Thomas A. Thomas is a talented poet and photographer. His poetry focuses on the natural world while reaching for spiritual meaning. Similarly, his photos capture the beauty of life’s moments in pensive portraits at close scale. The lighting is alluring and dark, the subject matter exalted. It’s as if a simple flower or drop of rain is a sacrament and Thomas is the holy man channeling its godliness for the viewer. Or should I say “experiencer” because reading and viewing Thomas’s art is truly its own unique experience. As I, he was a student at Goddard College and lives in the Pacific Northwest. We covered his love of poetry, fascination with photography, interest in the natural world, and how he got his unusual name. Check out this amazing artist.
When did you become interested in poetry?
I have to say as a preschooler, because my mother would recite wonderful classics like “The Jabberwocky” and “The Tyger” and even longer ones like Noyes’ “The Highwayman” as well as Kipling and Poe classics. Then in high school Miss Eileen Driscoll cracked open the wide world of literature and cultures, from Aleut songs to Zarathustra…
Why does poetry resonate with you? Is it the precision of the word, the depth of truth or something else?
I think it is the intensity first, how worlds and lifetimes can be brought to life with a 17-syllable haiku or a couplet. The deep truth of poetry is beyond our rational minds and can reverberate like a gong (or a depth charge) in our soul. And intense poetry provokes pleasure and love in me, even in expressing the worst of what humans do to one another.
Who were the first poets or writers who influenced you and why?
After my early youth awash in the classics of rhyming poetry, historical novels, drama ancient and modern, and American Indian song poems, the first great explosion was the discovery that living humans could write about the present world… Ferlinghetti! e.e.cummings(!) Poetry was living in the world, not confined to stone and books. It could be made of jazz as well as ancient classical music, and it could rock & roll and be sexy too!
You’re also an outstanding photographer. Are you self-trained or did you attend some sort of schooling?
There were photographers in my family, going way back. Mom put a Brownie in my hands at age 11, with black and white film, and I almost immediately started looking seeing in different way. That little kid on a horseback trail-ride in New Mexico started shooting shadows on adobe walls, and generally channeling Ansel Adams, who he would only discover a decade later. I guess I have to say I’m self-taught, though Georgia O’Keefe might beg to differ…
What’s struck me about your photographs is that they are a close examination of a moment or object, similar to a poem. What’s your process in finding subjects and photographing them?
In fact, I call my good shots “sub-second poems”. At my best times, it is a deeply meditative awareness that comes upon me, a Zen intensity. I look and see and feel, and I touch the shutter button, wait, breathe, feel a presence, click NOW. To paraphrase Mary Oliver, “pay attention, be astonished, capture the sight”. Also like poetry, the image/poem is not usually done at first capture (though the divine muses do grace us with such miracles from time to time). There is the process of revision, polishing, making it look like it really felt in that instant. There’s the inspiration, and then there’s the craft.
What the camera captured:
What I made:
Why are you interested in photographing plants? In some ways, they do seem structural and multidimensional, almost picture-ready.
I tried big city living in the 70s, including New York City. Frenetic excitement is entertaining for a while, but then I want to live, and be, in the natural world again. There is enough awfulness in the world, and I pay attention to that too. But I want to look at what makes the horrors worth fighting through, what makes the suffering bearable. I want to bring that news back to my fellow sufferers, to remind myself and others why I love it all so much.
Do you have any favorite lines you’ve written about plants or nature that you’d like to share?
How about a mysterious little poem about both loving nature and experiencing the slipperiness of attention:
I have nothing to say
This poem is yours, but you must
look carefully for it:
this poem is there among the rocks
where the gray rain falls
on lichen, moss, and marmot shit.
It is growing there in the marmot shit:
rather, it is the marmot
running down the hill from you.
Walk quietly. It hears you
stumbling clumsily after it.
This poem has little respect for you
because this tundra has no need
you can answer. It was happy
lying in the sun, with the hawks
circling above it. And there you are,
still tracking the marmot which
this poem has already left.
You care for your wife who’s been afflicted by early onset Alzheimer’s. Can you talk about how you cope with that while having art in your life?
I absolutely could not cope without art in my life. Gregory Orr has a book specifically about it: Poetry as Survival. And of course “art” includes my own sub-second photo-poems. And I definitely have written what people generally describe as “heartrending” poems about our long goodbye.
You have an interesting name. Is it a given name or chosen name?
My name is part bio and part history. Mom was Patricia A. Thomas MD (one of only three women in her class at Northwestern) before she married the Chicago Ballet dancer, William E. Sturges, who happened to be volunteering at the hospital where she was doing her residency. He came to her special attention by tackling a would-be suicide as he was running to jump through a several stories high window.
