Miriam Pederson: Poet and Teacher Extraordinaire - A Tribute to Retirement and Beyond

When entering the home of professor and poet Miriam Pederson, a welcoming feeling seems to emanate from the very walls of the beautiful heritage-hill-worthy Eastown home. On second glance, small sculptures and bits of pottery sprinkled around the home begin to appear, flavoring the décor with the inspiring quality that only original art can lend. Soon one realizes that perhaps the friendly feeling is not being projected from the lamp or rug, but from the extraordinary woman graciously ushering you into her home.

Miriam Pederson, exceptional hostess that she is, has much more to offer than her wide smile and friendly eyes. Her poetry has graced the city of Grand Rapids for over 3 decades. Through her own publications and many collaborations with husband and sculptor Ron Pederson, Miriam Pederson has touched the lives of both Grand Rapidians and poets nation-wide. For twenty-nine years she has worked at Aquinas College, teaching writing and English courses to generations of young scholars, and spreading her love of poetry to students and community members along the way. At age sixty-five, she is retiring from full-time teaching and gearing up to live a life of writing, traveling, and more writing.

Despite being excited for the next chapter in her life, Pederson continues to cherish the time she spent at Aquinas, especially as an instructor of the Poetry Writing Workshop. Throughout her many years at the college, she admits to teaching and learning from her students in equal measure.

“Students over the years have fed me as a teacher and writer,” says Pederson. “[They] have often astonished me with poems that affect me (as Emily Dickinson says about the best poems) ‘as if the top of my head were taken off.’ This certainly has inspired me as a poet.”

Many of her students count her as one of the most influential teachers of poetry and writing they have had the pleasure of working with. Former student Laura Hartness reminisces about Pederson’s self-inflicted nickname “Miriam the machete” in reference to her ability to “deftly clear dead-wood words, lines, or stanzas from students' work… with the knife in one hand and… a restorative balm of positive insights…in the other.”

It is her endless positivity, in fact, that is her most-referenced quality in her students’ and colleagues’ comments on her and her teaching.

“One of the things about Miriam Pederson, as a teacher and mentor, that stands out, is her commitment to positivity,” says Hartness. “In a world filled with so much negativity, Miriam's ability to see through to the heart of a poem and champion the writer is both nurturing and necessary. Her encouragement has helped me continue to write, which, I believe, is the most valuable lesson for a writing student to master.”

Another former student , Kyle Austin, who is also a co-director of Through the 3rd Eye, comments, “It was obvious that she took as much joy in helping others improve their own writing as she did in working on her own. Her feedback never possessed those ugly characteristics of arrogance, complacence, or cursory politeness that so often soil the process of constructive criticism.”

The respect and love Pederson’s students reserve for her is quite mutual. Pederson counts her students’ successes as cause for celebration, saying “when I see them blossom, I am thrilled.”

Pederson credits her students at Aquinas for keeping her perspective fresh, and for exposing her to new and different ways of writing. Because of her pupils’ natural familiarity with writing and poetry trends, Pederson has been compelled to explore new and emerging styles of poetry, and to learn to appreciate modern forms of poetic expression.

“Students, particularly in the Poetry Workshop, have challenged me to keep up with elements of pop culture that appear in their work and to be more open to the “hippest” trends in the poetry scene,” says Pederson. In particular, she cites the exploration of the different “camps” of poetry, termed by Tony Hoaglund as Poetry of Perspective—the more traditional way of writing and understanding poetry, and Poetry of Disorientation—a new style of poetry that is reflective of modern, technologically advanced and dependent culture.

“Each new generation of poets must bear witness to their present culture in their work; the culture of today, of course, being heavily influenced by technology, speed, frenetic activity. Disorientation is certainly a real and present aspect of contemporary life, and poets like Ben Lerner and Rusty Morrison are good representatives of this camp. I am learning to ‘enter’ this kind of poetry, since it seems inevitable and perhaps necessary.”

Her dedication to teaching and her love for her students has not escaped the attention of colleagues, friends, or the poetry community at large. Former Grand Rapids poet laureate and prolific award-winning poet Linda Nemec Foster describes Pederson’s teaching as “thorough, considerate, fair, and conscientious.”

