Issue 129 |
Spring 2016

About Tom Sleigh

The first time I met Tom Sleigh, he was stealing my suitcase.

I had just gotten off a charter bus in Mérida, Mexico, where I’d be spending a week at a conference, and in the rush and shove of passengers, I lost sight of my black roller among the pile into which the driver was slinging luggage. When I finally spied it, distinguished only by its wear and scuff, it was rolling away toward a taxi with a man I recognized from the back of poetry books. I had all of his collections (even a first edition of his first book), and even though he’s one of my favorite writers, I was completely paralyzed for a moment, stunned in that I’m-in-the-presence-of-a-capital-p-Poet way. But there he went with that loping gait of his and my bag full of clothes and toiletries and books, and how embarrassing it would be, I thought, if he made it back to the hotel, unzipped the bag, and found my well-worn copy of Space Walk, dog-eared and marked up with eager checks and notes.

“Tom!” I called, running after him. He wheeled around, squinting and smiling into the crowd. Feeling the fool as I reached him, I said, “You are Tom, right?”

He assured me he thought he was. When I told him he had my bag, he looked confused and then, examining it, laughed. It was this moment that I realized that Tom is one of the most approachable people on the planet. Later on, as I spent time with him in person and through correspondence, I realized that he is also one of the most generous mentors to young poets and students of poetry around. I can’t tell you how many times I’ve been to an event where Tom’s name has come up in conversation and someone has said, “Tom’s the best!” or “I just love Tom!”

What makes him so approachable and generous, I think, is his intensity of attention, a trait demonstrated in face-to-face conversations as much as his poems. When I interviewed him in 2014 for 32 Poems, he said: “No matter where I am, Iraq, Libya, Somalia, New York, I try to take people one at a time.” He looks everyone in the eye and also looks at what others refuse to look at: he witnesses instead of watches. He writes of civilians in war zones, a lion pacing his zoo enclosure, the pupil of a dog floating in a gravity-free kitchen, of junkies in Southern California, cats swarming over abandoned tanks in Beirut, American politicians as the village idiots—of so many other consequential subjects and scenes—with an unsentimental yet conscientious precision wrought only from his immersion in experience, in the gaze. His imagery is photographic, but his language is never captionlike. He exposes rather than exposits, and whether or not he’s being funny (and he often is, sometimes scathingly so), his timing of details and sounds is like that of a comedian: the pattern most interesting—most significant—when it’s broken.

Born in Mount Pleasant, Texas, Tom Sleigh has worked as a journalist in some of the world’s most war-torn countries, including Syria, Somalia, Iraq, and Libya. He’s also the author of eight books of poetry, including Station Zed (2015), Army Cats (2011), and Space Walk (2007); a book of essays, Interview with a Ghost (2006); and a translation of Euripedes’ Herakles (2001). He’s taught at many institutions, most recently Hunter College. In the poetry workshop I took with him in Mexico, he stressed the idea, after D. W. Winnicott, that all writers have a “fundamental orientation toward language,” and this orientation should be recognized, embraced, and challenged in equal measure in one’s writing.

In the middle of our interview a few years ago, he wrote to me to say that, although we had nearly finished our conversation, he felt as if he could do a better interview and asked if we could scrap the three thousand words we already had. I later published nearly six thousand words of an entirely new conversation, but among the scrapped materialis the following passage I wish I’d cobbled into the published piece, one in which Sleigh discusses poems that set out with something to say versus poems that seek to find what they need to say:

What I am interested in is what the language is discovering moment to moment as the lines unfold: something that lies beyond my own politics and biases in writing about politically charged subject matter. For me, this means the discovery of my subject as I write, and not from some prefab stance, or hell of opinions that I simply populate with more opinions. I’ve said this before, but maybe it bears repeating: the language relieves you of having to stand guard over your own opinions and convictions, and gives you access to reaches of thought and feeling you might not otherwise imagine. Which is risky, unpredictable, and not always easy to reconcile with your day-to-day political, emotional, or intellectual entanglements… If the language isn’t interesting, there’s no reason to demean your subject matter.”

To me, this passage speaks to his utmost respect for others, the subjects of our poems and our days. He demands that, if we are to write about ourselves and others, we must first find a way to render those experiences in ways that are real. That doesn’t mean the journalistic facts; rather, it means that we must pay attention—to all that can be seen, all that can’t be seen—and be generous: to one another, to ourselves, to our world.

In the few years that I’ve known Tom, he has challenged me to always be a better poet poem to poem, to be a better citizen, both literary and worldly. He gave me urgent edits to the poems of my first book when I’d asked only for a blurb, wrote essay-length responses to my interview questions, guided me to crucial poets when I needed an example, reminded me how to stay sane in po biz, and sent me “are you doing okay?” emails when I most needed them. There have been so many times when I’ve admired the engagement, the empathy, and the attention of some poets’ work, but then I’ve found poets underwhelming in comparison. Tom, however, lives his poems, his language, and that’s perhaps why his accidental theft of my suitcase seems so appropriate, so apt a metaphor for his poetic work: he takes the world with him so he can give it back to us.