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Q&A with Tom Lombardo, author of After Shocks

Read this An interview with Tom Lombardo, editor of <i>After Shocks: The Poetry of Recovery for Life-Shattering Events</i>.

Tom Lombardo is not an expert on recovery. As he puts it, “I’m just a guy who has lived it.” For 23 years.

The event that plunged Lombardo, now 58 and residing in Atlanta, into recovery was the death of his first wife, Lana, in a car accident in 1985. The couple, then living in Knoxville, Tenn., had been married for seven years. Lombardo, a journalist, was 34 and suddenly a widower with no peers who could identify with his grief and recovery.

Platitudes were useless. The last words he wanted to hear were, “You’ll get over this.” He tried a self-help book and cast it aside after three chapters. He tried therapy. “That didn’t work.”

“All I wanted was the love of my family and friends,” Lombardo says.

And some books.

“I buried myself in reading,” he says.

He cauterized his grief with the “thickest, most boring book” he could find: a biography of Gen. Horace Porter, one of Ulysses S. Grant’s top aides in the Wilderness Campaign. “I thought that would put me to sleep each night—and generally, it did.”

But Lombardo also turned to poets whose work he had studied in high school and college, among them Emily Dickinson, Robert Frost, T.S. Eliot and e.e. cummings. “Not a soothing group,” he says, “not the poetry of recovery.” The patterned language, however, provided solace and connected him with a period in his life that had been more settled.

He found few poems that echoed the process of grief and recovery that had come to define his life, until a copy of Douglas Dunn’s Elegies, bestowed on Lombardo by a friend, brought unexpected companionship. Dunn’s slender volume, England’s Whitbread Book of the Year in 1985, examined the geography of his own wife’s illness and death from cancer. “I realized there could be poets who were actually writing about this,” Lombardo says. In 1998, Donald Hall’s collection of poems Without, about the death of his wife, poet Jane Kenyon, delivered additional comfort.

Now, almost a quarter century later, Lombardo has produced a resource that he himself once sorely needed: After Shocks: The Poetry of Recovery for Life-Shattering Events. The anthology gathers the work of 115 poets from 15 nations, among them Dunn, Hall and other prominent poets, as well as emerging and regionally known poets. All grapple with the personal journey that unfolds after such trauma as illness and abuse, divorce and addiction, the death of a spouse or a child, exile and war, and other loss. The book stems not only from Lombardo’s own experience but also from his avocation as a creative writer, which led him from occasional “noodling around” with poems to a master of fine arts degree, earned in 2003, to an as-yet-unpublished manuscript of poetry, and finally to the recognition that his gift in the field of poetry lies first and foremost as an editor.

Q. This anthology marks a bittersweet milestone in your own recovery, doesn’t it?

A. Yes. It all spirals out from that day, April 13, 1985, when my wife, Lana, was killed. Now, something good has come out of that tragedy. The experiences of the poets in After Shocks, and others who submitted poems, have somehow merged with mine. We’ve formed this community of people who are sharing their stories of recovery.

Q. Talk a little about what you have learned about recovery.

A. You may come to some form of acceptance, but you never fully recover. There is no closure, no finish line. Life-shattering events—the death of a spouse, exile, divorce—force you off the path you have been on. You cannot return to the person you were. You have to find a new normal, maybe better, maybe not.

Q. And for you—is life better?

A. I almost feel guilty—I do feel guilty sometimes—that I am surviving, that I have adapted, but I have a wonderful life now. I’m remarried, and I have two lovely children. When I consider the state I was in—the fog, the shock—and how I feel now, it’s amazing I’ve gotten this far. But I’m still recovering, I still bear the mark of a widower, and I still think about Lana and experience grief in some form every day.

Q. When did you know that the fog would clear and you would, in fact, recover?

A. I will always remember the moment, the exact split second—just weeks after Lana’s death—that my recovery began. My mother had come to visit, and, in one of these attempts that friends and relatives make to be cheering, she asked me if I had noticed the daffodils blooming in the back yard. She didn’t realize that Lana and I had planted those bulbs that fall. I saw the daffodils, and I knew then that I had to go on. I didn’t want to leave Lana behind, but I knew I had to find my way forward.

