Miami Book Fair: Poet Tom Healy

There was no indication, early on, that Tom Healy would become a poet.

Growing up on a farm in upstate New York, in an environment he describes as "brutalizing in every aspect," Healy didn't get much intellectual encouragement. Mostly, he spent his time doing the hard work required on a small family farm, until one summer in high school, he got a chance to attend a program called Boys State. Run by the American Legion, Boys State functions much like a rural Model U.N., except the focus is more on national patriotism. (Bill Clinton went to the one in Arkansas). While there, Healy met a Yale graduate who told him he should apply to an Ivy League college because "they like hicks like us." Healy took the advice and applied early action to Harvard; it was actually the only college he applied to. His high school English teacher bet him twenty-five dollars he wouldn't get it in.

"And he still hasn't paid me," Healy says.

Once in Cambridge, however, Healy quickly realized how arrogant he'd been in his innocence and felt lucky to have been accepted. He majored in philosophy; took classes with noted poetry critic Helen Vendler; and ran a soup kitchen in Boston after graduating. He briefly attended a graduate program in philosophy at Johns Hopkins, but discovered in the process that he wasn't an academic at heart.

After a stint in San Francisco, Healy moved to New York City. In 1994, along with Matthew Marks and the late Pat Hearn, Healy opened one of the first art galleries in Chelsea, in an old taxi garage on W. 22nd Street.

"We didn't think it would become Chelsea," Healy says. "We moved there because it was cheap. And in the beginning, the space was more like a living room for friends to come over and hang out." But very quickly, it became, in Healy's words, "a commercial venture," and after six years, Healy was ready for a new phase in his life. In 2000, he sold the gallery and took some time off to think about what might be next.

During a Labor Day weekend in the Hampton's with friends, one of whom was the poet and Columbia University professor Richard Howard, Healy's partner Fred Hochberg mentioned that Tom had been writing poems. Reluctantly, Healy handed a packet over to Howard, and the next day Howard called him on the phone.

"He said, in his grand speaking voice, 'Dear, these are not poems,'" Healy says. "And after a dramatic pause, he continued, 'Would you like them to be?' And I said, 'Yes, I think I might.'"

The next day--literally--Tom started the MFA program at Columbia under Howard's tutelage, a time he looks back at fondly as one of major growth in his abilities as a poet. After graduation, he was anxious to compile what he'd worked on into a book, until he had a conversation with poet Lucie Brock-Broido, who anticipated Healy's anxiousness to publish. Instead she recommended that he "put the poems in a drawer" for a year or two, and only then revisit them. When Healy did, he realized he'd needed more time to grow. "It was the best advice I've ever received," he says.

But he did more than just wait around. Healy accepted a position as Executive Director of the Lower Manhattan Cultural Council, where he worked to revitalize the downtown area in the wake of September 11th. And as the effort to rebuild Ground Zero got tied up by competing interests, Healy and the L.M.C.C. completed multiple smaller art installations from the grassroots level. He also started to slowly work on his poems again, a process that culminated, interestingly enough, during the 2008 Democratic National Convention in Denver, which Healy attended with Hochberg. Healy says he got inspired by the spirit of change in the air to finally finish his first collection.

"[The book] of course has nothing to do with President Obama," he says, "but in my own pip-squeak little way, I felt like I too would make a change, and get something done."

Back home, Healy decided he would only send the work to New York publishing houses, partly because he felt like he was a New York guy and partly because he wanted to be close to whomever was editing his book. His first submission--to the venerable W.W. Norton--garnered a very polite rejection letter a week later. So Healy changed course and submitted to Four Way Books, a smaller New York publishing imprint that he'd always admired. "I felt like my work fit there," he says. "And they make a beautiful books." At the end of last summer, Four Way notified him that they'd be publishing What the Right Hand Knows, his first collection.

"Late August, for some reason, has been very good to me," he jokes.

Miami, too.

Even though Healy divides his time between New York, Washington, D.C., and Miami, Healy credits the local poetry scene with his early development.

"Some of the first people I showed my poems to were Mary Luft (Director of Tigertail Productions), Adrian Castro, Campbell McGrath, and Denise Duhamel," he says. "They were some of the first people to encourage me."

And perhaps Vendler's voice, which Healy claims he can still hear perfectly in his head--"quiet, but with a strange vibration to it that makes it feel overwhelmingly strong"--planted some kind of seed, too. Sitting his library at age 48, surrounded by what has to be one of the best collections of poetry books in the city, Healy is finally that happiest of creatures: a poet.

Tom Healy reads from What the Right Hand Knows this Saturday, November 14 at 3 p.m. in Pavilion B, alongside poets Joy Harjo, Marie Ponsot, and Campbell McGrath.

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P. Scott Cunningham