GREGORY ORR was born February 3, 1947 in Albany, New York. He grew up in the rural Hudson Valley. At the age of twelve, he was responsible for the death of a younger brother in a hunting accident, an event that powerfully influenced his ideas about trauma, silence and poetry. When he was fourteen, his family moved to Haiti, where his father worked as a doctor at the Hopital Albert Schweitzer in Deschapelles. The family returned to the States a year later, after his mother’s sudden death. In 1965, at the age of eighteen, he worked as a civil rights volunteer in Mississippi. During that time, he was kidnapped at gunpoint in rural Alabama and held for a week in solitary confinement in the town of Hayneville. These events of his youth form the basis of his memoir, The Blessing, which tells the story of his childhood and how he came to poetry.
Orr attended Hamilton College, then transferred to Antioch College, from which he received a B.A in 1969. He received his MFA degree in 1972 from Columbia University’s School of the Arts. He then spent three years as a Junior Fellow in the University of Michigan Society of Fellows. Since 1975, he has taught at the University of Virginia, where he was the founder and first director of its MFA Program in Writing.
He is the author of twelve full length collections of poetry, including the forthcoming The Last Love Poem I Will Ever Write (W.W. Norton, 2019) and two chapbooks. In addition, he is the author of a memoir, The Blessing (Council Oak Books, 2002), which was chosen by Publisher’s Weekly as one of the fifty best non-fiction books of 2003. His autobiographical essay on his experiences as a volunteer in the Civil Rights Movement, “Return to Hayneville,” was reprinted in Best Essays of 2009, Best Creative Non-fiction 2009, and Pushcart Prizes.
In 2018, W.W. Norton published a book based on his teaching principles entitled A Primer for Poets and Readers of Poetry. He has also the author of Poetry as Survival (University of Georgia Press, 2002), a consideration of the existential function of the personal lyric, and a collection of essays on poetry Richer Entanglements (University of Michigan, 1993) and a book about his former teacher and long-time friend, Stanley Kunitz (An Introduction to the Poetry of Stanley Kunitz; Columbia University Press, 1985). He co-edited the anthology Poets Teaching Poets with Ellen Bryant Voigt (University of Michigan Press, 1996).
His personal essay “This I Believe” was chosen to be broadcast on National Public Radio in the spring of 2006. He has been the recipient of fellowships from the Guggenheim Foundation and the National Endowment for the Arts (twice), and an Award in Literature from the American Academy of Arts and Letters. In 1985, he traveled extensively in the former Yugoslavia as a visiting writer under the Fulbright Program. He has taught and lectured at the National Gallery of Art as well as at various low-residency programs and summer workshops.
He is married to the painter Trisha Orr and the father of two daughters, Eliza and Sophia. After teaching for forty-four years, Orr will retire in the spring of 2019. He and his wife will divide their time between a house in the Adirondack Mountains and their home in Virginia.