WELL-VERSED

The Baltimore Sun

Four decades ago, an 11-year-old girl sat up front during a play at Center Stage.

It was an English-language production of Moliere's comedy Tartuffe, and Mary Jo Salter reacted to the proceedings the way other girls her age might to the latest Nancy Drew mystery.

"I was in the second row center, and people were speaking in rhyming couplets," says Salter, now 53. "I'd just never had so much fun in my life."

She had no idea that night that the event was touching passions that would define her career, one of the more successful in modern American poetry - nor that her work would someday return her to her hometown.

Salter, the author of six volumes of verse and most recently a poetry instructor at Massachusetts' Mount Holyoke College, and her husband, Brad Leithauser, a celebrated novelist, poet and critic in his own right, are about to become the newest faculty members in the burgeoning Writing Seminars program at the Johns Hopkins University.

"It's a great hire," says Stephen Metcalfe, a senior literary critic for Slate magazine who has covered the pair. "Salter is a poet of such wonderful precision and calm, while Leithauser is a true literary polymath. This is the right direction not just for Hopkins, but for [academia] in general: In with the poets, novelists, essayists ... and out with the time-serving pedants."

Not that the man Leithauser is replacing put anyone to sleep. Stephen Dixon, the celebrated author who taught fiction in the program for 27 years, recently retired after a near-legendary career. Leithauser, the author of 14 critically acclaimed books, will be his heir apparent.

Hopkins created a new position for Salter, who will teach poetry starting next month.

"It's a pot of good luck for us," says Dave Smith, chairman of the Writing Seminars. "These two are program-makers, the kind of people who will extend Dixon's contributions and add much we cannot yet imagine" to the department's future.

Salter, who was packing up her study last week after the couple's 23 years in New England, seemed as excited as her 11-year-old self to be coming back, if in a different way.

"When I left Baltimore [for Harvard, in 1973], I was a kid," she says. "When you're 53, you pay attention to different things than you did as a child. I'm not sure what I'll be noticing this time around, but I'll have my antennae up."

Here and there

She's had plenty of experience adjusting those antennae. In their 26 years of marriage, Salter and Leithauser have often been strangers to rootedness. They lived in Iceland, Italy, England and Japan, among other places, often on one-year appointments that cropped up at the last minute, as they developed their reputations.

Salter won National Endowment for the Arts and Guggenheim fellowships in poetry, edited at The New Republic and was published frequently in The New York Times. Leithauser graduated from Harvard Law. His first book of poetry, Hundreds of Fireflies, helped land him a $500,000 MacArthur Foundation "genius grant" in 1983. In the time since, his fiction, verse and essays have consistently won critical acclaim.

In the 1980s, each took what they expected to be short-term teaching jobs in Massachusetts. Those evolved into a 23- year stint sharing a single full-time position teaching creative writing at Mount Holyoke.

The couple sank deep roots in Massachusetts, but that failed to dispel what has become a central Salter belief - that the best-laid plans often go awry, and that it may be only in hindsight that we can really make sense of things.

"A year contract here, a five-year contract there, and suddenly you realize you've been someplace for two decades," she says. "I think you stumble into what turns out to be your life."

That's true of Salter's relationship with Baltimore, a town her family moved to in 1963. She grew up in Towson, attending Dumbarton Middle School and Towson High, and recalls Towson as a "sleepy, slightly remote" outpost of Charm City, not the bustling suburb it is today.

She loved walking to the shops and the Towson movie theater (now the Recher Theatre), where she saw [the Beatles'] A Hard Day's Night four times. "I'm surprised how much [the town] has developed," she says, perhaps a bit regretfully.

Salter left for Harvard, where she met Leithauser when both were undergraduates. They married in 1980, and the two embarked on separate-but-parallel literary careers.

And Baltimore? "I basically never came back," she says. "There wasn't occasion to."

That changed last fall, when the Writing Seminars - a fixture in writing education since the 1940s - made her a visiting instructor. She enjoyed the hands-on Hopkins teaching approach and working with grad students. Then Dixon retired, an event that left a gap in a department of 150 majors whose classes are often wildly oversubscribed. Adam Falk, then the new arts and sciences dean, helped establish an additional tenured position.

"We were hit with a tsunami" of more than 300 applications, says Smith, who led the "long and byzantine process" of filling two positions. A gauntlet of committees vetted the candidates. In the end, Hopkins offered Salter and Leithauser - parents of two college-age daughters - two tenured positions, an unusual opportunity in the academic world.

