Tuesday, October 6, 2009

Broken Time

Following is the text of the speech given by John Mark Eberhart at the Thorpe Menn Award for Literary Excellence luncheon on Saturday, October 3, 2009 at the Kansas City Public Library. This award is sponsored by the Kansas City branch of the American Association of University Women.

"First, thank you for recognizing Broken Time. While I have written thousands of newspaper articles and hundreds of poems over the last quarter-century, I believe this collection represents my best work to date.

From a technical standpoint, Broken Time was not difficult to assemble. As I was writing in 2006 and 2007, I saw early on that I was creating two kinds of poems--one set dealt with music or at least referenced it, and the other set was wide-ranging, yet rooted firmly in the landscapes of the West and Midwest. Hence a book with two sections, titled, with stunning originality, "Music" and "Lyrics." Actually, I sell myself short with that dig; a number of the poems in the "Lyrics" section do follow the convention of lyric poetry, in which the poet directly addresses the reader, expressing thoughts and feelings rather than creating characters or devising a plot.

From an emotional standpoint, Broken Time was more problematic. It is no secret that during the time of its creation, I was caring for my late wife, Sherri, who by 2006 had been fighting breast cancer for four years. As that year and the following one unfolded, her strength ebbed, her energy declined--and now that I look back on it with a little distance, so did mine. Although not in a creative sense.

I wish to address briefly the topic of suffering as it relates to the creation of any sort of art. It has become a cliche in our culture to say that hardship leads to artistic construction; that is not necessarily true. Good writing exists without the author having suffered; art of any kind can come into being without its creator having endured pain.

Yet it is undeniable that hardship can be a factor. Jim Harrison, the novelist and poet, remarked that the verse of his friend Ted Kooser deepened after the latter was diagnosed with tongue cancer. Kooser, of course, wrote many fine poems before he was stricken. It is true, however, that Kooser won the Pulitzer Prize and was named Poet Laureate of the United States only after his struggle with cancer.

Sherri's battle marked me, as has her death, and I shall be marked forever. But in 2006 and 2007, both of us were striving to find as much meaning and as much joy in life as we could, despite her pains, which were physical, emotional and mental. For my part, I was tormented, during that time, with thoughts of losing her, which of course did happen, but not until last October; in ten days, Sherri will have been dead for one year.

Yet, Broken Time is in many ways a joyful book. In the music poems especially, there is a sense of wonder present in many of the lines. Even in the musical poems which are not "happy," I think I managed to convey my deep immersion, a lifetime's immersion, into the various musical forms that have sustained me for four decades now. From classical to jazz, to blues to rock 'n roll.

The poems in the "Lyrics" section are darker. As Broken Time's second half unfolds, the voice of the poet begins speaking of mortality, of chances and opportunities lost or not taken. I knew--we knew--Sherri was dying. Though I might have denied it at the time. I see now that these poems were a kind of venting for me--not necessarily of anger but of sorrow, and not sorrow only at Sherri's illness and the fear of her death, but melancholy over the inescapable nature of the transience of all human existence. I am a realist: I know no one gets out of here alive. But in many ways, human life is a trick we play on ourselves--that is, we seek to enjoy the time we have and to do so, we cannot face each day with hand-wringing over the fact that one day, we shall be no more.

The years 2006, 2007 and 2008 were among the richest and most rewarding years Sherri and I ever spent together, and they were in fact the very best years of our marriage. Early on in our relationship, Sherri once expressed the concern that perhaps we were not true "soulmates." That concern vanished as we woke each day to face her illness. And as I wrote the poems that would become this book. Sherri served as my first editor. She, too, was an English major, having double-majored in English and theater. She was a very capable editor, and also an unforgiving one, which is exactly what a writer needs. We scribblers are advised not to trust the opinions of our family and friends, who, presumably, love us too much to tell us when we go wrong. Sherri loved me enough to tell me exactly that. As I worked on this book, I revised and revised and revised, trying to please her. And when a particular poem simply did not accomplish that, I made use of an essential but often overlooked compositional tool--the wastebasket.

I am proud to be honored today along with Matthew Eck and Donna Trussell. I have read both their books more than once. While I cannot speak for them, as a reader I can state my firm opinion that hardship played a role, too, in the creation of their works. Matthew served as a soldier, and from reading his novel and talking with him, I know he witnessed things as a young man that he'd rather not have seen. Donna's war was fought not on foreign soil but in a different arena, in the war zone that the human body becomes when one faces illness. Obviously, then, I feel a kinship with both these writers, but let me state the obvious today: I feel as if Matthew and Donna are brother and sister to me. Not by birth, but by experience, and by commonality, the shared factor being that the three of us chose, as writers, to take ownership of difficult experiences, and to strive to make them universal, and to share them with our readers, rather than letting them overwhelm us. To me, in fact, that is as good a definition of art as any I could offer. The writer Henry E. Sostman once expressed it more eloquently. In his long poem, "The Folded and the Quiet," he wrote this: "I grow not out of salt nor out of soil / But out of that which pains me."

My life has changed drastically since Broken Time was published. I am no longer a married man; I am a widower. I am no longer a journalist; I plied that trade for a quarter century but my journalism career is over now. But I have been and shall always be a poet. And Sherri will continue to be my audience of one. Her body is gone but her spirit remains; I can hear her voice, and hope I always will hear it, as I write. I have completed a new collection of poems, which will see print soon. I remain dedicated to the idea that art is food for the soul; without it, we starve just as we starve if we are malnourished.

Of all the writing I have ever done, my verse has existed closest to my heart. It is, then, a great honor for me that you have chosen to recognize Broken Time. Though it was not my intent, the book's title now describes the very time of its creation. With Sherri, I was indeed living a life in broken time. Without her, life often feels out of order, busted, kaput, conked out, wrecked (thank God for thesaureses). Today, though, is an unbroken day. Thank you for recognizing my work."