Q&A: Richard Michelson, a Wordsmith with an Eye for Art

Richard Michelson is an award-winning children’s book author, a published poet, and the owner and curator of a popular fine art gallery in Northampton. His newest picture book, with a title that is almost as long as the book itself, Twice as Good: The Story of William Powell and Clearview, the Only Golf Course Designed, Built, and Owned by an African American, has a blurb from President Obama on the back cover. As if that isn’t enough for one résumé, Rich was recently named poet laureate of Northampton, where he lives during the months of the year that he isn’t residing in the storybook setting of the Camp Ground in Oak Bluffs, with his wife, Jennifer. Recently children’s book author Kate Feiffer interviewed her friend and colleague about two of their mutual passions: picture books and the Vineyard. Here is an edited version of their conversation.

First, let’s chat about the Vineyard. What brought you to the Island?

My wife and I came here in 1975 for summer jobs and we lived in Edgartown, behind the gas station in this tiny little cottage owned by Theresa Hall. We basically stood on the street and found two other people willing to share this one room with us. Jennifer worked at the Daggett house and I got fired from two or three jobs because I was not great at taking orders. I started as a waiter, then worked as a busboy. I didn’t even make it as a dishwasher. After that summer we would come back as often as we could.

Well, you certainly seemed to figure out how to hold on to a job. Can you briefly list some of the things you are involved in?

I run R.Michelson Galleries [in Northampton]. I write children’s books. I do a lot of lecturing.

Don’t forget the poetry.

And I write poetry. Thank you. That is still what I consider myself to be primarily, a poet.

Is it through poetry that you started writing for children?

It never occurred to me to write children’s books. It was never an interest of mine. I didn’t really read much as a kid, actually. Even when my children were young, it never occurred to me to read them children’s books.

My daughter, Marisa, still talks about the first time she remembers me reading a good-night story to her. She had a sleepover with all her second-grade friends. Jennifer was going out for the evening and told me I had to read to them before they went to bed, so I gathered all these kids around and read to them from what I was reading at the time, which was Kafka’s Metamorphoses. I did a very dramatic reading.

Then by the time Marisa was coming home from college with her friends, I had discovered children’s books, so I would say to them, “You’ve got to listen to this,” and I’d read them picture books.

So you managed to get through your own childhood and most of your children’s childhoods without picture books, and yet you are now the author of sixteen books for kids. There’s a bit of a disconnect here.

I discovered picture books through my gallery. It was a revelation. I discovered I could combine into an art form my two careers as a poet and a gallery owner. It was something that I hadn’t considered before. When I started realizing that the best picture books were very much like poetry, that every word counted and you had to get everything down to the essence, I fell in love with the form.

I was still struggling to create my reputation as a poet for adults, but I did start getting to know people in the children’s book industry through the gallery. I happened to be sitting around with some friends, one of whom was a children’s book agent, and I was telling this story about my son, Sam. We used to play a little game every night. He was scared of ghosts and so I’d go in his room and reassure him, “Don’t worry, there’s no such thing as ghosts.” I’d get him calmed down and as I left the room, I couldn’t resist of course, I’d say, “Besides, if there were ghosts, the ghouls would scare them away.” Then I’d wait for him to scream about ghouls and then I’d calm him down again. It became a little game we played, and the agent said, “You should write that down. Why just terrify your child? You could terrify children all over the country.”

What an amazing way to break in.

The book [Did You Say Ghosts?] was reviewed in The New Yorker as one of the best children’s books of the year and The New Yorker, which had never taken one of my adult poems, suddenly excerpted my children’s poem. So I was a New Yorker poet by doing a children’s book.

You also represent an eclectic list of artists in your gallery, including a lot of children’s book illustrators like Dr. Seuss and my father, Jules Feiffer, but perhaps the most well known, although not as a visual artist, is–

Leonard Nimoy. Leonard is an incredible photographer. He was a photographer before he was an actor. After Star Trek went off the air, but before it became the cult we know it as today, Leonard actually went back to school to study photography at UCLA and was planning on pursuing that as his career. Then that whole [Star Trek] thing kind of hit and he decided to keep with the acting. But he’s an amazing photographer and when he retired from acting, he went back to doing that full time.

When did you and Jennifer decide to make the Vineyard your second home?

When we visited, we used to bike through these little gingerbread houses and say, “Wouldn’t it be wonderful to be able to have one of these cute little things?” About five years ago, we were staying at a friend’s house in the Camp Ground and this house was for sale. We decided, kind of on a whim, it would be really cool to actually have one of these little places.

Have you and your family gotten involved in the Island community?

We throw a party every Illumination Night that is auctioned off at the Possible Dreams Auction. Also my daughter, who is a composer and performer, has gotten the opportunity to sing during Illumination Night. She’s also a playwright and we were thrilled that the Vineyard Playhouse did one of her one-acts last summer. My wife also sings with the Tabernacle Choir while we’re in residence, and I’ve been pleased to read my own poetry at Featherstone arts center [in Oak Bluffs], which has a wonderful poetry series every summer.

Do you think you’ll ever write about the Vineyard?

I have a picture book I just finished writing called Blue Ribbon County Fair, which was inspired by my visit to the MV Agricultural Fair.

I look forward to reading it.