University of Vermont

University Communications

Unexpected Alchemy

Two UVM professors mix their magic in new book of poetry

Magistral and Strauss
Professor emeritus of chemistry Michael Strauss (left) in his studio where he illustrated English professor Tony Magistrale’s poems for their new book, 'Entanglements.' (Photo: Sally McCay)

Tony Magistrale whips into Michael Strauss’ suburban driveway in a small silver convertible, top down on a beautiful spring day, as Strauss steps out to greet him. At first glance – and probably second too – the pair wouldn’t appear to have much in common. Magistrale, 60, is a professor of English and widely considered to be among the world’s foremost scholars of the horror film and gothic fiction, particularly the works of Stephen King and Edgar Allan Poe. Strauss, 73, is a professor emeritus of chemistry whose CV lists heterocyclic and medicinal chemistry and use of NMR in mechanistic and structural problems among his many research interests.

But peel down a couple of layers, sit with them and hear their banter, their easy, honest friendship and mutual admiration and those initial perceptions must be edited, like the revision process that comes up repeatedly as they discuss their work, both individual and collaborative, including their new book Entanglements. Strauss and Magistrale have known each other 30 years, since working together on UVM’s writing across the curriculum initiative. Over time they peeled back their own layers.

“We started to realize that we had these alternative lives,” says Magistrale, “that Mike was a chemistry professor, but he was also a painter, and that I was literature professor, but I was also a poet.” Strauss, who retired in 1993, says he was happy in science but to devote his entire career to art would have been a dream. “But then I would have been a pauper,” he says wryly. “I prefer the life I have.” Magistrale notes that he doesn’t know any poets who aren’t tied to the academy. That near-universal need to keep the day job.

Art work

Now without those demands, Strauss says he paints every day, and he’s written books on drawing and painting. Having started in watercolors and oils, his work has evolved. “A few years ago,” Magistrale says, “he deemed to discover color. For me it was a renaissance...watercolor by its very nature is a little washed out. Not the acrylics — they have a dynamism about them that really appeals to me.”

“Harder edges, brighter colors, more impressionistic,” Strauss adds.

Strauss, equally candid with Magistrale: “I have to be honest about it. I really like at least three quarters of your poems. I like the funny ones, the ones that are profound, the ones about nature. I like them because they’re very tight, and they always have wonderful endings. I think he’s getting better and better.”

Once they became aware of their “alternative lives,” the pair began sharing and critiquing each other’s work. Magistrale says Strauss is his best reader, that he sends him drafts of everything he’s working on.

“We get to comment and also to revise based on critical comments from someone we trust and don’t worry about,” says Strauss. “I could send him whatever, he can say it’s junk, and it’s not going to bother me.”

Though he’s still teaching, Magistrale, too, is changing focus. “My orientation for the last five or ten years has been really strongly towards poetry,” he says, “because I figure, if not now, when?” And he’s had some publishing success, including a poem in the forthcoming Harvard Review.

These correspondences, as they’ve called them, led to collaborating on their first book, Letting Go (view as a free download), for which they paired existing poems with existing paintings. For this new book, except for the iconic Strauss painting on the cover, Strauss illustrated selected poems using black ink wash.

If there’s a commonality to the process of painting and writing poems, it’s the element of reworking, revising, never quite being satisfied, the professors agree. “I don’t think a poem is ever really done,” says Magistrale, explaining how the work can morph between its first publication in a journal and the time it’s collected into a book. “I’ve often reworked it, sometimes substantially, so that it’s not the same poem – it’s a different bird.”

The same is true, Strauss says, as long as a painting is sitting around his studio. “With a painting, when you stop and put a frame on it and hang it on the wall it’s probably done. It’s done for sure,” he laughs, “when the painter is dead.”