Monday, August 24, 2009

After Shocks reviewed in International Journal of Healing and Caring

The following review, written by by Martina Steiger, ThD, BEd, MA, appeared in a recent issue of The International Journal of Healing and Caring. You may find the review at

Lombardo, Tom. (ed.) After Shocks: The Poetry of Recovery for Life-Shattering Events. Atlanta, GA: Sante Lucia Books, 2008. 387 pp. Contributors’ bios 53 pp. $19.95

What an accomplishment for the editor Tom Lombardo, who put together this anthology in which 115 poets from 15 nations come together to share their poems of recovery! Indeed, the theme of recovery with a focus on acceptance, hope and healing, however strong or faint it may be, runs through the entire collection that comprises twelve sections. These include the Recovery from Death of a Spouse, from War, Exile, Abuse, Addiction, Bigotry, Loss of a Child, Divorce or Loss of Lover, Loss of Innocence, Illness or Injury, Death of Family or Friends, and Stresses of Living. This diversity surprised me initially. The editor clearly shows the personal and subjective experience of life-shattering events and manages, through his clever selection of poems and their arrangement in the anthology, to validate precisely those experiences. No loss or devastating event is considered more or less important than any other. That alone offers a place for healing and comfort to the reader - at least we know we are not alone, regardless of the circumstances.

The selection of poems in After Shocks crosses and transcends many boundaries and highlights the grief and yearnings of the human soul, common to us as human beings. Although the geographical setting, the language, melody, styles, emotions, and modes of expression vary almost from page to page, we, the readers, never lose track of the underlying and overriding theme – the resilience of the human being who can and does survive the initial trauma and succeeds in living the story of grief. The poets’ voices convey their experiences of pain, loss, love and connection in a deeply compelling manner. The many paradoxes inherent in the grieving process and in recovery, regardless of culture, belief system, or age become apparent. Surrender or letting go on the one hand and forever living with the events of the past on the other hand, develop simultaneously. The poems also illustrate for us clearly how the poetic language of symbols and metaphors powerfully conveys the deeply universal and uniquely personal aspects of the journey of loss, grief, and healing. We also become keenly aware that the process of recovery is just that – an open-ended, unscripted process with no finite point. Each poem invites us to reflect, to empathize, to open our hearts and allow ourselves to receive the images painted in this colourful compilation of poetic imagery.

Many of the poets, whose short biography is included in the biography section at the end of the book, are distinguished poets in their countries, to whom a huge array of awards is attributed. Only a few, it seems, wanted to share with the readers their brief personal stories that motivated them to write a particular poem or series of poems on the topic of recovery. When they did, Lombardo inserted their words in the biographical section, which I greatly appreciate – as this decision allows the poetry to stand completely on its own, while readers still have the information available to them.

Tom Lombardo, the sole editor and publisher of this substantial collection, has presented us all with a gift that may serve to ease grief and restore hope and faith so we can heal or be present to others who find themselves on this journey of recovery. Quite understandably, it seems most poems were written many years, even up to thirty years after the event described. Therefore, I would be cautious in recommending this book to individuals for at least two reasons. When the initial shock of any life-shattering event has not yet worn off, the sheer size of the book is likely to surpass their ability to focus. More importantly, the paradox of loss and grief remains impossible to grasp for many individuals in the early stages of dealing with their experiences because the absence of the presence, the pain and anger, the numbness or shock may render the future incomprehensible and out of reach. And, of course, the opposite might also be true. Others might find solace and comfort in knowing where their path might lead them eventually.

Poetry speaks directly to my heart. This review is not intended to serve as literary criticism of After Shocks but rather as an assessment of resonance. In other words, I turned within, inside my heart, where I listened to my heart and allowed myself to tune in to the emotions and compassion that were swelling up inside me and stirred me. With other books I might include a sample of the text. With this book, I feel that selecting one or two poems as samples from among the enormous variety of topics, poets, and styles in this anthology would only reveal my strong personal bias that is informed through my poetic tastes and my life experiences in general, rather than do justice to the skillfully arranged anthology.

Lombardo’s dedication and deep commitment to his project inspired the generosity of many poets to contribute to this anthology that consists of previously published materials, all of which are carefully cited – a true treasure chest for those of us who feel captivated by a particular poem or poet and are yearning for more. True to the nature of an anthology, we have the luxury of choosing only one poem at a time, randomly, in sequence or by topic, or of reading entire sections. Particularly during this chaotic period throughout the world, the poetic pictures, gems, and insights offered to us in After Shocks may carry us through transitions and remind us of our ever-transitioning stories that we call life. The poems provide us with the opportunity to remember once more the common and shared experiences in the cycle of life, death and rebirth through which we are all connected.

