Founding College of the Atlantic professor William Carpenter has spent nearly 50 years inspiring the COA community with his creative, curious outlook.Founding College of the Atlantic professor William Carpenter has spent nearly 50 years inspiring the COA community with his creative, curious outlook.Inspiring, inquisitive, and energetic in teaching, writing, and life, Carpenter’s story is inexorably tied with that of COA. He began teaching during the inaugural year of classes in 1972, after working with COA’s first president Ed Kaelber and college founders for a year to help set up the academic program. He became a dean of faculty in the early 1980s and helped steer the college through tumultuous administrative shifts and a fire that nearly destroyed the entire operation. He’s taught creative writing to generations of students, a number of whom have gone on to professional writing careers.

“Bill’s authenticity—his open-minded receptiveness to the world as he seemed to see it, and within that world, my writing—taught me how my writing could be seen,” said Marni Berger ’09, whose short story “Edge of the Road with Lydia Jones” (Matador Review, 2018) was nominated for a Pushcart Prize. “I’ve always thought of my writing as a refuge, but Bill began my training in not treating it too preciously. His honest reactions to my work kept me in line.”

It wasn't long after coming to College of the Atlantic that writing professor William Carpenter went from "teaching poetry the way all English teachers do" to writing and publishing his own poems, focusing on whales, places in Acadia National Park, and other ecological subjects. "It all came from the unconscious, but it was triggered by being here, and by the freedom that we had and that this place gave me," he said.It wasn't long after coming to College of the Atlantic that writing professor William Carpenter went from "teaching poetry the way all English teachers do" to writing and publishing his own poems, focusing on whales, places in Acadia National Park, and other ecological subjects. "It all came from the unconscious, but it was triggered by being here, and by the freedom that we had and that this place gave me," he said.

Carpenter came to COA from the University of Chicago as an English professor, not a creative writer, but a combination of COA’s human ecology program and the rugged beauty of the Maine coast soon had him putting pen to paper.

“I owe it all to COA. In the city it was appropriate to be a scholar, but coming here—this was the world in itself,” Carpenter said. “I felt, if you’re going to answer to nature and this place, you better answer with poetry. It was the only imaginable response to the fullness of this life.”

Carpenter’s first book of poems, “The Hours of Morning” (University of Virginia Press, 1981), won the Association of Writers and Writing Programs award. It was followed by “Rain” (Northeastern University Press, 1985), which won the Samuel French Morse Poetry Prize. “Speaking Fire at Stones” (Tilbury House Publishers), written in collaboration with artist Robert Shetterly, followed in 1992.

He’s been inspired by nature, connection, and being present to one’s surroundings. Carpenter’s teaching and work helping to develop College of the Atlantic from the ground up has inspired him as well. One of his biggest points of pride, he said, is the college itself.

“This place was born against the odds, and it survived. Sitting back there in 1971, if we could have imagined the college as we would have wanted it to be, this would have been it,” Carpenter said. “It isn’t often that you can take a dream and go on with it for 50 years, and have it be so unexpectedly different, yet still the same.”

That dream, said COA Rachel Carson Chair in Human Ecology Rich Borden, might not have manifested so successfully had it not been for Carpenter’s dedicated, thoughtful work.

“Bill has a unique way of listening to alternative views, while speaking his own, without the exchange ever becoming heated or hurtful.  He is an artful negotiator and peace-maker. His skillfulness has often been the bridge to successful outcomes,” Borden said. “Bill has one of the most clever minds I know. He has been a bright light of humor and wisdom throughout the history of COA.”

College of the Atlantic professor William Carpenter with his wife, Donna Gold, the long-time public relations director for the school, and son Daniel.College of the Atlantic professor William Carpenter with his wife, Donna Gold, the long-time public relations director for the school, and son Daniel.

By the early 1990s, Carpenter found his poems were outgrowing their containers and turning into stories, so he decided to write a novel. As he tells his students, the habits of poetry—nonstop attention to the rhythm and nuance of language—are indispensable for the fiction writer.

He found the voice for his main character right in front of him in the classroom. “A Keeper of Sheep” (Milkweed Editions 1994) told the story of a college student who becomes involved in the care of a man dying of AIDS.

“I had been doing autobiography with the students for a few years, and I just thought, ‘That’s it! I have my voice.’ I wrote it in the first person female,” he said. “I will be forever grateful to my autobiographers for lending me their collective voice.”

