Richard Tillinghast

Richard Tillinghast

Fellow: Awarded 2010
Field of Study: Poetry

Competition: US & Canada

University of Michigan, Ann Arbor

Born in Memphis, Tennessee, poet Richard Tillinghast attended the University of the South (B.A., 1962), and, under the auspices of a Woodrow Wilson Fellowship, went on to study at Harvard University, where he earned master’s and doctoral degrees (1963, 1970). Although while an undergraduate numerous poems of his appeared in Sewanee Review, his alma mater’s top-tier literary journal, his work gained significant recognition while he was at Harvard, with New Republic and Poetry publishing his verse, the Pym Randall Press issuing a pamphlet of his poetry entitled The Keeper (1968), and Artists & Writers Against Racism & the War printing a broadside of his poetry, Is (1968), in its series Peace Feelers.

More important, it was at Harvard that he met Robert Lowell, took classes with him, attended his informal poetry-critiquing sessions, and visited him in New York and Castine, Maine. He and Lowell became quite close, and Mr. Tillinghast chose Lowell’s poetry as the subject of his dissertation. Years later, in 1995, he published the critical memoir Robert Lowell’s Life and Work: Damaged Grandeur (University of Michigan Press).

His time at Harvard was significant not only because of his friendship with Lowell but because it gave him his first opportunity to travel the world. Harvard Student Agencies hired him as editor-in-chief of its travel guide Let’s Go, which allowed him to do just that, as he spent his summers traveling through Europe. A Sinclair-Kennedy Travel Grant from Harvard gave him the means to spend an entire year abroad, traipsing from London, across Europe, all the way to Turkey. When after leaving Harvard he was hired by UC Berkeley as an Assistant Professor of English, he had a chance to retrace that trip and extend it to the Middle East and the Indian subcontinent during his first sabbatical, in 1970-71, funded by a Creative Arts Grant from the university. These peregrinations and those in subsequent years would influence, and in many cases inform, much of his subsequent writings.

After three years at Berkeley, where his involvement in the countercultural movement of the time had a lasting impact on him, he left academia to pursue his love of music, playing in bar bands and writing songs while doing carpentry and other jobs to support himself. That period ended in 1979, with a one-year appointment as Visiting Assistant Professor at the University of the South followed by a three-year Briggs-Copeland Lectureship in Writing at Harvard, which Robert Fitzgerald and William Alfred facilitated.

The 1980s saw the publication of three books of poetry by Mr. Tillinghast: The Knife and Other Poems (Wesleyan UP, 1980), Sewanee in Ruins (University of the South, 1981), and Our Flag Was Still There (Wesleyan UP, 1984). His involvement with Ploughshares, reviewing poetry for The New York Times Book Review (which he would continue for twenty years), teaching at the Bread Loaf Writers’ Conference, and residencies at Yaddo and the Millay Colony supported his work.

That decade also saw his move to the University of Michigan; he joined its faculty as an Associate Professor of English in 1983. During his tenure there (he retired as Emeritus Professor in 2005) he earned a number of faculty awards and was named a Faculty Associate at the Michigan Institute for the Humanities (1993-94).

While at Michigan, he took intensive courses in Turkish, which led to his introduction to the work of Turkish poet Edip Cansever, with which he has remained engaged. In 1992 Atlantic Monthly published “Table,” his translation of Cansever’s poem “Masa Da Masaymış Ha”; “Table” was anthologized in The Space Between Our Footsteps: Poems and Paintings from the Middle East (1998). In 2009 Talisman Press published Dirty August, a selection of Cansever’s work translated by Mr. Tillinghast and his daughter Julia Clare Tillinghast. Based on their translation, the NEA awarded the pair a Translation Grant in 2009.

His decision in 1990 to turn down a Fulbright Senior Lectureship in favor of an Amy Lowell Travelling Scholarship had a lasting impact on Mr. Tillinghast. With that scholarship, he moved his family to Kinvara, a tiny fishing village on Ireland’s Galway Bay. Three subsequent travel grants from the British Council allowed him to return in the summers. His time in Ireland inspired the poems in his 1991 collection A Quiet Pint in Kinvara, with illustrations by Anne Korff (Tir Eolas/Salmon Publishing) and led to his long involvement with Poets’ House. In fact he served on its board of directors for more than a decade. When he retired from the University of Michigan, he settled in Tipperary for five years. In 2011 he returned to the U.S. and is dividing his time between Tennessee and California.

During his career, his poems have appeared in such significant literary journals as Southern Review, crazyhorse, Poetry Ireland Review, Ploughshares, and Paris Review, among many others, and have been anthologized in Ten American Poets (1974); The Bread Loaf Anthology of Young American Poets (1985); In the West of Ireland (1992); and, more recently, in Poets of the New Century (2001). For “My Guardian Angel,” They Gambled for Your Clothes,” and “Arrival,” all published in volume 10 of Five Points (2006), he won the James Dickey Poetry Prize. In addition to the ones already mentioned, Mr. Tillinghast has six collections of poetry to his credit: The Stonecutter’s Hand (Godine, 1995), Today in the Café Trieste (Salmon Publishing, 1997), Six Mile Mountain (Story Line Press, 2000), The New Life (Copper Beach Press, 2009), Sewanee Poems (University of the South, 2009), and Selected Poems (Dedalus Press, 2009). His volume of poetry criticism, Poetry and What Is Real, published by the University of Michigan Press in its Poets on Poetry series, was issued in 2004.

He is as prolific an author of nonfiction, including essays, memoirs, and travel writings. Finding Ireland: A Poet’s Explorations of Irish Literature and Culture (Notre Dame UP, 2008) collects a number of his essays originally published in popular and literary periodicals. ForeWord magazine awarded Finding Ireland its Book of the Year Gold Award for travel essays. His other honors include the Ann Stanford Prize from the University of Southern California (1992); Southern Review’s Cleanth Brooks Prize for Creative Nonfiction (2007) for his long essay “Istanbul in Winter”; and an honorary doctorate from the University of the South (2008).

In 2000 Richard Tillinghast founded the Bear River Writers’ Conference and served as its director for five years. He is a member of the American Conference of Irish Studies and the American Research Institute in Turkey.



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