Book Review by Martina Steiger, ThD, BEd, MA

Thursday, August 20, 2009

After Shocks To Be Used in University of Minnesota Course

After Shocks: The Poetry of Recovery for Life-Shattering Events will be used in a topics class called TRAUMA & RECOVERY, WRITING OUR CONTEMPORARY STORIES at the University of Minnesota. The course is Liberal Studies 5100 and will be taught by Roseann Lloyd.

Wednesday, May 13, 2009

Interview With Invisible Sisters Author Jessica Handler

Invisible Sisters is a story about growing up with two sisters who died of blood disorders and then how it affected you and your family over the ensuing decades. First, I'd like to get a sense of the birth order of you and your sisters and the events leading up to and causing their deaths.

I am the oldest of three sisters, and by the time I was 32, was the only one living. My sister Susie died of leukemia when she was 8, and I was 10. Our little sister Sarah was 4 at the time; Sarah had been diagnosed before she was a year old with a rare, congenital white blood cell disorder called Kostmann’s Syndrome. She died when she was 27 and I was 32. My mother called these two illnesses, which have, as far as I know, never been seen in one family, in one generation, a “reverse miracle.” This wasn’t a “movie of the week” kind of scenario – when my sisters were well, they were just like any other kids, and throughout her illness, Sarah alternated between regular kid-hood and long periods of hospitalization, sometimes for simple things like infections that other people could fight off. We had a different kind of “normal” in our lives.

So, Susie did not survive through elementary school and Sarah was a young adult when she died. Can you describe your initial reactions to their deaths, and I mean first-day, first-week reactions, and then how your grief has progressed until today, with perspective of decades?

Even though I was – the whole family – aware that Sarah would die young, she ultimately died at home in her own apartment, apparently suddenly. That sounds disingenuous, but it was during a time when she was out of the hospital, working at her job and enjoying her life. I was in shock, but I didn’t know that until I was writing Invisible Sisters and went back to my journal from that time and found that after the words “Sarah died” there were no entries for several weeks. An airplane ticket stub, her death notice from the paper, and that’s about it. Looking back now at my inability to communicate then, even with myself, tells me a lot about how I reacted.

Susie’s death occurred more than twenty years prior to Sarah’s, and I was a kid – I didn’t fully understand the idea of death. Her absence from our shared bedroom was the most ominous sign to me. My parents sent Sarah and me back to school after a very brief shiva- they wanted to make sure that we stayed on course with daily life. We didn’t discuss Susie’s death after that first day or so. I know now that’s because my parents were heartbroken and the only thing they knew to do was to move forward. People grieve differently, and I understand why my parents reacted the way they did - they were grabbing hold of life, making sure we didn't lose ourselves in the past or, in Sarah's case, worry about the unknown.

Of course I still grieve for my sisters - I think of them almost every day, in small things, like when I see children who resemble how they looked, or when I come across something - a news item, a joke, a song - that I wish I could share with them. Missing my sisters is a part of who I have become, and I honor myself - and my life with my sisters - by living fully.

You are the last sister alive, and have been so for many years. How do you think of your sisters today? And do you wonder or fantasize what life would be like for you had they not died, what your life would be like with all three of you grown up, with spouses, families, visits with the aunts and cousins and grandparents, etc.?

I think of my sisters almost every day, in small ways. A song might come on the radio that Sarah and I liked, and I want to call her so we can shout the chorus together into the phone. I meet someone, grown now, and I’m sure they knew Susie in kindergarten, and I want to ask her, “hey do you remember so and so?” There’s a truncated feeling to those thoughts, because there’s no call to make.

When I got married, I made the decision not to have bridesmaids, because my sisters, who would have been in my wedding, would not be present. So, to me, they were present in their absence.

Can you describe the effect on your parents from the deaths of two of their children?

My mother was committed to staying as on course as possible. She made life very normal for Sarah and me when we were kids. She worked, my father worked, Sarah and I went to school, had friends, had piano lessons and ballet lessons and all that stuff. We fought and hung out and had pets and did all those kid things. My father, who was more visibly affected by Susie’s death and Sarah’s serious illness, got unstable for a while. My parents eventually divorced, and my father moved overseas for work for about a year, then came back to the states and relocated and remarried. Sarah had an ongoing relationship with him, but he and I were estranged for a number of years. We reconnected a few years before his death, and I’m glad about that.

Have the deaths of your sisters played a role in your decision to forgo having children of your own?

