Remembering Professor Emeritus Colleen J. McElroy

Submitted by Anis Bawarshi on
Colleen J. McElroy
English Matters regrets reporting the passing of Professor Emeritus Colleen McElroy. Department Chair Anis Bawarshi shares the following in memoriam.  (ed).

It is with sadness that we share the news that Professor Emeritus Colleen J. McElroy passed away on December 12.

Dr. McElroy was a titan: a gifted writer of poetry, prose, creative non-fiction, and plays. After earning a PhD in ethnolinguistic patterns of dialect differences and oral traditions from the University of Washington, Dr. McElroy joined the faculty of the English department and our creative writing program in 1973 until her retirement in 2006. From 1973 to 1981 she supervised first year composition in the Equal Opportunity Program (EOP). In 1984 Dr. McElroy became the first Black woman to be promoted to Full Professor at the University of Washington. She directed the Creative Writing program from 1983 to 1986. After retiring from the University of Washington, Dr. McElroy taught at the Cave Canem Foundation, an organization committed to the artistic development and growth of Black poets.

Dr. McElroy published ten books of poems: Music from Home: Selected Poems (1976), Winters without Snow (1979), Lie and Say You Love Me (1981), Queen of the Ebony Isles (1984), Bone Flames (1987), What Madness Brought Me Here: New and Selected Poems, 1968–1988 (1990), Travelling Music (1998), Sleeping with the Moon (2007), Here I Throw Down My Heart (2012), and Blood Memory (2016).

Dr. McElroy also published two books of short fiction: Jesus and Fat Tuesday and Other Short Stories (1987) and Driving Under the Cardboard Pines (1990); four books of nonfiction: Speech and Language Development of the Preschool Child (1972), A Long Way from St. Louie (1997), Over the Lip of the World: Among the Storytellers of Madagascar (2001), and Page to Page: Retrospectives of Writers from The Seattle Review (2006); and two chapbooks: The Mules Done Long Since Gone (1973) and Looking for a Country under Its Original Name (1984).

In addition to serving as poetry editor (1991-1995) and then editor of the Seattle Review from 1995 to 2006, Dr. McElroy was editor of Dark Waters literary magazine from 1973-1978; a Washington State Commission for the Humanities Trustee from 1980-1983; and member of the editorial board of Callaloo literary magazine. As faculty advisor for the Watermark Reading Series, she helped to bring award-winning writers to campus.

Among her numerous awards, she has received the Before Columbus American Book Award (for Queen of the Ebony Isles); two Fulbright Research Fellowships; two National Endowment for the Arts Fellowships (in both fiction and poetry); a DuPont Visiting Scholar Fellowship; a Pushcart Prize; a Rockefeller Fellowship; the PEN Oakland National Literary Award (for Sleeping with the Moon); a Reader’s Choice Award; and Washington State Governor’s Distinguished Artist Award.

You can read more about Dr. McElroy's life and career in this Seattle Times obituary.

The book jacket blurb for Dr. McElroy's most recent poetry collection, Blood Memory, includes this tribute from poet Nikky Finney:

She is the last woman of her line. Her new poems end and begin with A. Phillip Randolph and Pullman Porters, her enjambments are Ma Rainey and Lawdy Miz Clawdy, her leading men are the last Black men on the planet named Isom, her major planets are porches and backroads. She is still the master storyteller to the 60 million of the Passage. When I didn't know how to be a poet, I first read Colleen McElroy to slowly walk the path to how. (Nikky Finney)
In April 2021, the main conference room in the College of Arts and Sciences Dean’s Office was dedicated in honor of Dr. McElroy. Dr. McElroy recited a poem she wrote for the occasion, titled “To Fool the Tricks of Time.” You can listen to Dr. McElroy recite the poem here. It is fitting that she has the last words.