Wednesday, April 22, 2009

Poetry of Healing: An Interview with Tom Lombardo

This Sunday at 2:00 P.M., The Writer's Center welcomes editor Tom Lombardo and other contributors (look for an interview tomorrow with another) to After Shocks: The Poetry of Recovery for Life-Shattering Events. More information on this book can be found at its Web site:

Tom Lombardo earned a B.S. from Carnegie-Mellon University, an M.S. from Ohio University, and an M.F.A. from Queens University of Charlotte. His poems have appeared in many journals in the U.S., the U.K., Canada, and India, including Southern Poetry Review, Subtropics, Ambit, Hampden-Sydney Poetry Review, New York Quarterly, Kritya: A Journal for Our Time, Orbis, Salamander, Ars Medica, Pearl, Asheville Poetry Review, and others. His criticism has been published in New Letters, North Carolina Literary Review, and South Carolina Review. He was the founding editor-in-chief of WebMD, the world’s most widely used health web site, and he lives in Midtown Atlanta, where he works as a freelance medical editor.

In an interview you’ve said that the reason for this book was that there seemed to be a lack of poetry for those in grief, who are suffering. What kind of responses have you heard from readers so far?

Responses have generally been phenomenal. After Shocks has touched more people, more deeply than I ever dreamed it would. At readings, audience members come up afterwards to talk about their situations, and how much the poems they've just heard have helped. Or maybe they talk about how After Shocks will help a family member or friend in need, and they ask me to inscribe the book to that person. I've received some post-purchase feedback along those lines directly from readers, too. Here's a quote from one letter: "Your poems…really touched me. I would like to congratulate you on After Shocks…Thank you for this beautiful book."

The negative reaction I've heard—and this is from people who like the anthology over all—is that After Shocks is in places emotionally difficult reading. Though each poem shows a path to recovery, the stories in the poems are at times traumatic. I've heard readers say it's not a book they can read for a length of time. I can understand that feeling because I had the same trouble while reading the submissions. Some of the poems were emotionally difficult for me. Reading the submissions that dealt with recovery from the loss of child brought me to tears at times, and I had to stop reading, leave my office, go for a walk.

As editor of the book, could you tell us about your process of cobbling these poems together? From the “in appreciation” page it would seem that this collection grew almost organically once you decided to do it.

The germination of the concept was organic. As the "In Appreciation" page in After Shocks recounts, the concept came from a lunch I had with Fred Marchant, director of Creative Writing at Suffolk University. Fred bumped me down this path with his question: "Why don't you become a poetry publisher?" The question left me without an answer, but a couple days later, the idea sprung forth, nearly whole.

But compiling the anthology was hard work, not quite what I'd call organic, more like very intensive farming. I placed calls for submissions in several reputable places on the Internet: the Wom-Po listserv, Creative Writing Opportunities, Cave Canem, etc. I advertised on paper in the UK in two journals. I spread the word via key poets I knew. I solicited work from a few well-known poets whom I had met over the years. And I read, read, read collections to find poems of recovery. In the end, I had about 500 candidate poems to select from. I spent the summer of 2007 reading, reading, reading, trimming, trimming trimming, selecting, selecting, selecting. As I read the poems, I started piles on my office floor of the various categories, which eventually became the chapters of the final version of After Shocks. The stack of poems about recovery from grief eventually split into three chapters: Recovery from Death of a Spouse, …From the Loss of a Child, …from the Death of Loved Ones. Other stacks contained poems of recovery from war, exile, abuse, addiction, bigotry. One stack of very good poems that seemed to me related, but were still amorphous and resisting categorization, crystallized around a line from a poem by Charleston poet Kurt Lamkin: "We lose our innocence believing" and emerged as a chapter on Recovery from Loss of Innocence. Another stack of poems that were excellent, but were lighter in tone than the others, wound up as the final chapter Recovery from the Stresses of Living, a soft-landing for After Shocks.

What’s very intriguing about the book is its structure. Rather than putting all the poems together, you’ve sectioned the poems so that readers find poems about losing a child, about bigotry, about addiction, and so forth. How did you decide on this structure?

The anthology is organized in a way that readers could USE it as well as read it. I wanted readers to find with ease the poems that they wanted to read first—the poems that pertained to their own life-shattering events. I didn't want to frustrate readers in their search for poems that might help. I wanted to make the search easy. What I ended up with were chapter titles that were very precise: Recovery from Death of a Spouse, Recovery from Exile, Recovery from War, etc. The chapters are very clearly labeled. I believe this to be a great benefit to the readers.

It's certainly not the way most poetry books are structured. In the typical poetry collection, you might see chapters with titles, sometimes just numerals and no titles. If the chapters are titled, the titles try to capture something in the chapter, something emotional, a hook of some sort. Sometimes, the chapter titles build upon each other. When they work, they carry great insight. When they fail, they become mysterious, indulgent, distracting. Either way, that's fine for what those collections might want to accomplish, but from the beginning, I intended After Shocks to be PRACTICAL poetry. Plus, I've covered a VERY broad set of topics in After Shocks. It's not a collection of grief poetry. It's not a collection of addiction poetry. It's not a collection of war poetry. After Shocks comprises 12 different topics in recovery, each with a completely different underpinning of human experience. The challenge for me as editor was to organize the anthology in a way that was clear and concise. Whereas a typical poetry collection might want to use metaphor or intellectual stimuli to set itself apart from the real world, my challenge was to make After Shocks a very clear part of the real world experiences of readers.

The drawback, of course (and I can see some poets rolling their eyes), is that the chapter titles are not poetic, not very mysterious, not metaphoric, whatever. The organization is very un-po-biz like.

