Today I’m very happy to post my Q&A with Tom Lombardo, a poet, essayist, and freelance medical writer who lives in Midtown Atlanta. Tom’s poems have appeared in journals in the U.S., the U.K., Canada, and India (translated to Hindi and Mayalayam), including Southern Poetry Review, Ambit, Subtropics, Hampden-Sydney Poetry Review, Aethlon: The Journal of Sports Literature, Atlanta Review, New York Quarterly, and many others. He is also editor of the anthology After Shocks: The Poetry of Recovery for Life Shattering Events, and he runs the Poetry of Recovery blog.
Tom’s new book, What Bends Us Blue, has been praised as “remarkable” (Thomas Lux) and “exquisite” (Cathy Smith Bowers). Clifford Garstang recently reviewed the book on his blog, calling it “a lovely collection of poems…both sad and hopeful…and there’s also a great deal of humor.”
Q: Congratulations on your new poetry collection, What Bends Us Blue, whose title I immediately fell in love with. Can you tell the story behind it?
A: Thank you, Midge. In music, especially in blues and jazz, notes may be bent upward or downward, on guitars or other stringed instruments or on harmonicas, saxophones, clarinets, and other reed instruments. It’s a way of taking the note up or down a half-step or more without changing the string or the holes. The musician will bend the string with a finger or bend the reed with the embouchure of the mouth and the speed of exhale or inhale. This technique was popularized by the Mississippi blues men of the early 20th century, so it is associated with blues, but it has crossed over into jazz and other genres. So…what bends us blue, literally, is bending a note to achieve a bluesy sound. What bends us blue, figuratively, is what What Bends Us Blue is about.
In 1992, at a table in a two-room flat in Prague, I wrote the first poem that became part of What Bends Us Blue. It was seven years after the death of my first wife, Lana, in a car accident. The poem was about her death, and some of it was in her voice. It was an awful poem, much worse than a rough draft, but that poem, scores of drafts later, entitled “Elegy on a Visitation,” has been published in a journal, is in What Bends Us Blue.
Over the next several years, I wrote a few more poems, some of them about Lana and her death and my recovery, some not. Then, a creative burst between 2001 and 2011 when I wrote hundreds of poems, many of which appear in What Bends Us Blue. The collection centers emotionally on loss and recovery, but it also looks at What Comes Next. As I was a young widower, the course of my life changed dramatically. It’s not unlike experiencing a divorce, I would imagine. You think you’re going in one direction, then Bam!, you’re not, and you’re lost for a while. When your life is shattered by an event, you come to a point like Robert Frost’s “The Road Not Taken.” You face a choice. A new direction. You can sit at that fork your entire life, or you can move on. That is a key theme of What Bends Us Blue, the moving on. Life wants to live. In my case, I remarried, had two children (who are now teenagers), and some poems of What Bends Us Blue give the reader a view of redemption.
Q: The collection has been praised for, among many things, the diversity of the poems — which range from satire to irony to heartbreak. What were the challenges of putting together a collection with such emotional breadth?
A: Let’s put aside for now the challenges of writing the poems themselves. Once I had the poems in hand, I built a collection. I had been submitting this manuscript for several years to contests and open submissions, and it was rejected over and over and over. Then, I turned to April Ossmann, former executive director and editor at Alice James Books, which awards the prestigious Beatrice Hawley Award each year to a book of poetry. April became my editor. The first thing she did was cut one-third of the poems I had included. Like most poets, I found it difficult arranging my poems into a coherent collection, even though I’ve been an editor for more than thirty years. But I’m smart enough to listen to a good editor. The poems April cut were good poems, had been published in good journals, but they were clotting the collection, disrupting the flow, distracting the reader. In this case, less was more. April also did some rearranging of the poems, creating an interesting arc that I had not considered. My arrangement was linear, telling a story from A to Z. Hers maintained the story arc but was somewhat less linear, becoming more impressionistic, which fed the emotions. And achieved better balance of heartbreak and humor and fantasy. The collection succeeds because of its humor and flights of fancy, which offer readers some relief from the sadness and grief, and the balance was the beauty of April’s arrangement. She found exactly the right pacing. What’s ironic is that I do this kind of editing in my work with other poets as a poetry series editor for Press 53 (Winston-Salem, NC). It’s difficult to do it with your own poems. But that’s what good editors do—step back, objectively view the collection, suggest cuts and new arrangements that make sense for the whole.
