Prison Reviews of my Poems?

Just before the pandemic shutdown, I visited my friend in federal prison.  A couple weeks before that, I’d sent him a copy of my debut poetry collection Yearnful Raves, along with some other books.  Check this out:  I’m standing at the guard box in the visiting room when he strides through the prisoner’s door, and before we even get to the one allowed hug he’s saying, “Man, take this the right way, we liked your novel and your stories, all good, but these poems, that’s your sweet spot, man!”

We took our side-by-side plastic seats and he continued, frankly blowing my mind.  He said (paraphrasing), “I went around showing off the book and guys were like, poems?  I told ‘em they were by the fellow who sends us books, so they were like, okay, show me one.  The ones about your dogs?  Guys went, ‘That’s some truth.’  And a half dozen brothers, I wish you could have seen them debating this one poem.  It’s the one where the space aliens are trying to figure out how to conquer us and they hit on the idea of color?  One guy says, ‘This is about black power!’  Another frowns at him, says, ‘No, it’s the power of words, man.  It’s how just little words can mess with your mind.’  They went at it for I’m not kidding a half hour, and they were still talking about it at chow.  That poem about your brother, that was killer, man.  Guys sobbed reading that! Things you can’t fix in your family, they know what that is.”

I’m sitting in this concrete block visiting room bowled over by the whole idea, prison inmates grooving on my poems?  Anybody’s poems, for that matter.  And then a letter arrives this week from my friend.  He’s included hand-written notes from a couple of his pals that read like reviews of the poems.  He swore he didn’t ask for them, they just wanted to tell me.  So here they are, my favorite reviews ever:

Dear Sir – I want to start this off by clarifying very emphatically that I know NOTHING about poetry…unless Dr. Seuss counts (?) I recently was given the opportunity to read your collection of poetry.  I enjoyed your work.  I must specifically address two of your pieces…your work on the subject of picking blackberries and the lament of crawling under a house to retrieve a dog were fantastic.  The way you “painted” both of these experiences took me back to similar situations from my youth.  I will fault you for having me fixate on blackberry cobbler for the remainder of the day…and going to sleep with the reminder of a long passed hunting dog.  Thank you.  I look forward to your future work.  Respectfully, _________

4 STARS! 

This author does a fantastic job mixing in seemingly humorous concepts with melancholic affirmations of what it means to be human.  The most fascinating of the entries is “Weekend Daddy” on page 12.  Though only eleven lines, it paints a picture that is laughable and yet all too realistic in its portrayal of what must be the titular character’s living situation.  One can readily imagine and “see” the home, and the feelings that come with this flood the mind like New Orleans during Katrina.  It’s a visceral torrent of emotion…all within eleven lines.

Another great example is “Alzheimer’s Poem” on page 26.  Hauntingly beautiful and poetic are the only words I can think of to express the emotions brought forth by this one.

My favorite, despite my feelings about the former ones, is “Don’t Let This Happen to You.” The message is clear and the warning simple.  Through its journeys from present to past and back to future aren’t the most illustrative present in the book, they provide a much needed context for the reader.  This one pulls at the heart strings and plucks at the minor chords guaranteed to leave you wondering what happens next.  Sadly, there is no next, and that means something in and of itself.  From start to finish, this one delivers on the aforementioned concepts and affirmations.

I would definitely recommend picking up a copy of Yearnful Raves even if poetry isn’t your thing.  The three above make it worth the price.  ______________________

One thing about writing, it’s all messages in a bottle.  You hope something you wrote will touch somebody, and you’re grateful for any sign.  My friend and his pals clearly get that.  Locked up and in so many cases forgotten, their whole existence is like that, books nobody reads.  So, as you might imagine, I will cherish these notes.  Only wish I could have been a fly on the wall when those guys were debating that poem! And another thing, consider the generosity of these men, currently in their 50th day of unit lockdown for coronavirus. They knew it would matter, cared to reach out, took the time. They have nothing, but they have this. Thank you, gentlemen.

Book Launch at New Dominion in Cville

When I started work on my debut novel The Coal Tower (https://amzn.to/2HcegCg) ten years ago (there were previous novels, of course, piled in that proverbial drawer), one sweet dream that drove me to get up at 5 am, brew some coffee, and sit down in the light of my laptop to write before work was the possibility that someday the book would come out, and when it did, maybe I’d be fortunate enough to launch it at my favorite bookstore, the linchpin of Charlottesville’s literary scene, New Dominion.

Living in Charlottesville, working as an occupational therapist at UVA-Healthsouth, then starting a community reentry program for people with brain injuries connected to Martha Jefferson Hospital, then starting up an early tech company Cerebreon, along with acute care practice at UVA Hospital, while also starting a family with my amazing wife Chris and our two boys (both out of their teens now), the ideas and characters for this novel did what I guess you’d call germinate. An autocratic neurosurgeon at UVA, one of our brain injury clients who tended to drift off to a homeless camp on the edge of the river, teenaged patients emerging slowly from comas caused by car crashes or shootings, and so on, all this swirled around my busy days with no place to land.

Then there was that tragic shooting at the old coal tower downtown, when a young man with mental health problems killed two teenagers. That event struck me as a metaphor somehow for what I felt about Charlottesville, and its disparate communities, but it took me the writing of the novel to place it. I hope that’s what I’ve done.

Anyway, next week that sweet dream comes true. New Dominion is holding a launch party for The Coal Tower. And what’s even sweeter, they’ve scheduled it during Game Week. The novel takes place in one day – the day of UVA’s first football game of the season – and my reading will be held that same week (on Wednesday August 28, from 7-8 pm). Much of the action in the book takes place on the Downtown Mall, just outside the doors of the New Dominion Book Shop. How sweet is that?

So, if you live in the Cville environs, hope you can come and share in my dream come true. It’s been a decade in the works, but now tastes to me as delicious as a scoop of Chap’s coffee ice cream in a waffle cone!

Here’s the New Dominion link for the event: https://ndbookshop.com/events/tony-gentry-the-coal-tower/. Y’all come, now!

Introducing my new story collection

Jacket Copy:

Ernest Hemingway wrote, “All stories…end in death.” With ringing lyricism, cinematic detail, and wry humor, in this diverse collection of tales Tony Gentry interrogates that notion.

A father and son share a moment of everyday epiphany on their farm. An elderly widower must choose between a circumscribed life where every breath is an effort and a saving reunion he barely trusts, while another finds solace in the company of an old bear. The ghost of a Confederate general wanders the historic precincts of modern-day Richmond, Virginia. The First Lady deposes the President. A boy finds not love but purpose in a kiss. On a canoe trip, two middle-aged brothers confront mortality and the mystery of what lies beyond. Veterans of the Korean and Vietnam wars face their demons, seeking reasons to go on. In the longest tale here, a fall from a wheelchair tests the will of a man haunted by the car crash that severed his spine and killed his young daughter years ago. And cancer tells its own origin story, that of a real estate mogul turned megalomaniac. Keenly observed, inventive, and thought-provoking, these stories test the curtain between everyday reality and the tempting whisperings that lie beyond, in that uncanny place where our hearts and minds collide.