I suppose it was all the reading and writing I did as a kid and later in high school and college that set the course for me. I have always been interested in language, in connecting with people through words and feelings. My first recollection of poetry was in the 3rd or 4th grade when I chose Robert Frost's Stopping by Woods…to memorize and recite in front of the class. I didn't realize then, the lifelong affliction I would have with Frost. "Frost-bitten" as we like to call it and since that time, he has always been my poet and I suppose his influence in my work is everywhere apparent.|
I began writing down thoughts early on and by the time I entered high school, I was writing short stories and bits of philosophy. Poetry was never too far off though and I started keeping track of it in a daily journal as a college course requirement. Although it is far from daily, I do keep it out and beside my Morris chair.
One of the early ones, written late one night at the little house on Wildwood Trail, I titled Acceptance. I named it after a favorite Frost poem and began to think that maybe it was good enough to submit it somewhere. I had sent off a few poems over the years, quite sporadically and received some nice comments but nothing but rejections. I bought a copy of Writers and Poets and went through the back pages looking for an ad saying: wanted: James Gray Poems.
Nothing. However, in the laundry list of publications was one that jumped out at me. The Lyric had been founded in 1921 and was the oldest publication in constant circulation, dedicated to publishing lyric poetry. That was it for me. I sent out several poems as I recall and Acceptance was accepted.
There is a real thrill which every writer knows when that first one hits. For me the thrill happened twice. First, the letter from Leslie Mellichamp, then the editor of The Lyric acknowledging the poem and saying that he would "tuck it into a future issue" and again in the fall of 1990, when it first appeared in print.
The other pieces followed in and out over the next 15 years and when I got around to sending another one out in 2003, it was on the news that Leslie Mellichamp had died. I remembered writing a short quatrain titled Carpe Diem and sending it to him some years earlier. He wrote back with some encouraging words regarding it, but did not have room to publish it. I pulled it out of the drawer, dedicated it to him and sent it on to his wife and daughter who were assuming the role of editors for The Lyric.
It was published in the spring of 2003 and ended up winning the 1st annual Leslie Mellichamp Prize for poetry later that year. That was my first payment for my writing. Another wonderful moment. I enjoyed the letter, photocopied the check and sent it back as a donation, believing the recognition was more than enough payment.
In between Acceptance and Carpe Diem, I had finished probably a dozen or more poems that I was reasonably happy with and it occurred to me around 2000 that I would like to print several of them as gifts for friends and family.
Around 1988, when I found myself unemployed and deciding what to do next, I had completed a long piece of "daring" couplets and modified "fourteeners" (14 syllables per line, as C.S. Lewis and others used to refer to the form) which I titled The Hammock. I think it was inspired by the view outside the picture window at Wildwood, where I had kept a hammock strung up between two pine trees
The Hammock for me is a special piece. It covers a lot of ground and you can enjoy it on several levels. Lately, I have been toying with the idea of making it into a children's book, with some wonderful illustrations and I think it might go over quite well in that form. I believe children would enjoy it and could return to it again and again in hopes of getting something new out of it. After more than 20 years of having it in my head, it still resonates for me and I think it has some of the best lines I have ever written.
A Late Snow
A Late Snow is my ode to Frosts' Nothing Gold Can Stay (his being much better). Although I didn't experience it first hand, I had heard several situations where after Spring had arrived and the new flowers and growth were making their way up, a sudden change in the weather had squashed their hopes. The wonderful Frost piece and Matthew Arnold's Dover Beach, were inspiring. Sometimes nature can be more or less cruel.
I don't have enough space here to completely go through this piece. It started out as a very simple idea of turning a math equation into some kind of clarification of life. I started with a few lines, in and around 1990, working backwards, which I had never attempted. It took years. I would chip away at it and then leave it for years, pull it back out and change direction, change everything in fact and I still couldn't get it to cooperate. Finally in 2006, I committed myself to finishing it and had some real breakthroughs. It was the most exhausting, wonderful, laborious, and satisfying moment I have ever had with a piece. Most of the people who have a copy struggle with it, but it's really very straightforward. Actually, straightforward is not the right word. It is based on a simple thought or belief which is the proof. It just goes about solving it in a very wordy and erudite way. Just like I would imagine a math proof would have to run its course. If you want an absolutely beautiful piece, which is wonderfully printed and bound and will work your brain and your heart. This is the one.
