruz; Hartford Seminary; University of Chicago; et al.
Book Publication Paperback edition of 1000 Roads to Mecca, Grove Press. February
Book Publication Paperback edition of The Hadj: An American’s Journey to Mecca, Grove Press. April
1998 Magazine Publication 3000 word article on the Hajj, Attach� Magazine. July
Lectures Georgetown University, Harvard University, SUNY Buffalo, St. Louis Islamic Center, Long Island Islamic Center.
1997 Television Broadcast Half-hour special report on the Hajj, for ABC TV, Ted Koppel’s “Nightline.” Writer, producer, on-camera host. April
Publication One Thousand Roads to Mecca:Ten Centuries of Travelers: Writing about the Muslim Pilgrimage, 620 pages, maps, glossary, and index. Grove Press. July
Media Award Muslim Public Affairs Council. August
1996 Conference Guest Speaker, Al-Jenadariya Festival: “Islam and the West.” Riyadh, Saudi Arabia. February
1994 Publication The Hadj: A Pilgrimage to Mecca, 331 pages. Secker & Warburg, London. January
1993 Publication The Hadj: An American’s Pilgrimage to Mecca, 331 pages. Atlantic monthly Press, New York. September
1990 Award Marin County Arts Council Writers Award
1986 Publication Invisible Weapons, fiction, Creative Arts, Berkeley CA
1985 Award California State Arts Council Writers Award
1983 Award Marin County Arts Council Writer Award
1980 Publication In Morocco, travel writing, Sombre Reptiles, Berkeley Ca.
1980 Publication No, You Wore Red, verse, Tombouctou, Bolinas CA
1976 Publication How Love Gets Around, verse, Soft Press, Vancouver, BC
1974 Publication World Your Own, verse, Calliope Press, Vermont
1970-73 Award Amy Lowell Traveling Poets Scholarship
1968 Award Glascock New England Poetry Prize, Holyoke College
1968 Award Academy of American Poets
1996-2002 Author, Producer
1993-4 Writing Instructor, University of California at Santa Cruz
1993 Writing Instructor, California State Summer School for the Arts.
1992 Writing Instructor, California State Summer School for the Arts.
1991-95 Senior Research Associate, University of California at Santa Cruz
1976-88 Publisher, Tombouctou Books
1975-99 Independent Businessman
1974 Writing Instructor, Phillips Andover Academy
1968-69 Writing Instructor, Phillips Andover Academy
1968 Writing Instructor, Phillips Exeter Academy
Unity Productions Foundation, Michael Wolfe’s Film Company Website