Jeff Coomer: From executive to poet & what poetry needs more of today
For Jeff Coomer, poetry was in the background of his life for a long time.
He worked in information technology (IT), working his way up to Chief Information Officer at Black & Decker’s largest division. And then Jeff Coomer was able to retire at age 51.
With retirement, poetry became a focal point for Jeff Coomer.
He’s now the author of two poetry collections, “A Potentially Quite Remarkable Thursday” (affiliate link) and “A Buzzard in the Proper State of Deadness” (affiliate link). And Jeff Coomer is the publisher behind Last Leaf Press.
In the interview below, Jeff Coomer covers hearing his work featured on The Writer’s Almanac, what he wants to change about poetry today, and the poets whose work he admires most.
Below is my interview of Jeff Coomer, conducted over email. And at the bottom of this post is a poem by Jeff from his recent collection, “A Buzzard in the Proper State of Deadness.”
If you’re a published poet or author, you too could be featured on Bidwell Hollow. Reach out to me via the Contact form on this website.
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Q&A with Jeff Coomer
Can you tell us a little bit about yourself?
I grew up in the late sixties and early seventies in a middle-class suburb east of Baltimore. My mother was a bookkeeper and my father processed claims in a local Social Security office. My friends and I were the first in our families where going to college was encouraged if we could figure out a way of paying for it.
I was lucky—between my parents, scholarships, and loans I was able to attend Washington College, a private liberal arts school, where I graduated with a BA in political science.
After an unhappy year in a Ph.D. program at Johns Hopkins (University), I stumbled into a career in IT by passing a programming aptitude test offered by an insurance company based in Baltimore. IT was growing by leaps and bounds in those years as companies automated their manual processes, and it turned out my liberal arts education was an asset in understanding the big picture of what was going on.
I was quickly put on a management track and eventually wound up as the CIO of Black & Decker’s biggest division, a position that paid well enough for me to retire at 51.
How and when did you take up poetry?
It’s a bit of a cliché, but I fell in love with poetry in a freshman English class at Washington College. We spent two weeks analyzing “The Love Song of J. Alfred Prufrock” and I remember being stunned with how (T. S.) Eliot so beautifully captured the many fears I had about my own future.
I often took poetry books with me when I traveled for business, but didn’t try my hand at writing until after I left the corporate world.
I had time then to learn what I call the “craft side” of poetry in workshops offered through the adult learning program at Johns Hopkins.
You’ve had three poems featured on The Writer’s Almanac. What was it like to hear Garrison Keillor read words that you wrote?
I can’t think of anyone alive today who’s done more to promote poetry and the art of storytelling than Garrison Keillor. It’s hard for any poet to get wide national exposure, even those who’ve found some success in the self-replicating world of academic and literary presses.
For someone like me who’s not an insider in that world, having multiple poems featured on The Writer’s Almanac brought a tremendous sense of validation. And, of course, it was fascinating for me to hear how Garrison chose to say the actual words and phrases I’d written; there is a richness and cadence to his voice that still often surprises me with what it adds to my experience of what he’s reading.
I was especially impressed by his take on “History Lesson,” which depends on a good handling of the italicized word that begins the last sentence in the poem.
Jeff Coomer on writing, publishing
How did you approach putting together your latest collection, A Buzzard in the Proper State of Deadness (affiliate link)?
Both my books are a reflection my state of mind when I wrote the poems as opposed to a rumination on some specific subject. It’s especially challenging to organize topically unrelated poems into a collection when they range in tone from humorous to deadly serious.
Honestly, it’s a task I dread until I’m well into it. I’ll look at the stack of poems in front of me and think there’s no way I can ever fit these together.
I start, however, by looking for three or four opening poems that are both highly engaging and representative of the themes in the collection.
Next, I try to find three or four poems for the end of the book that I think will give the reader some kind of closure—not necessarily in the sense of resolving the issues I’ve explored, but in the sense of conveying that this particular round of exploration has come to an end.
