Russell Thorburn

About Russell

Poetry Manuscript Editing

Poetry Workshops

Approximate Desire

Father, Tell Me I Have Not Aged

Misfit Hearts

The Whole Tree As Told To The Backyard

Poetry Home




I had a Catholic education. In 5th grade, a lay teacher, Mr. Guerrini, read poetry in a wild, animated fashion. He invited us to write poetry, and I did. My very first work was a humorous poem on raking leaves. I made the class laugh, and for a shy, reserved Catholic boy, I thought that was great. It was the golden age of comedy. Bill Cosby, Stan Freberg and Allan Sherman had records we played over and over. In high school I began writing more serious poems. One of my first loves was reading about the Civil War. As a high school student I wrote many poems about sharpshooters, marauders, and General Robert E. Lee’s horse, Traveler.

In my poetry as an adult I still loved to write about people fighting.  I was also a dedicated cinephile even though I didn't know what the word meant. I watched movies.  I grew up watching Bill Kennedy introduce Humphrey Bogart and Jimmy Cagney films, then switched over to Wayne State University's television station, WDET, and saw for the first time Knife in the Water, La Belle et la Bête, and Persona. Thirty years later I wrote “Hour of the Wolf,” “Pickpocket,” and “The 400 Blows.” However, if you want to see the rawer side of my dream consciousness, then read “Reese and the German Boy in the Sunflower Field” and “The Dead and the Living,” as well as the other Reese poems set during World War Two.

I struggle against the silence.  Through intimate details of my life I recall sorrow and gratitude. I want to imagine being there, again.  From the present looking back and the past looking forward, I rework the various phases of my life. Read “The Crying Room” or “Flesh and the Devil.” Like Vonnegut and his modern Odysseus, Billy Pilgrim, my time traveler is called Agent X, and he takes snapshots of strangers.  “Sometimes it just takes the rain to make him/curious about faces, to snap the long nose/of a beautiful woman in the gray light/of the bagel shop.”  Like me, he searches “for a way to speak,/to dream of his own death, spilled over the surface/of a small table, sugared granules like beach sand,/the first steps into the sea of forgetting.”

My mentor and thesis chair was the late Herb Scott at Western Michigan University, where I graduated with a Master of Fine Arts in Creative Writing. I have published four books of poetry: Approximate Desire, Father, Tell Me I Have Not Aged, The Drunken Piano, and The Whole Tree as Told to the Backyard.  I received a National Endowment for the Arts Fellowship in poetry in 1999.  Besides the NEA, I have received numerous grants from the Michigan Council for Arts and Cultural Affairs, and I have led hundreds of students in poetry workshops for the past twenty years.

I listen to Thelonious Monk, Joni Mitchell, The Beatles, Bob Dylan, and Robin Williamson.  Once a month I compose music on the Petrov grand piano at the local library.  For more music, I listen to BBC Radio 3 through the night.  At two a.m. it's breakfast time in London.  I read poetry during the afternoon, keeping the books of my favorite poets on my desk: Guillaume Apollinaire, Blaise Cendrars, Czeslaw Milosz, William Everson, William Carlos Williams, Herb Scott, and Michael Ondaatje.


Greg Ormson and Russell Thorburn
Photo by Amy Johnson