Frankly, it was a difficult decision to make. I'm a poet, too, so I want to appear to be at least as clever as Billy Collins or Kim Addonizio. But sometimes clarity is good, not bad. Sometimes simplicity is beautiful. Sometimes redundancy works to the benefit of the concept. And After Shocks is nothing if not a concept book. And I would do it the same way again. The feedback from readers has been quite positive. They go to the chapter they will find useful to their own recovery or a friend's recovery. It's quite a revolutionary concept, eh? Poetry that might actually be used by a reader? That might be practical in some sense? In which you may find something germane to your own personal experience?

“Daffodils,” your poem on the death of your spouse, is a powerful, memorable, and moving poem. In it there is a deep sense of melancholy and yet also of hope (“Looking outward for the first time since burial/ prayers, I saw daffodils blooming,/ the ones that Lana and I had planted/ in a sunken spot last Fall”). Did writing this poem serve as part of your healing process? Can writing serving this role?

Melancholy. A deep sense of it. Yes. That's what I feel still when I read this poem, even after scores of readings. And that's what I felt while writing it. But yes, also hope because this poem represents a turning point in my life.

The poem most certainly helped my healing. Written 15 years after my wife Lana's death in an auto wreck, the poem represents what I see as the exact moment of the beginning of my recovery. When I saw those daffodils blooming, and felt that deep melancholy, and reacted to the words my mother said to me "Look outside at your backyard," I remember having this visceral re-alignment within my body and mind, a re-alignment from looking backward to looking forward. I felt a physical sensation, a tingling from head to toe. I understood that those blooming daffodils didn't care that Lana was dead. I had dug the holes, Lana planted the bulbs in the Fall, she died in April, but the daffodils still popped up, eager to live, beautiful as daffodils in the sun ever can be. "Easter white and careless yellow" is the final line of that poem. They were a very basic symbol of life moving forward no matter what the circumstances. After a nuclear war, daffodils will pop up. After the next comet hits Earth, cleansing us from this planet, daffodils will still pop up. Their cycle can hardly be stopped.

I understood at that moment that I had to pick myself up and move forward. I was a young man, and I had a life to live. This feeling did not diminish my grief even in the slightest, but that single moment turned me physically and emotionally 180 degrees. I had resolved to live.

On the side of Mt. St. Helen's, which I visited 10 years after that devastating eruption, there were green shoots popping up through the layers of ash. It surprised me, but it's the same thing. Life wants to live. However, the scars remain for a long time.

Writing this poem and others about my wife Lana's death helped me to understand and comprehend what I had gone through, how it had affected my life, her parents' lives, her sister's life. I wrote a series of poems about my wife's death around the time I wrote "Daffodils," and I remember being depressed and irritable during that time. I felt that I was picking at a scab covering a wound that had not quite healed completely. Perhaps I had not worked completely through my grief at the time of her death? I'll never know. Obviously, there was still some pain beneath the surface, even more than a decade later. The series of poems I wrote helped me release more of that grief and helped me understand more fully what I had lived through. I learned that there is no such thing as full recovery. When you experience an event of life-shattering proportions, you really don't ever get back to normal. You may achieve equilibrium, but it's a new place, you may be a different person. Writing helped me understand that.

Can writing serve this role? Absolutely, without a doubt. It worked for me. And as poetry therapists attest, it works for many. There are numerous books about this: The Cancer Poetry Project and The Vital Signs Poetry Project of the Children's Inn at NIH are excellent examples.

And it's not only poetry. Memoir, essays, nonfiction—anything that gets someone writing about their woes is good. Drawing and painting, of course, are more well-known tools in the culture of recovery, but writing seems to be gaining acceptance.

Are you working on another project now?

Yes, several projects occupy my time. I'm working on a series of guides that show how to use After Shocks as a tool in recovery. The guides will be aimed at poetry therapists, psychotherapists, and clergy—basically, those who counsel people after life-shattering events.

I've recently signed on as Poetry Editor of Press 53, Winston-Salem, NC. I'm reading and selecting manuscripts for publication. Once I select, I spend a great deal of time editing and consulting with the poet prior to publication, and then work on the marketing and promotion of the collection. At this moment, I am screening the entries for Press 53's Open Awards, selecting the 10 finalists that will go to the finals judge, Kathryn Stripling Byer, the poet laureate of North Carolina.

And after nearly a year away from writing my own poetry while I was compiling After Shocks, and then promoting it and scheduling and conducting readings, I've started writing my own poems again. It's feels good to get back to putting my words into verse once more.

I'm also working on a nonfiction manuscript. I have published a number of memoir-ish essays, and I've continued writing them on and off over the years. I don't know if it's a memoir or not because it's not a continuous day-to-day, year-to-year book. It's more episodic. I will begin to seek representation for that series in the coming year.

I'm continuing to do a good bit of freelance writing and editing in the medical and health media, which was my career for years when I worked full-time.

But my most consuming project: I am Mr. Mom to my two children, Lucy, 12 and Sam, 10.
My wife, Hope, works as an Internet executive and has great ambition to continue her career, so I left my position as editor-in-chief of WebMD a few years ago to stay home with the kids. Frankly, I was ready to leave the daily stresses of the media world behind—my own ambition tapped out. Now each day at 2:30 PM, I shut down my office, no matter what I'm doing, to pick up the kids at school, manage their after-school activities, get them through their homework, coach their sports, cook dinner for the family, etc. It's been a wild but rewarding ride, and I believe it's my personal recovery from a career as an editor at newspapers, magazines, and the Internet!

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