I strive, too, to position all the poems so that there’s a flow from one to the next. The linkage might come from the subject matter, the voice, or the tone, or even something as small as a passing reference, as in the mention of snakes in “What to Do, What to Do,” which immediately follows the poem titled “Snakes.”
For both my books, I’ve found it necessary to specifically write one or two poems as bridges between two groups of poems. I also added a poem to force “The Starving Children in Korea” and “The Starving Children in Vietnam” to appear on facing pages. I thought they needed to be visually together to be effective.
Is there an overarching theme to this collection?
I’ve been fascinated for some time with memory—not just what we remember, but why and how we remember what we do.
It’s a very tricky subject that cuts to the heart of our identity, especially as we get older and distill our experiences into either wisdom or excuses. I’d say that’s been a theme of both my books and one I expect to continue exploring in future work.
Another theme would be finding my sense of place in a world that’s moving at speeds and in directions I can’t recall voting in favor of. That’s a tricky landscape, too; it’s not enough to retreat into a cantankerous nostalgia for a past that was undoubtedly crappier than you’d like to think it was.
Can you describe your writing process?
With apologies to the writing instructors out there, I don’t carry a small notebook with me at all times to jot down interesting observations, and I don’t force myself to write a certain amount of time on a regular schedule.
The most structured thing I do is to keep a list of possible poem subjects. But it’s more of a virtual list scattered across a bunch of index cards and scraps of paper in a folder, and I’ll often forget what I had in mind for a topic I scrawled down. I would say the good ideas do always seem to find their way back.
My inspiration is usually a passing memory or something I’ve read or some small thing I’ve seen that I find myself reacting to in an unexpected way.
My poems are short enough to be held in my head, so I do a lot of the initial working out of the voice and structure while I’m strolling around the small town where I live, which I do daily unless it’s pouring down rain. A poem can live in my head for weeks before I commit it to paper.
I enjoy the process of finding the exact right words to express what I want to say and will revise a poem dozens of times before I consider it finished enough to put aside. Even then, I might revise it again when I read it with fresh eyes months later. I’m not very prolific and seldom work on more than a couple of poems at a time.
I think it’s important for the opening lines of a poem to immediately pique the reader’s interest, so I put a lot of effort into them.
Nearly all my poems also have something like the volta in a sonnet, the turn or swerve that reveals something new about what’s being observed. For me, that’s the beating heart of the poem, and it takes patience and persistence to get it right.
When do you know the time is right to publish a collection?
I think sixty to eighty poems is the right range for a collection.
For both my books I’ve started thinking about a title and publishing timeline when I’ve had about forty good poems in hand. I’ll consider those poems as a group to see what they present in terms of subject matter, tone, and even format. If they’re weighted too heavily in one direction or another I’ll try to slant my future writing in a way that will add balance and depth to the final collection.
I’ve hired a design editor to produce the cover and interior layout of both books, and then published them under an imprint, Last Leaf Press, which I set up a few years ago to promote the style of poetry I like.
I also put out another poet’s collection under that imprint in 2018, and hope to do more of that in the future.
Jeff Coomer’s poetic preferences
You mentioned you started Last Leaf Press in part to publish poetry in the style that you like. How would you describe that style?
I’d say it has four characteristics.
The first is accessibility, by which I mean a directness in the use of language that doesn’t force the reader to guess about the subject and purpose of the poem, something I personally find a little pretentious.
Second is relatability to a broad audience that includes people who don’t typically read poetry. That requires writing about subjects and emotions in a way that will make a general reader want to engage with the work. It doesn’t mean writing only about topics within the reader’s direct experience, but writing about them in a way that takes account of the reader’s starting point.
Third, I’m drawn to poetry that shows at least some attention to the elements that actually make poetry “poetry”—an economy of expression, the deliberate use of line lengths and groupings, the construction of imaginative, nuanced descriptions, and so on.
And lastly, I prefer poems that encourage the reader to see or feel something in a new way—a quality of revelation that bonds the poet to the reader in an almost intimate manner.