It was in Carpenter’s classrooms and sprawling Witchcliff office, during walks through campus and around tables in Take-a-Break, the COA dining hall, that student after student discovered their own promise as writers. Through workshops in autobiography, fiction, poetry—even the novel, with each student completing an 100-page narrative over a ten-week term—Carpenter College of the Atlantic writing professor William Carpenter's tongue-in-cheek remarks at the annual Laurel awards ceremony for graduating seniors have offered plenty of laughter while painting a remarkable picture of the history of the college.College of the Atlantic writing professor William Carpenter's tongue-in-cheek remarks at the annual Laurel awards ceremony for graduating seniors have offered plenty of laughter while painting a remarkable picture of the history of the college.inspired confidence in his students and taught them how to listen to their subconscious minds.

“There was a beautiful shift in Bill’s class between feeling you were acting on the poem and it was acting on you. When this happened, I knew I had found a true teacher in Bill,” said Josie Sigler ’99, a National Endowment for the Arts Literature Fellow whose book of poems, “Living Must Bury” (Fence Books, 2010) was awarded the Motherwell Prize. “He didn’t force students into premature realizations or allow easy conclusions, but asked us to inquire—it was practice without feeling like practice. It always felt entirely exciting.”

Carpenter’s connection to nature and family inspired his love for sailing, which he’s devotedly nurtured through many summers aboard Northern Light, his 1965 Cheoy Lee Bermuda 30. Adventures on the boat, and many conversations with his peers at the college about lobstering, seals, fishing, and other coastal activities led to his second novel, “The Wooden Nickel” (Little Brown & Co., 2002). The New York Times said of the book, a whale—and lobster—tale set off the Downeast Maine coast, “Melville would have approved.”

“The ocean is beautiful, and it’s a religion. The beauty of sailing is unbelievable. The connective tissue of the coast gets revealed when you sail it,” he said. “All of the senses are in operation, and it also carries a slight element of physical risk that you don’t get in intellectual life. Writing is almost virtual, but sailing is something real.”

“His sense of creativity and wonder is infectious, and he can sweep a class along through places that most teachers would not dare to venture” — COA ecology professor John Anderson.

Being a part of the College of the Atlantic project has been a holistic venture for Carpenter. He taught, wrote, served on faculty committees, served as dean, and explored the coast, all with a sense of freedom he says he would have been unlikely to find anywhere else. The college started on a dime, excelled, went through hard times, and excelled again, and it wouldn’t have happened without everyone being “all in” all of the time, he said. And while COA has reached a high level of success as an institution, the work of building the college remains as vital as it ever was.

“This place is still under construction in every sense,” he said, indicating the north end of campus where the new Center for Human Ecology is going up. “I used to imagine that we were a passenger-powered airplane with each seat equipped with pedals and all of us pedaling our hearts out to stay aloft. That image gave me both amusement and motivation, and it still does.”

Carpenter has been a mentor, educator, and adventurer to waves of students and faculty at COA, including COA W.H. Drury Professor of Ecology/Natural History John Anderson.

“In more than thirty years I have fought with Bill, taught with Bill, learned from Bill, and watched Bill bring new insights and new understanding to generations of students. His sense of creativity and wonder is infectious, and he can sweep a class along through places that most teachers would not dare to venture,” Anderson said. “In spite of my shallow grasp on so many COA creative writing professor Bill Carpenter with campus librarian Marcia Dworak. The two were part of successful efforts to rebuild the library, and keep the college open, after a devastating fire in 1983.COA creative writing professor Bill Carpenter with campus librarian Marcia Dworak. The two were part of successful efforts to rebuild the library, and keep the college open, after a devastating fire in 1983.things that mattered, Bill welcomed me, as he welcomes all students, into a series of adventures in learning. We have traveled together from the Caribbean to the Sea of Cortez, from Fundy’s tides to the flickering projector in the lecture hall, from Gilgamesh to the Satanic Verses, and, slow learner that I am, can only marvel at how much I have gained.”

It’s going to be a challenge to step away from the classroom, Carpenter said, after so many decades. But he’s equally excited for the time to dedicate himself to the demands and opportunities of the writing life.

Bill Carpenter could very well be someone of whom people say, “After God made him, he threw away the mold.” Certainly his energetic presence, his bright, shining blue eyes, his zest for experience and good jokes and closeness to “The Edge,” as Anderson calls it, will not be easily replaced at COA, and his contribution to the institution will be long remembered.

“Bill just might be the most curious person on the planet—he is full of wonder about the world. That kind of curiosity has been elemental to this college since Bill first stepped foot on the campus in 1971,” said COA President Darron Collins ’92. “Fortunately, his spirit of curiosity and wonder is imbued in every fiber of this place and will not be lost in his absence; but we will miss him dearly.”