Christmas now past.  Gifts cleared out; friends sent away.  Time to settle in for a long winter’s night—and I, for one, can’t think of a better way to settle in than with a few poems from David Tucker.

Once again, I owe my thanks for this introduction to Diane Lockward.  However, when she gave me David’s name, it rang a faint bell—as if I’d heard it once or twice before.  I then Googled to “David Tucker,” found a lot of chaff under the same moniker, found ultimately, however, one strand of poetic wheat—and one mention of an interview with Teri Gross (co-executive producer and host of Fresh Air, a production of WHYY-FM distributed by NPR).  Bingo!

I read some of his poems online, e-mailed him, and here we are.

For starters, I pulled the following paragraph from something I found online by Michael Joseph at The New Jersey Center for the Book.

And, to round out the picture, here is the snippet I found from David’s interview with Teri.

GROSS: Do you ever think of daily journalism almost as an unusual form of meditation in the sense that you have to be so absorbed in the story that you're covering and focus all of your attention on it, thus blocking out all the other chatter of life?

TUCKER: That's a great question. I do. And, you know, Keats talks about to write great poetry, you have to avail yourself of something he called negative capability… so that kind of magic can happen where you become what you're trying to write about. And I think to an extent, maybe in a humbler sense, really good reporters do the same thing. They are, they may be egomaniacs, but they may be quite vain when they're away from the newsroom. They may be all sorts of things. But they're professionals, and when they set about in pursuit of a subject, they're able to put their egos aside and their loyalty is to that story and to getting everything they can before deadline.

RRB:  David, you would appear to be literally a “working poet.”  By that, I mean that your poetry derives directly from your work experience—and I think the following, which I found it at from Late for Work: Poems by David Tucker, amply makes my point.

             I wonder if you’d care to comment after we’ve had a few minutes to digest your piece.

“And This Just In”

Those footfalls on the stairs when the night shift went home,
the sunlight fanning through the dinosaur’s rib cage
the janitor’s sneeze—we’re asking questions
we’d like to know more.

The moth in the clock tower at city hall,
the 200th generation to sleep there—we may banner the story
across page one. And in Metro we’re leading
with the yawn that traveled city council chambers
this morning, then slipped into the streets
and wound through the city. The editorial page
will decry the unaccountable boredom
that overtook everyone around three in the afternoon.
Features praises the slowness of moonlight
making its way around the house, staying
an hour in each a chair, the inertia
of calendars not turned since winter.

A watchman humming in the parking lot
at Broad and Market—we have that—
with a sidebar on the bronze glass
of a whiskey bottle cracking into cheap jewels
under his boots. A boy walking across the ball field
an hour after the game—we’re covering that silence.
We have reporters working hard, we’re getting
to the bottom of all of it.

DMT:  I feel lucky to be making a living by editing newspaper stories and running investigations. And I think anything you enjoy will present a thousand ways to find the poetry in it. The newsroom may be especially fertile ground for me since it is a chaotic, maddening arena where words matter and deadlines fall upon you like a series of death experiences (some days I don’t know whether to cheer or weep).  Also, there is adventure to it. I am still after many years smitten by the energy and precision it takes to get just a few facts right, let alone get out a whole paper. I think journalism and poetry are similar in some ways:  both want to get to the truth, they tend to rely on precision and spare, quick language. Both are obsessed with time, the time that is passing, recollected, foreseen, the counting of time in cadences; great stories have pace and music. Days go by in a blur; journalism slows them down; poetry stops them. Of course there are more differences in the end than similarities and I like both ends of that comparison. In the end, though I write more poetry about love and death and family and other subjects than I do about the world of journalism. And after all is said and done, I’m not sure subject matter is even a big deal for poetry. The poem you cite, "And This Just In," is a sort of rant against the traditional important news and noise that obsesses most newspapers.

RRB: Nice analysis—and also a nice bit of insight into your professional/poetic life.  Thanks for that.

Since you mention them as themes, what have you got for us on “love and death and family” or on any other subjects that you might be willing to share?

DMT:  My theme is time and deadlines, love, death, memory, family—pretty much the poetry waterfront. I write poems about my boyhood home, my parents – poems about my mother’s long battle with mental illness and about my father, his bad temper and his charm. When I was growing up, my hometown was a place of rich oral tradition, Bible and Shakespeare quoters, religious debaters and zealots, and the crazy melodramas of small town politics (which my father was involved in) and in high school—learning by memorization. It is one of the poorest places in the country, a rural county of great beauty and deep poverty with an unemployment rate at about 30 per cent. My subject matter asserts itself, arrives on its own.  I write from sounds and images that come out of a notebook, that feel musical to me and strike me as clear, and I get excited when the early part of the process begins to take me some place new.