Q. Later you wrote a poem about that.

A. Yes, though it took me 18 years, I wrote that moment into a poem entitled “Daffodils,” which appears in After Shocks.

Q. What does poetry offer to recovery?

A. There is a music to poetry—in the rhythm and sound—that doesn’t occur in prose. This music has touched the human soul for millennia, from the birth of poetry as the first artistic language. And in poetry, there’s also the compression of language in metaphor, simile and other figures of speech that connect the words to imagery and emotion. Since antiquity, we’ve told our tales through poetry, and even today, we seem to return to poetry in our toughest times.

Q. One surprising element in the anthology are the poems with a humorous or lighthearted tone.

A. Recovery includes moments of joy and lightness. I should have known this from my own personal experience. During the first few days and weeks after Lana’s death, I’m sure I offended some people by laughing, but the human spirit needs humor. When an out-of-town friend, the best man at our wedding, visited me shortly after Lana’s death, I’m sure he expected to find me crying. Instead, we had a great time, playing golf, and laughing. It felt so good. At the end of the weekend, an hour after his departure, I was on the phone with his wife, sobbing, “Please send him back here.” You just swing from nadir to peak, feeling so bad that you are forced to feel good. People in extremis still need to laugh.

Q. How did the transition from journalist to creative writer and poetry editor come about?

In 2001, at the age of 51, I was at the pinnacle of my journalism career: editor in chief of WebMD in Atlanta. But the Internet bubble burst, and I was a victim of that. The layoffs began, and I knew the ax was coming.

Q. That could be considered a life-shattering event.

A. Yes, today, how many 50-year-olds are losing their jobs? But I don’t remember taking it that hard: It was an opportunity. I had always enjoyed creative writing. Since college, I had been writing poetry on and off, but I did not know the craft. I thought, “Now is the time.” So, I spent two years pursuing my MFA, and I adapted my career to make room for this much more, for me, satisfying genre—creative writing. I feel as if, in my 50s, I have remade myself.

Q. I suppose that as we grow older we almost necessarily become experts in loss.

A. Each year you live, the odds increase that you will have a parent, sibling or child who may suffer an illness or die, or that you yourself will acquire a diagnosis of a life-threatening illness, or experience an addiction or abuse. If you live long enough, you are certain to experience recovery from these types of events. It’s our badge of honor as we pass 50. We’ve lived through some tough times.

Q. How did the idea for this anthology arise?

A. In March 2007, during a lunch with poet and mentor Fred Marchant, I was discussing the growing number of rejection letters for my manuscript of poems. He said, “Why don’t you become a publisher of poetry?” That was the extent of exchange, because the question stopped me in my tracks. We talked about many other things. That night I asked my wife about it. “Why is Fred saying this to me?” I said. She responded, “Well, you do have experience in editing and media launches.” That was it. I was convinced. Within an hour I had this idea: I would publish an anthology as an “easy way into” publishing poetry. Then, an hour later, the idea of “the poetry of recovery” clarified. I felt I was on the right path. It seemed like the perfect marriage of my experience as an editor, as a poet and as a widower.

Q. How did you go about gathering submissions for your anthology?

A. I put out an open call, relying mostly on the Internet. I advertised on national and international lists, placed paid advertisements in two British journals, and used listservs of writing groups like Women’s Poetry and Cave Canem. I also cast a wide net through friends who were poets, and I started getting submissions immediately.

Q. What, if anything, surprised you about the submissions?

A. I was surprised first by the number of submissions—about 500. Next, I was surprised by the emotional nature of the submissions—and how they affected me as I read them. Many days, I had to stop reading, get up, go out for a short walk to shake the emotion. Many brought me to tears. Another surprise was the worldwide breadth of the submissions, from Iran, Turkey, China, Australia, South Africa, Nigeria, and those submissions nudged me to stretch my own gathering of poems of recovery from outside the U.S. Finally, the vast number of very good poems I received—that poets who didn’t know me would send their wonderful work for this anthology. I was surprised and grateful for their acts of faith.

Q. From these submissions and your own reading, you began with several thousand poems. How did you select the 152 that appear in your anthology? What were you looking for?

A. I looked for that kernel of hope, that ray of recovery, that evidence that life struggles to continue living despite efforts to derail it. In some selections, recovery’s in the air, even as carnage surrounds the narrator. In others, it’s years down the road from the event. But it’s there, in each poem. So, in each poem I sought for something a reader could hang on to and say, “Yes, there is recovery.”

Victoria Dawson is a writer based in Washington, D.C.