CRW department chair releases new poetry

Corin Sponsler | Contributing Writer

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Michael White, a professor and the chair of the UNC Wilmington creative writing department, has recently released his latest book of poetry, “Vermeer in Hell.”

“Vermeer in Hell” contains poetry that focuses on the political and social context of the famous Vermeer paintings. White gained inspiration to write about these paintings as he travelled around the globe.

“The Vermeer paintings are sublime and extreme,” White said. “Thinking about war and death and divorce—the most horrendous aspects of human existence—you understand why we need art.”

White viewed the Vermeer paintings as a representation for tragic events that occur among humanity. His observations of the art inspired him to write poems. In addition, they made him realize how important art is to the human race.

“[‘Vermeer in Hell’] came easily, although it took a number of years,” White said. “Those years were filled with joy. I travelled the world and was looking at paintings, thinking of them in political and social context. I would write a poem about the painting and then come home and write a chapter of prose on them.”

Preceding “Vermeer in Hell,” White has had three other books published—“Re-Entry,” “Palma Cathedral” and “The Island.”  He feels very fortunate to have such success in following his dreams. White’s passion for writing developed progressively over time, beginning at a young age.

“I did love to read when I was young. This led me to want to write my own stories,” White said.

As a child, White loved some classic American poetry. He was a more avid reader than his peers; however, he was not the best student. Out of his love for reading and poetry came a love for writing.

“I gradually saw myself more and more as a writer,” White said. “I served four years in the Navy, and when I came to college I was looking for a career. Based on my test scores, I was advised to try some writing courses. I found myself at home there and was excelling.”

His colleagues have recognized White’s talent and commitment to writing, especially in poetry. Lavonne Adams, the M.F.A. coordinator of the UNCW creative writing department, had good things to say about White’s dedication and talent.

“Professor White is a very dedicated poet,” Lavonne said. “While he is not as prolific a writer as some, each poem that he writes is obviously the result of careful thought and exquisite craftsmanship… Each book he has published has met with critical acclaim and has been equally lauded by those of us who have had the opportunity to hear him read.”

White’s students recognize his poetic talent as well. Brenan Winters, a former student of White, finds his poetry inspiring.

“To be honest, the man speaks in poetry,” Winters said. “I remember during one workshop him saying, ‘Think of a poem as a bouquet of flowers,’ and [he] went on to explain that you’ve got to make sure it’s got the right balance of poetic components for whoever is receiving your bouquet to fully enjoy and appreciate it.”

White read one of his poems to Winters’s class. She described his language as immensely meditative.

As many praise White’s previous work, “Vermeer in Hell” portrays a different side of his style.

“There are some poems of political and social context,” White said. “I’ve been moved more recently by looking at something outside of myself, completely oblivious to myself.”

Although this collection reflects a different style, the poetry still exposes his strengths.

“I find his descriptions of setting particularly appealing,” Adams said, “This perceptive attention to detail translates well into this new collection of poetry, which includes many ekphrastic poems (those written about other art forms)—in this case, the paintings of Vermeer.”

Not only does White excel in writing, he also excels in sharing his knowledge with young writers.

“I really enjoyed having Michael as a professor,” Winters said, “I still feel I can go to him for advice whether it be about my poetry, the furthering of my professional career, or just for personal issues. He challenged every student in our class to break beyond our comfort zones and to enter into a new realm of possibilities within our own individual creative processes.”

White finds great joy in teaching these aspiring writers. He began teaching in California and came to UNCW from there.

“Teaching creative writing is one of the great joys of life,” White said. ”It’s the best part of being a writer, connecting with younger writers. I get to help others achieve their dreams.”

White strongly commits to both of his jobs—writing and teaching. And a year and a half ago, he became department chair.

“It has been a huge challenge, but it has its rewards,” White said of his new position. “I get to speak up for the people whom I care about. It represents what I care about the most.”

In addition to “Vermeer in Hell,” White will be releasing a memoir this spring called “Travels in Vermeer.”

“I find it fabulous to write. It’s my favorite thing in the world—looking at paintings as I travel,” White said. “In the memoir, I put it into personal context rather than historical and political context. I connect everything to my personal experiences, especially relationships.”

“Vermeer in Hell” is available now, and “Travels in Vermeer” will closely follow on March 3, 2015. Both have been published by Persea Books.