Oh, definitely. I was honored to have a “My Turn” essay in Newsweek in the April 27 issue on that topic, the idea of being “childless by choice,” which has garnered a large amount of feedback from readers, on my blog, on Facebook, and even phone calls! About a year into our marriage, my husband and I underwent genetic testing, and found that I have a 67% chance of passing on the syndrome that Sarah had. Medical research has progressed since her death, and in Susie’s case, children with Acute Lymphocytic Leukemia have much better prognoses than they did in 1968, but my sisters’ childhoods – and mine – have made me kind of gun-shy about being a mother.

One part of the book that I found surprising and intriguing was your father's career, which is discussed in a chapter of Invisible Sisters. Would you describe your father's work in the labor union and civil rights movements?

My father was an attorney in the first part of his career – he later taught – and worked for the International Ladies’ Garment Workers Union during the early and mid-sixties. My father brought me along with him when he met with union workers in country towns around Atlanta – suburbs now – and I was exposed early to diversity and the need for justice. My parents raised us with the Jewish sense of tikkun olam – repair of the world. When Dr. King was killed in Memphis, I was eight years old, and my father brought me to Dr. King’s funeral in Atlanta; an amazing and important experience for a little kid that I’ve never forgotten.

How did the deaths of your sisters affect your own life-long relationship with your mother?

My mother and I are very close now, and we’re a lot alike. Throughout my ‘teens and twenties and into my thirties, my mother worked very hard to remind me, in small and almost stealth ways, that I am valuable to her and others, and have things to offer. This came about because in a family where the other siblings require extreme attention, the “well-sibling” takes on the role of self-care, and being a mini-adult. Well-sibling is a term I’ve come across in writing and promoting this book, and it fits. I never resented the attention my sisters received – it was their due, and I wasn’t neglected – but my Mom worked hard to keep my life as rewarding as possible, and I love her for that.

Having lived through those tragedies, what sort of advice would you pass along to someone experiencing a similar loss of family member?

Enjoy your loved ones for who they are, even when you disagree, because that’s a part of life. After a loved one is gone, don’t be afraid to remember them, even though that can be painful. I think it’s a dishonor to your loved one and the life you shared to limit yourself after their death.

Visit Jessica Handler's blog.

Thursday, May 7, 2009

After Shocks contributor Carol Ann Duffy Named Poet Laureate of Great Britain

After Shocks contributor Carol Ann Duffy was named the 22nd Poet Laureate of Great Britain last week. Duffy succeeds Andrew Motion. She is the first woman named poet laureate in the 341-year history of the position.

Duffy's poem in After Shocks was "Mrs. Lazarus" from her collection The World's Wife (Picador, 1999). The collection is themed, containing poems from the perspective of the women behind the famous men in history and examines themes of sexism, equality, bereavement and birth.

I don't have permission to reprint "Mrs. Lazarus" here, but you may find in on page 46 of After Shocks where it is reprinted with the publisher's permission.

The poem from The World's Wife most often quoted in all the news stories about Duffy's appointment, and thereby probably fair game to reprint here, is this one:

Mrs. Darwin

7 April 1852
Went to the Zoo
I said to him - Something about that chimpanzee over there reminds me of you.

The World's Wife is an excellent collection. Go get it as well as any of her other collections, which are excellent. She is among the world's greatest living poets.

After Shocks Visits Boston

On Saturday, May 2, nine contributors from After Shocks: The Poetry of Recovery for Life-Shattering Events joined me at the Suffolk University Poetry Center, Boston, to read from the anthology.

Annie Finch, Martha Collins, Steven Cramer, Nancy Tupper Ling, Becky Thompson, Pam Bernard, Carol Dine, and Jennifer Barber read their poems and other selections from After Shocks. Afaa Michael Weaver read from his Foreword to the anthology.

After the reading, Pam Bernard said, "How see first hand why this book emits such power. In the spirit of true grace, you have created something bigger than yourself, bigger than all of us, and sent it as a gift into the world. I was honored and humbled to be there among just a few of the amazing poets you have gathered." Carol Dine said, "A page in the anthology is like a leaf that has curled and died; beside it, a bud, greening." The other contributors were also quite complimentary towards After Shocks and its impact. Becky Thompson told me something that nearly knocked me over: "It's good to see a white editor publishing so much poetry by poets of color." She referred to the 14 African Americans, two Latinos, and 2 Native Americans included in the anthology.

Jennifer Barber, acting director of the poetry center, was our gracious host for the reading. Becky Thompson traveled all the way from Colorado Springs to read. Thanks to both of them for their efforts, and to all of the poets who read.

The Suffolk University Poetry Center is a lovely venue in case you're planning a reading.

