Michael Steven Harper was born in Brooklyn, New York, on March 18, 1938, the son of Walter and Katherine (Johnson) Harper, delivered by his grandfather in the same house in which his mother was also born. He was raised in a family that emphasized education and treasured music, and he met several prominent jazz musicians when he was a young boy and learned to read before starting kindergarten. After his family moved to Los Angeles in 1951, a difficult transition for the thirteen-year-old that resonates in his unique integration of both East and West Coast culture and art, he combined a variety of jobs (postal clerk, aspiring professional football player) with a personally designed program of enthusiastic, eclectic reading, including works of African American poets such as Sterling A. Brown, Langston Hughes, and Gwendolyn Brooks. Harper entered Los Angeles City College in 1955, transferred to Los Angeles State College in the late 1950’s, and graduated with a B.A. from California State College (now, California State University) in 1961. Harper planned to travel abroad after earning his degree to pursue his growing interests in international politics, but as a result of applying for a passport, he was drafted by the military. Instead, he enrolled in the venerated Iowa Writers’ Workshop. He proceeded to a graduate degree in 1963 before entering the M.F.A. program in writing at the University of Iowa.
Harper began to teach in 1964 as an instructor in English at Contra Costa College in Northern California, where, he has said, he felt that “my poetry began to be distinctly my own . . . when I was teaching and able to look at poetry as something I loved to do and probably could do all my life.” He was married in 1965 to Shirley Ann Buffington (divorced 1998), and he took...
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