A seat in Michael Dennis Browne's classroom quickly leads to an armchair in his Seward home, a rocking chair in his northern cabin, a bench in his tiny writer's shack.
Teaching, to him, is an intimate practice, and students often become friends, sometimes editors, occasionally family.
Tonight, a jumble of them will gather at the University of Minnesota, where he's been a creative writing professor for 39 years. They'll honor him as a poet, a librettist, an orator and an incisive but gentle critic. Most of all, a teacher -- the kind who doesn't often come around.
"It's very indecent, but it's very lovely," Browne said of the ceremony.
Browne, 69, is retiring with no shortage of formal honors. Two Minnesota Book Awards, for his collections "Selected Poems 1965-1995" and "You Won't Remember This." A Pulitzer Prize-nominated oratorio. Three excellence-in-teaching awards. A declaration by Minneapolis Mayor R.T. Rybak that Friday is Michael Dennis Browne Day.
But he seems most touched by one he'll receive Friday night -- a Festschrift, or compilation of poetry and prose dedicated to and inspired by him.
Dozens of former students contributed to the collection, titled "Some Ride!" and it reveals Browne's mischievous wit, his love for his white Alsatian shepherd, Snow Dog, and his propensity to take the class outdoors.
In one poem, former student MaryAnn Franta Moenck describes a visit, in the 1980s, to Browne's cabin in northern Minnesota:
"He holds the foot of the ladder/ steady for me/ to begin."
By phone, Franta Moenck recalled how generous Browne was, sharing struggles with his own writing and considering the possibilities in hers. The poem continues:
"Not so good with heights, I say.
Take my hand.
"To me, that just exemplified his teaching style all along," she said. "You have help, but you need to have courage, too."
Reading aloud, by heart
In truth, Browne's academic life was accidental. "I was going to be an actor," he said in a recent interview, straightening his back and broadening his voice.
A native of Walton-on-Thames, England, Browne comes from a family of actors and musicians, and regularly performed in plays at Hull University and Oxford in England. Even after attending the University of Iowa for its creative writing program, he continued to act.
"I find that teaching's fine, because I get to show off," he said, impishly. "I get to recite. I do a lot of stuff by heart, from memory, the way an actor would. Only it's poetry."
He has the voice for it, deep and musical, with an accent that hints at both his English childhood and subsequent decades in the Midwest.
But he's better at keeping his mouth shut now, he said, and listening more. In his small seminars, he prods writers to go deeper, reminds them to be playful and connects them with poets past.
"That's been exciting," he said. "To tell them, 'You're writing just like this poet who died in 1980!'"
Yet he feels that his time as a teacher has passed, that, on occasion, he can no longer "hear the notes" of young poets' new styles.
"They need a younger elder now who's more plugged into what's completely current."
This week, Browne invited the latest group of former students to his living room, lit by afternoon sun, for a reading. On the steps of the house where he and his wife, Lisa McLean, raised three children, he placed a white board: "Welcome poets!"
Wine and tea in hand, the six gave him updates: One is weaving poetry with yoga, another just completed a novel. He asked about their families, their writing habits.
Then they read.
Alex Grant dove into his pages of text, written in stream-of-consciousness, lines broken only by Microsoft Word.
"I knew the devil wasn't far away cause I could hear him sliding a knife down the throat of a guitar," he read in a deep Tennessee accent, "and the guitar was making an awful racket and he had no idea what I was fixing to do to him."
He looked up at Browne, who was sitting in the corner, glasses off, eyes closed, rubbing his temple.
"That's wild," Browne said. He shook his head. Laughed. "Just wild. What does it cost you? Does it cost you to write that?"
Jenna Ross • 612-673-7168