One day a friend of mine was playing a record by Keith Jarrett called The Mourning of a Star. While the LP was playing I flipped the cover over to the back side, where I encountered a poem by a writer who I didn’t recognize. This was truly one of those times where a poem reached out and grabs you (or, as Bob Dylan put it, “Every one of those words rang true/And glowed like burning coal”). Although it was a long time before I saw that poem again, the memory of reading it the first time remained vivid, and when someone mentioned it to me ten or fifteen years later, I immediately knew what he was talking about.
It turns out the person who brought it up was the poet who wrote it. Terry Stokes was a creative writing professor at the University of Cincinnati, and the two of us had been hanging together for months before I connected the dots between the writer and the poem. That happened when Terry was telling me about a poem that he published in Esquire. Soon thereafter Terry was contacted to find out if he would be willing to have his poem appear on an album cover by Keith Jarrett, and Terry gave his permission.
“I got fifty dollars from Esquire,” Terry explained, “and fifty dollars from Keith Jarrett. So I made a hundred bucks for my poem.“
Not bad – and especially because so many more people would be able to read the poem due to the fact that it was on the back of an album cover by such a popular musician.
By that point I had figured out that Terry and I had already bumped into each other long before I saw his poem on the Keith Jarrett album cover. At a Miami University writer’s conference where I also met Cameron Crowe and P.J. O’Rourke I had heard Terry give a reading and chatted with him at one of the parties that took place every night.
Attending that conference convinced Terry to move to this party of the country. Englight professors John Weigel and Milton White had much to do with that – and happened to be the two teachers who had the deepest influence on me as a writer, artist, reader, teacher, whatever.
After Terry retired from teaching, I heard less and less from him, and it’s been over ten years since we spoke. We became friends at a good time for both of us. During that period I was editing a offbeat literary magazine called Evil Dog that published lots of interesting writers from this area. In a small way the buzz was kind of on about that magazine, which – in part because I worked downtown at that time and made lots of downtown friends – seemed to connect with people who normally didn’t read literary magazines. Terri Ford, Aralee Strange, F. Keith Wahle, and Terry Stokes – those were some of the writers who helped make the magazine something special (and fun, too!).
The poem on the Keith Jarrett album cover was called “Natural Disasters.” That was also the name of the book where it appeared as the lead-off poem, and today I scanned it so others could read it. When I read “Natural Disasters” I think of all my friends who “wrestled with the lion.” Those seem to be the kind of folks I hang with, and Terry Stokes was one of them. As another year ends while a new one begins, it’s natural to take stock of things and look inward – and this poem by an old friend certainly inspires that.