The Mowing came about with its own drama. I had started and finished it some years earlier and like most of my work, the idea for it was based on some level of experience. Because my other work had me preoccupied for so long I would get these images and ideas from time to time and got a few lines down in my travels. I always try and have pen and paper close by so when something surfaces, I can get it down in the right way.
My sister had given me a journal for Deb and I's 25th anniversary in 2005 and it was so extraordinary in its form and the quality of the paper that I contacted Graeham-Owens in New Hampshire who had made the journal and began a correspondence with Jack Ellerkamp. Jack had helped save this little company in Nepal some ten years earlier; they had been making handmade paper from the lokta bush for many, many years. This is a completely self-regenerating plant that lives at very high elevations and if you have the time, please go to Jack's web-site and experience this wonderful story for yourself.
Jack had named the company after his two boys and has a partner in Kathmandu who runs the operation from there while Jack works the U.S. market out of Peterbourgh, NH. Anyway, when I contacted Jack I wanted the paper for A Late Show but we couldn't put it together in time so I went ahead and took another direction but I told Jack that I had this other piece, The Mowing, which would be even better for his paper. In 2007, when I had The Mowing finished, the color that I wanted for the pages was discontinued and the replacement color was not at all what I wanted. Jack's partner in Nepal had a few sheets of the discontinued color left over and between the two of them; they did a custom run for me using the old color. It was really a surprise and solidified our relationship. It would be 6 months before the paper was in the states and in the spring of 2008, we had all the ingredients for The Mowing together, except a printer. Then no one would work with it.
The traditional methods would not work with the hand -made paper and we spent months trying to find anyone who might take it on. The wonderful folks at Graphic Press, who had always done my printing, just couldn't do it.
In a last ditch effort before abandoning the paper all together, I went to see Walton Monk with CopyFax 2000 and he agreed to try it on his equipment. They literally took each sheet, hit it with compressed air to blow the debris out of it, put into a microwave to try and dry it out, fed it through their big machine, practically by hand. Then we had issues with alignment and folding and we are still "tweaking" this piece. No two are exactly the same apart from the spectacular oils that Stephen Koury did for the front and back cover. This piece, once it's in your hands, is truly amazing! Once they are gone, there will no way to reprint it in the same way. It really feels great in your hands.
I forgot to mention that my wife Deb sews the binding on all the non-stapled pieces and my mom Catherine completed many of the 1st editions of The Hammock, which were all hand assembled, hand punched, and hand tied with jute rope as the binding. This was a beautiful piece of work but unfortunately that edition is all gone. The 2nd edition has the wonderful pen and ink drawings by Jonathan Rogers but without the signature and numbered page. However, it still looks and feels good in your hands. Mom also assembled many copies of The Mowing and for her help with both pieces, I will always be grateful.
These days I find a good bit of satisfaction and I suppose even therapy in the writing. These "little copies" as I usually refer to them, are a way to collaborate with friends more talented than I and try and create something unique; maybe even work that makes its way into the world; something we can all 'lean' into and live a little by; work that is far away from the confusion of commerce. I suppose if it is going to make its way to market then we have several charities which are near and dear to us and a good bit of the proceeds will go to help them out. Habitat For Humanity, NRDC, Christopher and Dana Reeve Foundation, The Michael J. Fox foundation, The Carter Center, to name a few. If you have a favorite cause, please let us know and we will be happy to donate part of the proceeds from your purchase directly to them.
This has been one of the most satisfying experiences in my life. I can't imagine anything better than sharing the work with friends and family and with a growing number of people like yourself who enjoy the poems and return to them from time to time, when and as life gets so demanding and complicated.
Thanks always for your support!