Monday, April 27, 2009

The Writer's Center Welcomes After Shocks Reading

On Sunday, April 26, The Writer's Center hosted five poets reading from After Shocks: The Poetry of Recovery for Life-Shattering Events. As the editor of After Shocks, I introduced the five acclaimed contributors, each of whom read their poems from the anthology and then read two others of their choice from the anthology. Poets reading were Carolyn Kreiter Foronda, Clinton B. Campbell, R.G. Evans, Kurt Lamkin, and Marjory Wentworth. Sunil Freeman, assistant director of The Writer's Center, Bethesda, MD, was our gracious host, and I'd like to thank Sunil for scheduling this After Shocks event at his terrific venue, which is dedicated to promoting literature, right in downtown Bethesda. And I'd like to thank the five poets, all of whom traveled great distances to participate. Ms. Foronda drove up from the Tidewater area of Virginia. R.G. Evans drove down from southern New Jersey. Marjory Wentworth made a stop on her way home to Charleston from a Rhode Island seminar. Kurt Lamkin and Clinton B. Campbell both drove all the way from Charleston, SC.

Saturday, March 28, 2009

Lenten Moon Shines on After Shocks Reading

Three contributors from After Shocks read at the Callanwolde Fine Arts Center Poetry Series on March 11 in Atlanta. The series is held in the renovated greenhouse on the grounds of the old Candler mansion. Two frinds of mine played a short classical violin set as the audience arrived. David Bottoms, Stellasue Lee, and Alexa Selph read their poems from After Shocks with the Lenten full moon shining through the glass-paned ceiling. About 50 to 60 people attended the reading in this magical setting, and my violinist friends Al Pieper and Molly McDonald play another short set during the book signing.

Wednesday, March 18, 2009

St. Dunstan's Invites After Shocks to Sunday School

I was fortunate to be the guest speaker at St. Dunstan's Episcopal Church adult Sunday school on March 8. I used readings from After Shocks: The Poetry of Recovery for Life-Shattering Events to discuss issues surrounding recovery from death of a spouse and other loved ones, exile, war, addiction, bigotry, abuse, divorce, loss of innocence. Approximately 25 church members in attendance engaged in a deep discussion of the issues. They asked questions about how the anthology was compiled and whether there were submissions that raised the relationship of God to recovery. Thanks to Rev. Tricia Templeton for inviting me to speak.

Thursday, March 5, 2009

After Shocks contributor Jericho Brown appears on Poetic Asides blog

An interview with After Shocks contributor Jericho Brown appears on Poetic Asides blog. The interview, conducted by Writer's Digest editor and blogger Richard Lee Brewer, focuses on Brown's new collection Please (New Issues, Western Michigan, 2008). He also talks about his job as speechwriter for past New Orleans mayor Marc H. Morial as well as his writing technique.

Monday, March 2, 2009

Does it hurt to write about recovery?

At a reading/panel discussion of After Shocks poets at the South Carolina Book Festival last Saturday that question in the headline above was posed by a 22-year-old audience member named Zack. The responses of the panelists could be summed up this way: Yes, in the short term, it does hurt, but in the long-term it helps healing, and not only for the poet, but hopefully for readers, too.

The After Shocks contributors on the panel that I moderated at the Columbia-based festival were Laurel Blossom, Clinton B. Campbell, Susan Meyers, Marjory Wentworth, and Ed Madden. In answering this perceptive question, the panelists brought up issues of buried grief or ignored addiction problems or post-traumatic stresses and disorders that when extracted by the poet's pen cause wounds to re-open, or open for the first time if they've been buried from the very beginning. And thus the act of writing--a self-examination--may cause great pain. We all seemed to agree that in the long-run, we were better off for the writing.

Recovery from a life-shattering event like the death of a beloved family member or expriences in war, from exile, acts of bigotry, illness or injury, acknowleding and dealing with addictions--recovery from these events doesn't truly end--ever. There is no closure. There is no point where you can say "I'm totally healed." These events become something that we learn to live with, like a scar, something we wear, like a medal. We are marked forever, though over time, the pain diminishes, and in the long-term, writing helps us move down that asymptotic curve.

Monday, February 16, 2009

Two Successful Radio Interviews for After Shocks

On December 14 and February 2, After Shocks: The Poetry of Recovery for Life-Shattering Events was the subject of two radio interviews.

The December 14 interview, for Georgia Public Broadcasting, ran live across the state for the program Cover to Cover by Jeff Calder. The interview is archived at Click on Dec. 14 Tom Lombardo After Shocks interview by Jeff Calder.

The February 2 interview ran live on Radio Sandy Springs on the program Book Talk with Gail, hosted by Gail Cohn. The interview is archived at: