In 2012, Michael White was selected to serve as the chair of the creative writing department and his students successfully nominated him for the 2012 UNCW Graduate Mentor Award. White’s role as a teacher lets him share what he’s learned and, he says, his most valued accomplishments are in the classroom. “I’ve always found the classroom to be the most exciting place in my life,” White says.
Michael White’s Connections
Each year, as the Gilbert Chappell Distinguished Poet for the eastern region of North Carolina, he spends time as a mentor to four local poets. This position allows him to support developing writers ranging from middle school students to adult learners.
“Human connection and accomplishment are even more important than artistic accomplishment,” he says.
But the same year that White’s students recognized his work in the classroom, he also achieved artistic accomplishments. He received a publication contract for his fifth collection of poetry, which won a joint award from Persea Books and the Lexi Rudnitski Poetry Project. Then White was offered an additional contract for his companion memoir, which is his first book of prose.
White’s recent connection between his nonfiction and poetry started several years ago when White visited the Rijksmuseum, a national museum in Amsterdam and home to an exceptional collection of paintings from the Dutch Golden Age. The work of one painter, Johannes Vermeer, grabbed White’s attention. “There was something about this particular time in my life that made me extraordinarily sensitive to his work,” White remembers. “Within about ten seconds, I decided to write a book.”
This “aesthetic and spiritual” attraction to Vermeer that White acted upon led him to further research the painter.
White “corresponded with many art critics, curators at museums throughout the world, and a few painters,” White explains.
White also researched biographical and archival accounts of life in Vermeer's time, as well as studying and writing about the places involved in Vermeer’s art, including Vermeer’s houses and the sites of several of his paintings. White’s interviews with a prominent art historian in Amsterdam also appear in his memoir.
Initially, White planned to write a collection of travel essays chronicling his exploration of the cities and museums that held more of Vermeer’s work. But each time he sat down to write, his first ideas came in poetry and formed into prose essays. His colleagues suggested a memoir might have more commercial appeal than an essay collection and White began writing autobiographically, weaving the pieces into a unified narrative.
Once an agent offered to represent the memoir, White returned to his original poetry ideas. “I didn’t even think of those first poems as poems,” he recalls, realizing he had nearly comprised a complete collection. “I just thought of them as research for the prose.” After finishing the collection, he submitted it to a contest with Persea Books and won. When White mentioned to Persea that he had a memoir as well, the New York publisher asked to see it, and then decided to publish that, too. Persea will publish Travels in Vermeer and Vermeer in Hell as companion books.
White expects to continue writing across genres. “I plan to be really bold in the future, and to keep experimenting and finding new ways of expressing myself and exploring my own imagination,” he explains. “I’m not really interested in repeating myself.”
By Benjamin Rachlin '15M