It’s rewarding for an author to be published. It’s also rewarding for a teacher when a student succeeds.
February is proving doubly meaningful for emeritus professor Jack Ridl of the Hope College English faculty. Wayne State University Press is publishing not only his latest collection of poetry, “Practicing to Walk Like a Heron,” but also a collection by one of his former students: “Earth Again,” by 1998 Hope graduate Chris Dombrowski.
The conjunction is even providing opportunities to reunite. “We’ve already been invited to several places to read together as prof and student,” said Ridl, who retired from Hope in 2006 after 35 years on the faculty.
Both writers have multiple publishing credits, including work published previously by Wayne State University Press, which released Ridl’s “Broken Symmetry” in 2006 and Dombrowski’s “By Cold Water” in 2009.
This time, though, they’re even listed on facing pages in the publisher’s catalog, each part of the “Made in Michigan Writers Series.” Dombrowski noted that he is honored to have his latest collection appear at the same time as his mentor’s work.
“He’s one of the lasting and durable influences on my life, and I’m extremely grateful to have come into contact with him and have had his spirit in my life for so long,” he said.
“I remember him being a friend to me even before I had him in class--he was my advisor from the time I arrived on campus,” he said, describing Ridl as a master teacher whose guidance he’s continued to value in the years since college as well. “He and his wife Julie would even host many of us at their home, and together cultivated a community that was extremely meaningful as we developed as writers.”
“A great teacher’s like a great song or a great poem: there’s a density of inspiration,” Dombrowski said. “The better a teacher is, the longer you remember the things they said or didn’t say. If you're 15 years removed from sitting in someone’s classroom, and you remember what they said on a given afternoon. That’s pretty incredible.”
Ridl, in turn, noted that Dombrowski made it easy.
“Chris was a writer immediately. I had no idea what in the world I could teach this guy,” Ridl said. “At 18, he was writing rich poems that showed that he already knew the elements of the art. So, I just kept trying to get out of the way, and if he got in his own way, I’d shove him back on course. Chris was one of those rare students who help you to be a teacher.”
The joint appearances prompted by the publication of their newest books won’t be their first. Dombrowski and Ridl had also both participated in a reading together at Michigan State University in the spring of 2008.
In Ridl’s collection, “Practicing to Walk Like a Heron,” the familiar comforts of life—a warm fire in winter, a lush garden in summer—become the settings for transcendent and universal truths as moments of grief, sadness and melancholy trigger a deeper appreciation for small but important joys. Many of the poems take solace in nature—quiet deer outside in the woods, deep snow, a thrush’s empty nest in the eaves—as well as man-made things in the world—a steamer trunk, glass jars, tea cups and books piled high by an easy chair.
“What a gift it is to have this impressive collection from Jack Ridl,” poet Li-Young Lee has said. “Reading his poetry is like hearing from a neighbor who has lived his entire life with the most profound attention and care.”
In “Earth Again,” Dombrowski explores our connection to the environment and one another. While he writes from a number of points of view and employs both male and female speakers, much of the collection’s insight centers around masculine identity and being a husband and father. Readers are challenged to consider spirituality alongside Scooby-Doo Band-aids, and to meditate on death after the mower has chewed up a plastic dinosaur.
“Memory should not be called knowledge, Keats wrote, and yet in Chris Dombrowski’s patient hands, the memory of the natural world is knowledge indeed… Beautiful poems,” said poet Ilya Kaminsky.
Ridl, who taught at Hope from 1971 until his retirement, is the author of several collections of poetry, and has also published more than 300 poems in journals and has work included in numerous anthologies. In addition, he has read his work and led workshops at colleges, universities, art colonies and other venues around the country.
He has received multiple awards for his previous collections of poetry. His 2009 collection “Losing Season” (CavanKerry Press) was named the 2009 “Sports Education Book of the Year” by the Institute for International Sport at the University of Rhode Island. The Society of Midland Authors named “Broken Symmetry” one of the two best volumes of poetry published in 2006. In 2001, his collection “Against Elegies” was chosen by U.S. Poet Laureate Billy Collins as the winner of the “Letterpress Chapbook Competition” sponsored by the Center for Book Arts of New York City. Ridl’s other volumes include “The Same Ghost,” “Between,” “After School,” “Poems from ‘The Same Ghost’ and ‘Between,’” and “Outside the Center Ring.”
In addition to his volumes of poetry, Ridl is co-author, with Hope colleague Peter Schakel, of two textbooks, “Approaching Poetry: Perspectives and Responses” and “Approaching Literature.” They also co-edited two anthologies.
Ridl also received recognition both at Hope and beyond as a master teacher. In 1996, he was chosen Michigan’s “Professor of the Year” by the Carnegie Foundation for the Advancement of Teaching. The college’s graduating class presented him with the “Hope Outstanding Professor Educator” Award in 1976, and the student body elected him recipient of the “Favorite Faculty/Staff Member” Award in 2003. He was chosen by the graduating seniors to be the Commencement speaker in both 1975 and 1986.
More than 75 of Ridl’s students are now published authors themselves.
The college’s Visiting Writers Series, which he co-founded in 1982 with his wife Julie Garlinghouse Ridl, was named in his honor in 2006. In addition, Westminster College, from which he holds both his bachelor’s and master’s degrees, presented him with an “Alumni Citation Award” in September 2005.
Dombrowski read through the college’s Jack Ridl Visiting Writers Series in September 2011, presenting the Tom Andrews Memorial Reading along with memoirist Mira Bartok, who had also been one of Ridl’s students at Hope.
In addition to “Earth Again” and “By Cold Water,” Dombrowski is the author of two chapbooks of poetry, “Fragments with Dusk in Them” and “September Miniatures with Blood and Mars.” His poems have appeared in numerous literary journals and anthologies, including “Beloit Poetry Journal,” “Crazyhorse,” “Gulf Coast,” “Making Poems,” “Michigan Quarterly Review” and “Poetry.”
His awards include the Associated Writing Programs’ Intro Award, Alligator Juniper’s National Poetry Prize and a writing fellowship from the UCross Foundation. In addition, “By Cold Water” was a finalist for “ForeWord Magazine’s” “Poetry Book of the Year award.
Dombrowski majored in English at Hope, and completed a Master of Fine Arts in creative writing at the University of Montana. He currently teaches at Interlochen Center for the Arts, and, with his family, divides his time between Michigan and Montana.