Aquinas Colleague and fellow poet Pamela Dale Whiting says Pederson’s students “rave about her,” and often credit her for “igniting their belief in themselves as writers.”

Aquinas English department chair Gary Eberle admires Pederson’s ability to “[teach] students and readers what it is like to walk through the world as a writer,” which Pederson certainly does. Pederson’s poems are often filtered through a lens of intense observation and contemplation of a subject’s place in the world at large.

“I have always been impressed with how selfless her poetry is,” says Eberle. “It is not obsessively about “me” … Instead…her poetry is about “us” as in family, community, college, human beings. She stands inside the “us” as the seeing and observant eye, paying close attention to the details the rest of us miss… She is what every writer should be, a filtering consciousness, helping us filter through the distractions until we see, with her, what is important and what is not.”

Dale Whiting describes Pederson’s poetry as inspiring and reflective, saying “it reminds us of what it means to be human. It helps us see the extraordinary in the ordinary.” Additionally, Dale Whiting acknowledges Pederson’s “insightful and perceptive comments” have not only been of value to her many students, but have often helped Dale Whiting to write better poetry.

Jack Ridl, an award-winning Michigan poet, would agree: “Her poems have helped keep me writing for the right reasons. She composes out of care and care-fully. That matters, a lot. She’s a brave and terrific teacher and friend. She’s a gift to me, to so, so many of us.”

The “gift” of Pederson’s presence in the poetry community and of her shrewd interpretation of our world continues to draw in audiences for her poetry. Colleagues and students alike recognize the ringing authenticity of Pederson’s poems, and strive to emulate it. Her clarity of thought and feeling moves other poets to investigate their own source of expression.

Just as Eberle commented on Pederson’s insightful and self-effacing observation of the world in which we live, Dale Whiting notes Pederson’s unique and modest poetic voice. “She responds to the humanity in all of us in a quiet and graceful manner,” says Dale Whiting. “Her poems not only remind us of the beauty of language but also of the beauty in the human spirit.”

The close relationship that Pederson shares with her colleagues and students at Aquinas is palpable, and has played an important role in her decision to remain at the college for such a long time. Her life experiences as a teacher of poetry and valued part of the English faculty at Aquinas remain among Pederson’s most-treasured.

“My best memories concern students and colleagues who I came to respect and befriend. I feel blessed to have had colleagues in the English Department who care for and bolster one another.”

When asked if she in any way regrets teaching at such a small institution where opportunity for more wide-spread personal recognition and publication are more limited than they might be at a larger university, Pederson confidently states her pride and honor at teaching in such a supportive and intimate academic community. She also makes a point to acknowledge her experiences with the Dominican sisters, who were so instrumental in fostering the open and creative environment at Aquinas.

“I feel very fortunate to have been a part of the close-knit Aquinas community. The Dominican sisters I have met and so admire, set the tone that made the College the welcoming, nurturing place that it is. Here I’ve been able to know colleagues and students personally and call them my friends.”

In particular, Pederson is continually delighted by her good fortune in teaching at the same institution as her husband, sculpture and art professor Ron Pederson.

“Back in college when we were dating, eons ago, we actually had a mutual pipe dream that we would someday teach at the same college—not really believing this could happen. When it did, we could hardly believe it,” says Pederson. “We’ve loved being able to “get” each other’s teaching world, to share mutual colleagues/friends, to be able to kvetch together about what bugs us, and to team teach the course Visual Artists & Writers in Collaboration.”

This special working relationship Pederson has with her husband has been an instrumental part of Pederson’s creation of poetry over the years. To date, Ron and Miriam Pederson have created twelve collaborative exhibits of Ron’s sculptures and Miriam’s poems, which she describes as “exciting and gratifying.” The couple’s work together is documented in three collections of collaborative images and poems: The Adding We Do in Our Sleep, Doubletake, and Evidence of Things Unseen.

Additionally, Pederson’s chapbook This Brief Light was published in 2003 by Finishing Line Press, and many of her poems have been published in various literary journals, anthologies, and poetry magazines.

