My high school English teacher suggested I become a writer. Instead, I entered the military, worked in the steel mill and finally went to college. I recall my first boss, the chairman of Rodale, the publishing company, coming into my office and saying he wanted to develop a unit called “Fast Access Books.” Apparently he wanted to do an end-run around the book division. I had written a few articles for Prevention magazine but knew little about books. This was a birth by fire and we produced Pedal Power, The Solar Greenhouse Book, Ways to Play and American Bicycle Racing in quick succession. My brother Roy helped with the design of some of these books. We shortened the book production cycle simply by working 12-hour days.
Around this time I wrote my first book of poetry, That Kingdom Coming Business that was based on my four years in the Navy during the Vietnam War period. But, as most writers will attest, writing is usually about paying the bills. I wrote a couple of bike books during the time I was editor of Bicycling magazine to help with a down-payment on a house and college tuition for my son.
All the above books where published by traditional publishers and small presses, including Rodale, Warner and Dell. By the year 2000 or so the book publishing field was being profoundly disrupted. Print runs were cut, launch budgets were slashed and titles were remaindered quickly. The bright side of this eruption was that alternative publishing platforms like Amazon became available for anyone to publish. And this has its own dark side.
Psychologist Carl Jung wrote that the second half of life can be a very creative period. I embraced this and think it is true, having studied Jung for the last twenty years. Jungian psychology offers ways for us to make conscious the traumas that we all carry in our unconscious. I have found fiction writing and poetry wonderful vehicles for bringing trauma into the light. Of course, the trauma has to work within the narrative and fictional form.
Limey Down, a novel about growing up in a bombed-out London and then moving to what seemed like an inhospitable America, tracks the traumatic years of a teenager coming to grips with the death of his father, racism and assault. I follow this character in USS Bunker Kills: A Sea Story, about violence, sexual assault and racism aboard a Navy ship carrying bombs to Vietnam. The character also shows up as a middle-aged, high school English teacher in Dancing with the Dream Family that will be published in 2017. Dancing is a story about a life coming apart after a divorce, the death of his parents and his own slide into pathology.
As we know trauma can come in many forms and psychological trauma is often the most difficult kind to unmoor. At one time my parents thought I might become a priest. I went in the other direction, away from the Catholic Church. That is only half-true. I wrote my PhD dissertation on patterns of imagination in a number of Catholic novelists. The religion has a way of showing up in my poetry, such as in That Kingdom Coming Business.
Chanting the Feminine Down is a historical/psychological novel about a young woman’s search for the feminine in the Church. Though I changed the point-of-view and the psychology, and had the benefit of deep research provided by my brother Roy, this novel pokes around through old wounds. However, Jungian psychology proved to be a useful counterpoint to doctrine that can cause mischief in the hearts and souls of modern men and women. Chanting moves relentlessly towards the proposition that the Catholic Church will survive only by fully embracing the feminine and appointing women to positions of power. We have in mind other projects along these lines, perhaps more from the perspective of the Italian Renaissance. Chanting will be published late 2016.
Within trauma we can find a story and often a narrative structure in germ. I used to live in Brooklyn Heights, not far from the Brooklyn Bridge and with a good view of the Twin Towers through my tiny bedroom window. I recall returning to my apartment after the terror attacks and scraping all the dust from the place. I did this in a careful and almost prayerful manner because by then I knew what had been carried by the west wind across the East River to my apartment.
After the anger, the prayers, and the memorials I wrote In the Shadow of the DMZ, that’s been called “a gallop of a narrative poem from one trauma to the next.” This was an accurate review. The poem is an image-based look at a lifetime of trauma, beginning with my birth during an air raid to the 9/11 attacks and our current predicament. The DMZ is a psychological and physical danger zone.
Though I often fail at the task, I think a poet should be in the public square. After the Newtown massacre I wrote another narrative poem, The Archetype of the Gun looking at this symbol and this weapon from a psychological, theological and mythological point-of-view. I put it on the Kindle to help distribution.
I was shouted down in the public square, which means I still have work to do.