RRB:  Your next piece, “That Day,” looks to me to be quite different from “And This Just In.”  I don’t know whether the ‘muse’ for this piece was someone near and dear, or whether you came to it while observing another mother and son.  Please give us the background.

DMT: "That Day" took a long time to write—many revisions over several years. It began shortly after my mother died—as a vague memory of the two of us walking in the woods on some winter day when I was a boy, it was just a fleeting glimpse really, fragment of a day that had been forgotten only to come suddenly back. The poem probably went through a hundred revisions and the final version was nothing at all like the first or many of the versions thereafter—a process not unusual for me. In this case, I had to cover a lot of ground—different kinds of ground—to get to the end. I had a devil of a time with it, but, at the same time, I enjoyed writing it and eventually became engrossed in trying to write a narrative poem that was both personal and detached.

“It happened long ago”
Encounter, Czselaw  Milosz.

Walking back from town they somehow missed
the logging road that makes a shortcut to their house
and now they are vaguely lost—the mother and her son
on an evening near Christmas in 1960,  but they know
the road is close by and that they’ll find it soon. 
The mother sings some song I can’t quite hear anymore
as she carries a sack of groceries on one arm
while the boy wades around her, kicking the dry leaves.
Halfway down a hill, a quail whirrs up from a thicket,
the wing-beats fan the boy’s hair as he grips
his mother’s hand and turns to watch the bird disappear
into the woods. A calm, nothing day.  It happened long ago.
In a few years his mother will begin hearing voices,
first at night, then all day. She will be committed
to an asylum in Nashville, and it will seem that nothing
can bring her back to ordinary life. Then, after 20 years
of doctors and drugs and nothing working, a calm will descend
slowly, as if on its own, and she will become her old self again,
only sharper, wittier—like one lost a long time who at last finds
the wide road home.  But it’s all still far off, as they walk
to the house and to supper on that evening in 1960,
the boy happy, the mother singing as they find their way
to a future they wouldn’t  believe, even if I told them.

RRB: If I may, I’d like to draw our readers’ attention to the fact that you went through a hundred revisions of this piece before you were finally satisfied with it.  Revision is something too many people shy away from—whether because they haven’t got the stomach or the patience for it is entirely beyond me.  And yet, every serious writer will tell you the same thing:  the art may well be in the initial inspiration, but the craft is in the revision(s) – as many as it takes to get the piece just right.

Your next three pieces would appear to be neither about work nor about a personal experience—even if the observations are all obviously personal ones.  Please tell us how you came to write them.

DMT:  “Columbus Discovers Linden, Tennessee” took a long time as well, and I wrote it in two stages. At first, it was a series of images of a hill where blacks live in my hometown. When I was a child, it was a smoky, desolate, deeply impoverished, segregated enclave that seemed like something from the other side of the world. Eventually, I took out all references to race and made it more contemporary because these days so many people back home—white or black—are hard scrabble poor. The refrain came last and raised the poem to the intensity level I’d been looking for.

“The K-Mart in West Orange” is an escape—about getting away from time and its relentlessness.  Maybe because of my job, I love being off deadline. “At the Gym” is just an unrepentant ‘dirty ole man’ poem.

“Columbus Discovers Linden, Tennessee”

The Santa Maria is moored in the red dust.
She looks like a huge wagon of flowers
jostling the gray shacks at the end of a flat world.
There are, as it turns out, no dragons here—
only scrawny, pot-bellied women who dump the heads
of chickens into kettles, hungry children peeking
from cardboard windows, rows of men-out-of-work, napping
on fly-blown porches.  I claim this paradise
for my King.  And these gardens of dust, these palaces
of sage grass, orchards of junked cars—
I claim for Queen Isabella.  This scent
of rubber tires burning, dazzle of shriveled sunflowers
stacks of oil drums, vistas of stunted turnips—
all these treasures in the name of Ferdinand.
And I claim these ragged bean farmers climbing
out of scorched fields, their mules bellowing
at the red sunset.  And this odor
of soup made from grease and bone, drifting
from clapboard houses—all I take for Her Majesty.
Mattresses and shopping carts piled up in the weeds,
mangy dogs fighting in the street, derelicts wearing
Bible verses on their chest, all, all for good Ferdinand.
And the meth heads, Oqycontin zombies, the thugs
and gun toters gathering around the fire barrels, these too, these too.
And all the silk and incense there is
in Linden, Tennessee, and all the ivory,
and all the green jade and cinnamon, too.


