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.
September is a month of transition. The warm, bright freedom of long days wanes into the chilly introspection of rainy nights. It’s a warning about the coming of the great sleep that is winter. It’s in the morning dew on cars and yellow leaves that swirl before us as we mow the lawn. September signals that we should give up our fantasy of taking a walk in the evening whenever we want or put off fixing that downspout or eating on the patio. We are at the mercy of the earth’s tilt and it’s tilting away from the sun more and more every day.
Poetry from the Garden
So it was with surprise this September that I stumbled across Ross Gay’s book, catalog of unabashed gratitude. I’d seen his name around but I’ve rarely sought out poetry in the last handful of years. I do love and respect it though. There’s a simple reassurance in rereading Duino Elegies or Neruda or the ever reliable Mary Oliver. But not since Mary Oliver have I come across a poet able to meld the natural world with the human in the way Gay does. Generally, poetry is no stranger to the earth’s habits but Gay’s poetry is Whitmanesque, all encompassing, vibrant, aloud, unashamed. He is a modern day bard singing about plants while singing about so much more.
For instance, in his poem “Slipping From Lips” (from Against Which), we see the natural world as well as that of the city. Take a listen:
“The gingko trees leaning outside my window
one month ago a blazed gold now sulk
like the withered talons of a thousand dead
and decaying birds, and the subway’s smog
roasts homeless men through the clenched teeth
of steel grates, and the afternoon shadows stretch and pull,
the sun’s lounge now long…”
Though the poem goes on with mentions of snow and the narrator’s happiness at the new year and subsequent spring arriving, the poem also looks backward toward fall with the gingko trees having held gold leaves, nicely capturing the autumnal time of year. When I read this, I thought, yes, the blaze is right about now, but with rains and windstorms, the leaves fall and disappear. It’s all so glorious, temporary, and sad.
Planting While Mourning
We see this juxtaposition again in “Burial.” Gay writes about death and love and plants in a vivid memoir of his father’s dying days against his own task of planting fruit trees. The entire poem is worth quoting but I love this particular passage, which comes shortly after the narrator’s spoken about digging a hole where he mixes in the ashes of his deceased father.
“…the roots curled around him
like shawls or jungle gyms, like
hookahs or the arms of ancestors,
before breast-stroking into the xylem,
riding the elevator up
through the cambium and into the leaves where,
when you put your ear close enough, you can hear him whisper
Then later, when he’s approaching the tree, now lush with fruit, he says:
“…and I plodded barefoot
and prayerful at the first ripe plum’s swell and blush,
almost weepy conjuring
some surely ponderous verse
to convey this bottomless grace,
you know, oh father, oh father kind of stuff,
hundreds of hot air balloons
filling the sky in my chest, replacing his intubated body
listing like a boat keel side up, replacing
the steady stream of water from the one eye
which his brother wiped before removing the tube,
keeping his hand on the forehead
until the last wind in his body wandered off…”
As I read through this again, I gulp. The intense moment of his father’s dying experience is lovingly but unsentimentally portrayed, the hot air balloons fill Gay’s body with breath as his father’s body lists from the breath inside it, then goes out as he dies. Wow. What a testament to the power of words to articulate life’s most profound milestones while bringing forth emotion.
Ross Gay: In Spring and Winter
The poem balances on this line of life and death throughout, keeping us in the moment of spring, hope, growth until the final lines where Gay bites the plum in his mouth and sees the memory of his father dancing, both “being a little silly / and sweet.” It’s no wonder the book where this poem lives was a National Book Award finalist.
That book is the “catalog of unabashed gratitude.” Of Gay’s three poetry books, it’s the most dialed into the natural world, though not all poems feature it. Ross Gay, an African American, also writes about the black experience, racism, injustice, and history. He also writes simply about a flute or eating waffles. Whatever they’re about, each poem is an inspiring gift. Anyone who loves the natural world needs to read this man’s poetry. Poetry that’s about the pain and joy of the earth’s natural happenings, including the ones we humans live through, fleeting and precious, like a change in seasons.
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