Who are some poets you admire most, either those in the past or present?
When I began reading poetry in earnest decades ago I plowed through the two thick Norton anthologies of poetry from front to back. The only “classic” poets I regularly return to are (W. B.) Yeats and (W. H.) Auden.
My favorite contemporary poet is George Bilgere, who’s had numerous poems featured on The Writer’s Almanac over the years. I’ve bought all his books. He writes with an honesty, humor, and lack of pretention I find really engaging. We’re men of about the same age and upbringing, so I’m sure that’s part of the appeal.
I love the short prose poems of Louis Jenkins, another poet whose work has often been featured on The Writer’s Almanac. That’s a difficult form to do well, and Jenkins is a master. It’s hard not to like Mary Oliver and Billy Collins; they’re popular because they’re good, and it annoys me when “serious” poets roll their eyes at the mention of their names.
I think Ted Kooser is underappreciated despite having been the U.S. Poet Laureate. I appreciate Wendell Berry’s refusal to be anything other than who he is. His “Manifesto: The Mad Farmer Liberation Front” is still one of my all-time favorites.
Lastly, I think Tony Hoagland, who died recently, was one of the most incisive observers of modern American life writing in any genre during the past twenty or thirty years.
Jeff Coomer on making poetry more accessible
Lastly, anything else you’d like Bidwell Hollow readers to know about Jeff Coomer or your work?
I’d love for my work and sites like Bidwell Hollow to help dispel the misconceptions about poetry that have kept it confined to 15% or so of the reading population.
Most of the non-poetry readers I’ve talked to think of it as obscure, impossibly complex, and foreign to their own life experiences. They’re either a little afraid of it or just not interested.
Unfortunately, I think those who teach and write poetry bear a good deal of the responsibility for this. As Ted Kooser put it, impenetrable and darkly edgy poems are what poets need to write to impress the book reviewers and academics who establish a poet’s (and their own) reputation by demonstrating skills at interpretation. Their misconception is thinking poetry that’s direct and appealing to a general population can’t also be well-crafted, layered, and meaningful in what it conveys.
One of my particular complaints is how little humor you find in poetry these days though that’s a normal part of the emotional range of pretty much everyone I know. Doing my small bit to change these impressions is my current mission in life.
Why do you think humor doesn’t seem to appear in much poetry these days?
I wish I had a good answer for that.
At the simplest level, I think poets improve their chances of being stamped a “real” poet by the people in charge of the ink pads when they write about weighty matters, preferably with irony and lots of figurative language.
Interestingly, I’ve had my work likened to that of Billy Collins, who uses humor to wonderful effect, by more than one editor of an academic press. It was seldom meant as a compliment, even though he’s one of the best-selling and better-known poets of the past few decades.
I’d also say that writing poetry with a humorous tone is really quite challenging. There’s a danger that such poems will read like jokes or excerpts from a stand-up routine, and an entire collection of them would likely prove tiring to most people.
Having said that, I do think poetry would be better off if more poets found a place for the lighter side of human experience in their work.
Thank you to Jeff Coomer for this interview. You, too, could be featured on this blog. Use this website’s contact form to reach out.
1:30 AM Saturday Morning
I pop open another beer and ask
the Internet for news of Myself.
As I suspected, I’m mostly the same.
I still own a furniture store
outside Cincinnati and a thriving
personal injury law practice in Florida.
Last month a newspaper in Maine
published a letter to the editor
on an issue I apparently have
very strong feelings about.
There’s no evidence anywhere
that I’ve been appointed to an important
government task force, which,
truthfully, is a relief at this point.
On a sad note, I see that I just passed away
in Baltimore after a lengthy illness;
I should probably send flowers.
– “1:30 AM Saturday Morning” from A Buzzard in a Proper State of Deadness (affiliate link). Copyright 2018 by Jeff Coomer. Published by Last Leaf Press. Used with permission of the author and publisher.