Another important aspect of Miriam’s legacy at Aquinas is her involvement in creating the writing minor at Aquinas, which allowed her to better serve the students most interested in pursuing the art form closest to her heart.

“I’ve taught writing ever since 1972 (high school and middle school for 8 years), but the really good part came when the writing minor was established in the English Dept. at Aquinas and I could concentrate more on the teaching of creative writing, particularly poetry—my favorite genre. It’s been a treat to work with the other faculty who teach courses for the minor, as we have traded ideas and mutually cheered each other on.”

In addition to helping establish the writing minor at Aquinas, Pederson has served as an advisor to the English honor society, Lambda Iota Tau, and has been a manager and co-manager of the student literary and art magazine, the Sampler, for eighteen years. Since its creation, she has also served on the committee for the Contemporary Writers Series, which brings in well-known authors to Aquinas to give readings of their work.

Rod Torreson, a former Grand Rapids poet laureate and current co-director of the Through the 3rd Eye, has been friends with Miriam for more than thirty-five years. He describes Pederson as “at the absolute center of poetry in West Michigan,” making it a “warm and vibrant place through her poetry, her teaching, and her role as encourager of other poets.”

Indeed, Miriam Pederson has helped to strengthen many aspects of West Michigan’s poetry soul. With all of the hard work and time Pederson has put into enriching the literary community of Aquinas, while continuing to pursue her own writing career, it is easy to see the appeal of a slower-paced retired life. However, this is not necessarily on the agenda for the Pedersons, both of whom decided to retire at age sixty-five to allow time for the things they enjoy doing most, like writing, traveling, and, for Ron, creating art.

“The big pay-off is time,” she emphasizes. “Ron and I decided to each retire at age sixty-five a couple of years ago, so that while we're still healthy and have our marbles,” laughs Pederson, “we can continue to write and sculpt and collaborate and travel to places we've been hoping to visit—and we also have the chance to teach a favorite class each semester. Win-win, I'd say.”

One of the many places the Pederson’s will undoubtedly visit is Tully Cross, Ireland. On five separate occasions the couple spent semesters in Tully Cross with Aquinas study-abroad students. Their experiences with the students shaped their lives in countless ways.

“Ireland became a sort of second home to us,” Pederson smiled. “Each time [we traveled there] added more layers to our knowledge and appreciation of the country.” The Pedersons love of Ireland is not only because of their study-abroad experiences with Aquinas students, but stems from many years of travels. Miriam’s personal voyages to the Green Isle span over forty-five years. In fact, the couple has very recently returned from their latest trip there, a trip they took in order to “experience the place unfettered,” says Pederson. Instead of being a refreshing change from traveling with college students, Pederson admits, “Surprisingly, or maybe predictably, we missed being with the students, whose shenanigans always kept us entertained.” Again and again, Pederson’s love of teaching and her students shines through. She says, “We loved seeing the place anew each time through their eyes.”

Although chaperoning further study-abroad trips may not be in the cards for the Pedersons, to the great benefit of Aquinas students present and future, Miriam Pederson will continue to teach one class each semester at Aquinas. She will remain the instructor for her two favorite classes, Poetry Writing Workshop, and the collaboration course she co-teaches with Ron, Visual Artists and Writers in Collaboration. Pederson admits she “really cannot resist” the chance to continue teaching, and believes this greatly reduced teaching schedule may help her to appreciate her interactions with colleagues and students even more.

One of Pederson’s main goals for her retirement is to devote more time to writing, and to more regularly send her work out for publication. “I do regret not sending out my work for publication with any frequency. I plan to remedy this in retirement. I believe in my work and am convinced that it deserves an audience—I just need to DO IT.”

When asked if she has any other regrets about her years of teaching at Aquinas, her answer is simple— “none.”

Perhaps she says it best in her poem "Back to School." Continuing to teach at Aquinas is the lasting fulfillment of “the wish she had one time long ago/to teach, to fill a room/with the beautiful sound of thinking.”

Works by Miriam Pederson

Through the 3rd Eye was supported in its inception by the Grand Rapids Humanities Council and is currently made possible by continued volunteer effort and private support. Copyright 2013.