Between the Lines: Remembering Conrad Hilberry
Beloved poet and Kalamazoo College professor Conrad Hilberry died on January 11, 2017, at the age of 88. Hilberry was the author of 11 volumes of poetry as well as a nonfiction book about crime mystery. However, he may be remembered most for his mentoring of other poets.
Kalamazoo poets Diane Seuss, Gail Griffin, Gail Martin, and Susan Blackwell Ramsey recently shared their favorite memories and favorite Hilberry poems. Griffin is also a professor emeritus at Kalamazoo College. Martin and Ramsey are graduates of the college.
Ramsey wonders, “If anyone ever tried whining to Con about writer’s block, since he was interested in everything. He has an entire section in one of his chapbooks just on objects: an electric collar on a dog for an invisible fence; cherry pie; a small gray box with three wires that he found in his basement. He didn’t know what it was but he got a good poem out of it.”
“I think that’s what I got out of knowing Con,” Griffin adds. “And it doesn’t belong to just poetry - that everything is worth looking at. If you are truly humble in the face of the universe, which he certainly was, and curious about everything, there’s just poems everywhere.”
Griffin attributes her writing success with four nonfiction books and countless poems, and published essays to Hilberry. After going "dry" in graduate school, Griffin says meeting Hilberry restored her creativity and joy in writing. She's heard from hundreds of Hilberry admirers, some students, some not, since his death, and many have shared similar experiences.
Many knew Hilberry for his kind and gentle manner, but some also got to see his “wild side.” Hilberry was often seen riding his bike around the streets of Kalamazoo and the Kalamazoo College campus in a free-wheeling manner.
“For a cautious guy, he would just go zoom! Right down the bricks of Academy Street,” Martin says. “He was a wild man on his bike.”
Besides teaching at Kalamazoo College, where he retired in 1998, Hilberry also taught night classes in poetry at the Stryker Center for many years. There, Hilberry mentored many published poets, including Corey Marks, Marie Bahlke, Kit Almy, Rob Dunn, Hedy Habra, Marion Boyer, Bonnie Jo Campbell, Jane Hilberry, and Amy Newday, as well as Martin, Ramsey, and Seuss, a lifelong student, friend, and Pulitzer Prize finalist.
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