MICHAEL STEVEN HARPER was born on March 18, 1938, in Brooklyn, New York, the son of Walter Warren and Katherine Johnson Harper. Harper's maternal grandfather practiced medicine, and from an early age Harper was encouraged to study medicine. In spite of poor health, he excelled at the Susan Miller Dorsey High School, although he did relatively little creative writing there. He entered Los Angeles City College in 1956, receiving an A.A. in 1959. He then entered Los Angeles State College of Applied Arts and Sciences (now California State University at Los Angeles) still intent on pursuing medicine, but a professor dissuaded him from this profession in the belief that blacks could not succeed in medical school; accordingly, Harper opted for a degree in English literature, gaining it in 1961. Shortly thereafter he was accepted into the Iowa State Writers Workshop, where he worked primarily on poetry and earned the nickname the Padre—apparently because he wore two hats around campus. He received the M.F.A. in 1963.
Harper began his teaching career in 1964 at Contra Costa College in San Pablo, California.He subsequently taught at Lewis and Clark College ( Portland, Oregon) and California State College before coming to Brown University in 1971, where he is now the I. J. Kapstein Professor of English and director of the writing program. He has been a visiting professor at Reed College, Harvard, Yale, Carleton, and elsewhere.
Harper's poems began appearing in various literary journals in the late 1960s, and in 1970 Dear John, Dear Coltrane, his first collection of poems, was published; it was nominated for a National Book Award. This volume reveals Harper's longstanding interest in music (especially jazz and blues), to which he was exposed at an early age.
The poems in Dear John, Dear Coltrane celebrate not only Coltrane and other musicians, but also the general relationship between music and poetry. Harper has claimed that his poetry is most effective when read aloud. It is not unusual for a black American writer to be influenced by jazz and blues, but Harper's themes have not been limited to the black American experi