To Salter, the turn of events remains, in part, mysterious - the way a poet might like it.

"I don't believe in [random] fate," she says. "I'm trying to figure out what in the world this means. Maybe it's an opportunity to pay attention to [familiar] things in a new way."

Romantic wanderlust

That could be Salter's motto. She approaches poems the way she and Leithauser approach life: with open eyes and a studied appreciation for surprise.

Some who win the coveted MacArthur grants simply invest the money, says Leithauser. Not he. "I spent it all immediately," says the garrulous Leithauser with a laugh. He moved the couple first to Italy, then to England, where he had the opportunity to write more or less full-time - and enlarge his experience along the way.

His "perpetually romantic wanderlust," as Leithauser calls it, never troubled Salter. They lived for a time in Iceland. Leithauser also trekked to Kenya, Micronesia and the Amazon in pursuit of his writerly passions. Even last year, he asked Salter if she minded his swapping his earnings from a course he'd taught for a trip to Nairobi.

"She said, 'Well, that sounds like a pretty stupid idea, but if that's what you want to do, sure, go ahead,'" he says. The junket gave root to a coming poetry collection.

For Salter, writing poems is similar. "It's always feeling your way in the dark," she says, adding that often her best ideas emerge from her unconscious "in that state of mind where you're not quite asleep yet."

Take the title work of Salter's newest book. She was in a hotel room one night, surfing cable channels, when she found herself ruing that the hotel offered "only" 70 channels.

Then it struck her: At one stage in her own lifetime, there were just three broadcast stations, "and you had to physically change the channel" to get those. The notion of 70 stations, let alone universal remotes, would have seemed stranger than whatever futurist exotica that day's thinkers could dream up - "like those old sci-fi movies about people flying to the moon," she says.

What exotica, she wondered, lurk in the future that we can't yet know, yet will someday seem run-of-the-mill? Is every era both sophisticated (with its current technology) and innocent (blind to the future)? Do we advance at all?

That night, two cable channels showed films with the same actress, Tuesday Weld. One seemed to have been made when Weld was a teen, the other when she was about 50. "I felt like Tuesday," Salter says. "Can't we fast-forward back and forth in our own lives?"

She left herself a message. She scrawled out some verses. She set them aside, only to pick them up months later, this time appraising them with a conscious mind. A little reshaping, and the strange became familiar.

Salter had written the title poem of her new book, which her publisher, Knopf, will release in February. The title for both: A Phone Call to the Future.

Praise from Updike

Salter and Leithauser have rarely taught a class together - "only parallel classes in the same department," she says - but each sees the other as a trusted literary critic. Each shows the other any major work before sending it to the publisher.

Separately, without realizing it, each became an ideal candidate for a busy life at Hopkins. Salter teaches classes that reflect her basic belief that serious poets "have to know what has come before." She has followed the Moliere muse by writing plays, including Falling Bodies (2004), about a 1638 meeting between Galileo and the poet John Milton. Also a lyricist, Salter recently saw her collaborations with pianist Fred Hersch staged at New York's "Jazz at Lincoln Center" series.

In 2002, Leithauser bridged the skills of fiction and poetry writing with a 300-page novel in verse, Darlington's Fall. ("Prose could not have provided a narrative so richly embroidered, so darting and animated in its impulses and inspirations," wrote no less an expert than John Updike.) He often collaborates with his brother, Mark Leithauser, an illustrator and the design chief at Washington's National Gallery. Brad Leithauser's Norton Book of Ghost Stories is regarded as definitive.

For now, Salter is riding with the chaos of her pending move. She and Leithauser are divvying up possessions - "no fisticuffs so far," she says, jokingly - so she can move into an apartment near the campus. (He joins her in January, after completing another teaching commitment.) She looks forward to some familiar pleasures, such as enjoying the beauty of Homewood and the chance to walk to the Baltimore Museum of Art "whenever I want."

She'll also return, with fresh eyes, to a place that inspired her years ago. She'll buy a season's subscription to Center Stage - "inspired," she says, "by my 11-year-old self. I still love the theater."

What surprises will that bring? It's hard to say, but that's how she likes it.

"It's an opportunity to meditate on one's own life, isn't it?" Salter says. "And in ways you could never predict."

jonathan.pitts@baltsun.com

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