“The K-Mart in West Orange”

I walked into the K-mart in West Orange, New Jersey
to waste some time, avoiding my work at the paper,
letting lunch hour go another hour on a Friday afternoon,
and found the place almost empty, slow as weather,
a museum of itself. Three or four customers
wandered the aisles unhurried  considering
the ninety-nine dollar suits and the death of god
or lifting the arms of fall jackets hung in rows
of moody browns and blues, thinking
what good is the death penalty. Clerks read newspapers
and talked in a listless hum,  offering solutions
to the gas crisis while leaning across counters,
bright shirts labeled Clearance, whispered
when I walked through them, the jewelry bins
shined in late afternoon sun, calling there is still
time to buy something that will change your life.. 
At the concession stand, a ragged customer
in a dirt-shined suit chewed a chocolate donut
and sipped black coffee, looking past the parking lot,
carefully considering his choice for secretary of state.
A few more shoppers were getting out of their cars,
a child straggled along from a hand,
and the heavy grandmother who ran that little
dining section stared at a wheel of hotdogs
that turned under yellow baking light sweating
beads of fat and Elvis sang his heart out
on the muzak spool to the people in the hour
that seemed it might never end.

"At the Gym”

Early morning and us old guys
are manning the treadmills,
staring into the mirrors
as we heavily jog five miles an hour
into our reflections, ragged beasts
ambling toward the shining water
an eye on our heart rates.
Backwards through the years
of the children growing up,
through the mad middle time
of money making back to the smooth loves,
our sweating ambition still watching us,
moving as we move, always there, pacing
along even after the hair goes white.
Then, around nine o’clock, the young mothers
of the suburbs arrive in twos and threes,
kids in school now and the hour theirs
in they come wearing nine
different shades of spandex,
laughing, purposeful, chattering
like a flock of beautiful birds.

RRB: David, if “At the Gym” is what you call a ‘dirty ole man’ poem, my mind must positively reek of obscenity.  That’s about the tamest excuse for voyeurism I’ve ever read.
And “Snow on the Nursing Home?”

DMT: “Snow on the Nursing Home” is a fairly recent composition.  I think it rather speaks for itself.

"Snow on the Nursing Home"

Snow, keep coming down,
cover the nursing home,
embrace my father
as he stares out the window
like a sack of potatoes in a chair.
Come down in mercy, scatter
the forgotten names of his life
along the grass and side walks,
let Chloe, my mother's name,
melt on the window, Aunt Ginnie's
disappear as it touches
the hood of a car,
turn dogs' names to ice,
Brownie, Hurc, and Stack,
Cow’s names to slush
Bossie, Chipper, Holly B,
send Big Mama Ada and her nine children
cascading though cedars,
scatter it all into the other snow
come down with mercy
cover the nursing home.

RRB: Indeed, it does, David—as do all of your poems.

I thank you very much for your time and participation.  It’s been a real pleasure.  Now, please go out and get a scoop.  One way or the other, we’ll get you that richly deserved Pulitzer.

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David Tucker is a lyric poet who has said, “journalism is about what the facts tell us, poetry is about what the facts don’t tell us.” Although he is a veteran journalist of 28 years, a member of the New Jersey Star-Ledger team that won the 2005 Pulitzer Prize for breaking news, few of the poems Tucker read concerned public life, the activity of the newsroom or the calling of journalism, although he did read an anti-newspaper poem, and a poem about reading while waiting for a reporter to phone in a story. His short, translucent poems tended to reflect on private emotions. Philip Levine’s description of Tucker’s language as “precise and economical” seemed apt. His concerns, which are the concerns of the individual in sympathy with other individuals, whom he observes with a compassion that belies his reputation as a “gruff, grunting, yelling, bull-dog sort of editor,” are expressed in the language of ordinary, honest speech. Several of the poems he read were about or inspired by family members, such as his “The Dance,” a Yeatsian lyric for his daughter, Emily, which contains the beautiful lines “Turning gran jetes / Through the haze of late afternoon” and two poems about his mother, who struggled with schizophrenia, “That Day,” and “My Mother’s Voices.” His two poems about his hometown, Linden, Tennessee (which he described as a having “a population of 1000 with 900 Baptist churches,” “Columbus Discovers Linden, Tennessee” (“There are, it turns out no dragons here / Only scrawny women who dump the heads of chicken into kettles”) and “God Goes Fishing in Your Home Town,” exemplified his sensitivity to the imagination’s incongruities, which a gentle whimsy draws back from the shadows of surrealism. “Portrait Of a Woman,” with its anti-Jamesian implication and “After All” were Tucker’s homage to connubial felicity. His poem “Detective Story” (“Happiness is a stubborn old detective / Who won’t give up on us”) commemorated the poet, Jane Kenyon, whom Tucker met in a seminar he took with Donald Hall (Poet Laureate and thus the selector of this year’s Witter Bynner winners). Tucker explained that he met Kenyon the year she and Hall met and fell in love, and his comment that, while it was extraordinary to share a seminar with an emerging great talent like Kenyon’s, it seemed unfair to be in a class with someone with whom the instructor was falling deeply in love, made everyone laugh.
by Russell Bittner