The marriage only lasted long enough for me to be 23 months old, and at the time, Mom wasn’t showing she was pregnant with my brother yet. Her dad, Milton G. Thomas, a NASA engineer, had three daughters, so it looked like the end of our branch of the Thomas name. And in the 1960s, my mom, whose name ended in “Thomas,” with her two sons “Tom and Peter Sturges,” just didn’t sound right to her. She liked the idea of “Thomas A. Thomas.” My grandfather, Milton’s dad, Thomas Moses Thomas, liked the idea of my name change as well. It’s a Welsh thing.
So when I was 11, I appeared in court to request the legal name change.
Where can we find your work, either poetry-wise or photography-wise or both?
The 2005 book of poems I published includes my photos on the cover and inside chapter pages. Getting Here is available direct from the publisher (Trafford.com) as paperback or e-book. It is also available either way on Amazon & Kindle, and I have found it in iBooks, Google has it; as does B&N etc.
Look for my photos in Instagram (tthomas7828) on Facebook, and at ViewBug. One of these days I will have a book of my photos paired with other people’s words, and another with my own. I have sold prints individually, and donated them to charity auctions with some success.
Thomas A. Thomas is a lyrical poet who has studied with Gregory Orr and Donald Hall at the University of Michigan, where he won both a Hopwood Minor and a Hopwood Major Award in Poetry. He has also studied with Matthew Shenoda at Goddard College. His work has appeared in “Anesthesia Review”, “The Periodical Lunch”, Writer’s Digest, and “Oberon.” Getting Here, a collection of early work, was published in 2005 and is most easily available through Trafford Publishing.
One of my favorite things to do is hang out on the couch and flip through picture books about Paris. If I can’t be there in person, at least I can be there in spirit. My fascination with the city is about art, romance, architecture, food, history, plants, and leisure. I loved Paris before I lived there and I love Paris now. Yes, it’s an imperfect city, and believe me, when you work there, it loses its luster quickly, but the luster never completely wore off for me. It’s still a dream, no matter how well I know it, and always will be. Here are the favorite books I turn to when I want to dream about the city of light.
Above Paris is such a fun book. It’s, simply put, all aerial shots of the city: a Google maps’ view published before that app existed. You view Paris as if a bird, seeing the intersections of housing blocks and waterways, hidden courtyards, and open green spaces. It’s interesting to see how the Arc de Triomphe and Eiffel Tower are positioned in the city. You also get an appreciation for the Hausmann architectural style with the grand avenues spiraling from the “places.” The two drawbacks to this book are there’s no index so if you’re looking for a particular landmark, it might be difficult, and the photography isn’t as vivid as it would be today. Still, the book is a treat.
Life on the Ground
Eugène Atget is one of Paris’s most famous photographers. He was born in the mid-1800s and died in 1927, working at first as an actor and later, a commercial photographer. He took over 5000 photographs of Paris, capturing both its beautiful monuments and working people. In his book, Unknown Paris, he shows us the nooks and crannies, a sleepy Seine, misty spires, sunny vestibules, curving mysterious streets. The book’s mood is one of lovely melancholy, photographs that yearn and hide secrets. Totally worth having on your bookshelf.
Let’s Talk Food
Journalist Lindsey Tramuta published a much-needed book about Paris. Why much needed? Because The New Paris spotlights the food and craft innovators. For instance, did you know that despite the café’s prominence in Paris, most of them serve the same not-so-great coffee? Tramuta educates readers on the history of various French traditions and how several entrepreneurs are bringing them into the 21st Century. We get a peek at the latest innovators in food, fashion, shopping, wine, sweets, etc., even gathering spaces. This is a must-have book if you’re interested in discovering who is reinventing modern French culture.
Similarly, I bought Tasting Paris because I wanted to learn how to make classic Parisian restaurant food. I always liked that I could get a delicious fresh meal at almost any reputable eatery there and wanted insider knowledge on how to create those dishes. With alluring photos, this book is like a greatest-hits of recipes: quiche, goat cheese salads, Turkish flatbreads, fish tagine, roasted chicken, even homemade hazelnut spread. It would make a lovely gift book for the Francophile in your life.
Chef Ina Garten created a contemporary classic with her recipe book Barefoot in Paris. Touted as “easy French food you can make at home,” this how-to book is full of highly traditional dishes simplified by Garten. They’re all sumptuous. Herbed-Baked Eggs and Bouillabaisse are highlights. I still use her herbed potatoes recipe (with a little garlic olive oil of my own). Now, I’m getting hungry.