Q: Speaking of being the poetry series editor for Press 53, can you tell us about your process of acquiring new work. What makes a poem or selection of poems stand out among the rest?
A: I’m always looking for new poets for Press 53. Journals—paper or online—and submissions and recommendations from trusted sources. I will probably read 300 submissions each year, maybe more. We received more than 100 during our open submissions last year (we ask for a 10-poem sample), from which I selected two. I also solicit samples or full manuscripts from poets I read in journals or who have been recommended. In addition to selecting poets from Press 53’s home base in the Carolinas, I make a concerted effort to build Press 53’s poetry catalog across the U.S. I’ve selected poets from Portland, OR; the San Francisco Bay Area; Los Angeles;, Houston; Louisiana; Atlanta.
In my reading of submissions for Press 53, I reject a lot of poetry because it contains no figurations. It’s prose with line breaks, and it fails to elevate from prose. That’s an important lesson for all poets to understand. Poetry is essentially figurative language. Metaphor, synecdoche, metonymy, irony, synesthesia, imagery, intensity of senses are the keys to authentic poetry. So to answer your questions, submissions that use figurations stand out. Submissions without figurations—rejection.
Q: How does editing poetry affect your own writing?
A: I’ve been editing for a long, long time: newspapers, magazines, Internet. My career has been editing. Many of my professional skills transfer over to poetry editing, though the forms obviously are different. I feel like I was born to edit. My tombstone will read: I edit, therefore I am.
The most important thing I’ve learned as an editor that has transferred to my own writing is that I must write for an audience. A reader. What I write must be understood by someone else. Poetry is a form of communication. That is so fundamental that you would think it’s obvious. But I see too many manuscripts in which the poetry is written for the poet himself or herself, the reader ignored. Only the best poets and writers do it well, some of them may just do it naturally, a gift from the gods. Another important editorial skill: I fully understand and embrace the revision process. I write in order to revise. Good writing is the result of good revisions. Some poems of mine are published in their hundredth draft. To me, revisions are fun. I love to revise. Love it, love it, love it. The writing opens itself up to me as I revise. Being an editor, I’ve spent my life revising the work of others, so I truly enjoy revising my own work.
Q: What are you working on now?
A: I’m working on a novel. I’m about half finished. Soon, I’ll query agents and publishers.
I’m also producing frequent items for the Poetry of Recovery blog, which is an offshoot of an anthology I edited in 2007. After Shocks: The Poetry of Recovery for Life-Shattering Events comprised 152 poems by 115 poets from 15 nations. The poets wrote of recovery from grief, war, exile, divorce, abuse, bigotry, illness, injury, addiction. The Poetry of Recovery blog presents poems from the anthology along with an interview with the poet. I also feature new collections or readings by the After Shocks poets.
I’m putting the finishing touches on a chapbook due out next year from Kattywompus Press (Ohio) entitled The Name of This Game. It’s based on my experience playing football for eight years in high school and college, during which I experienced a number of concussions. The poems capture the violence of the sport and the damage it may cause to a young brain. The concussions fuzzed up mine through my early twenties, and I drifted a bit. My brain clarified in my mid-twenties, and I found direction to my life. Now, I’m waiting for dementia to kick in. The title of this short collection is from a quote from one of my coaches: “The name of this game is to hurt someone.” Indeed, coaches actually speak in luscious metaphor and simile. “Charge to this spot like a dog on a porkchop.” “Cover this guy like a cheap suit, like dirty shirt.” That coach got me a college scholarship as well as some great lines of poetry, so I can’t complain too much about football, though the injuries concern me enough that I encouraged my son’s early interest in tennis. He’s quite athletic, but he ain’t goin’ anywhere near a football.
I’ve also spent a lot of time lately arranging readings and workshops to promote What Bends Us Blue. The book’s Facebook page will list the specific details, places, and times of my readings. But note that I’ll be reading this fall in Atlanta on Sept. 11 and Sept. 12; in Charleston, SC, on Oct. 14; in Asheville, NC, on Nov. 3; and in Cary, NC, on Nov. 17. I’ll also be reading at the Press 53 offices at the Community Arts Café in Winston-Salem, NC, as soon as I can arrange that. I also have a radio interview scheduled for Oct. 28, 9 p.m. Eastern, on RN.FM. You can listen here: http://www.blogtalkradio.com/rnfmradio.
Keep an eye on Tom’s book’s Facebook page for more details and future events.