Jan/Feb 2010  •   Reviews & Interviews

Interview with Tom Lombardo

Interview by Jessie Carty

Tom Lombardo is a freelance non-fiction writer, editor and poet from Atlanta, GA. He edited and published the poetry anthology After Shocks: The Poetry of Recovery for Life-Shattering Events before becoming the poetry editor for Press 53. His own poetry has appeared in publications such as Southern Poetry Review, Salamander, and Asheville Poetry Review.


JC     For readers who may not be familiar with After Shocks: The Poetry of Recovery for Life-Shattering Events, please tell us a little bit about the project.

TL     After Shocks: The Poetry of Recovery for Life-Shattering Events is an anthology of 152 poems by 115 poets from 15 nations. The anthology comprises poetry of recovery from grief, war, exile, divorce, abuse, bigotry, illness, injury, addiction, loss of innocence. After Shocks presents many well-known poets along with many lesser known poets, but all of them very good poets.

JC     After Shocks has now been out for just a bit over one year. Is there any thing that has surprised you the most about putting out an Anthology?

TL     I was surprised by the viral spread of my very minimal call for submissions. I only posted the call at 3 web lists (wompo, crwropps, and cave canem), placed ads in 2 British journals, along with spreading the word to colleagues. I received 500 submissions, many from outside the US. Here's an example: a poet in Teheran saw my call on wompo and submitted, but she also then passed the word to other poets, including one particularly prominent American poet. One day out of the blue, an email popped into my email box from this American poet, saying "so-and-so said that I should submit to your anthology, so here are 7 poems to consider..." So, I received a submission from a prominent American poet via Teheran, Iran. The viral nature of the web brought numerous submissions from outside the U.S.

JC     I read that you were considering compiling a 2nd Edition of After Shocks, do you plan to retain the same poems in the collection now or do you have plans to expand or shrink the collection?

TL     I would like to publish a 2nd edition in three years or so. The poems in the current edition are timeless, so I'm not in any rush. The 2nd edition would be much like the first. Same chapters, same topics, approximately the same length. I would try to keep some of the poems in the current edition, and then select new ones.

JC     One of your last jobs before you began working on After Shocks was as editor-in-chief for WebMD, the world's most visited health web site. Do you think your work in medical editing helped you in anyway with putting together an anthology about grief and recovery?

TL     I've spent 30-plus years as an editor, the last 15 years in media development—essentially the creation and launch of new media: magazines, videos, interactive television, and finally, several web sites, the last of which was WebMD, where I was the first editor-in-chief, from 1998-2001. It's that media development experience that directly influenced my work on After Shocks. Launching an anthology is much the same as launching a magazine or a web site. Though they are different forms of media, the creative planning and execution of a new medium is remarkably the same across many creative platforms, and I have deep experience in those areas. In addition, during my years as a creative team leader, I worked with some of the more brilliant marketing minds in the country—Chris Whittle, Alan Greenberg, James Hilmer, Nick Glover, Jeff Arnold to name just a few—and through them, I learned a great deal about the "other side" of media, the marketing and publicity. My experience in those higher order functions—creative planning and execution and marketing—proved invaluable in the conception, planning, and publishing of After Shocks. So, I guess the direct answer to your question is that being editor-in-chief of WebMD affected the process more than the content of After Shocks.

The topic of recovery, which is the foundation of the poetry in After Shocks, came from much more personal experience, the death of my first wife. So, I had been through one of those life-shattering events at a younger age than most (34), and I have spent two-plus decades thinking about my own grief, my own recovery, my own experience with a sense of wonder at how it all happened, how did I get from there to here. I had written a series of poems about those events, two of which are in After Shocks. Finally, my love of poetry and my formal training in the MFA program in poetry at Queens University of Charlotte had direct impact on the specifics of the reading and selections that went into After Shocks.

JC     Over the course of promoting After Shocks you have been involved with readings and other events. What types of events or marketing have you been involved with that people might find unique?

TL     In addition to the normal bookstore/library based readings, I have had great success in two nontraditional areas that I believe other poets and writers might find interesting to consider. I have been invited to speak at seven different Sunday school church sessions, which initially I found quite odd. I am not religious, and After Shocks is not overtly religious in its content or intent. However, the topic of recovery is quite spiritual, and Sunday school groups frankly get bored talking about the same old 153 Psalms each week, so inviting an author or editor in for some intellectually stimulating literary discussion is quite a treat for them. These groups are actively looking for speakers. I have found Sunday school groups to be highly educated, literate, intelligent, and extremely attentive. They ask wonderfully probing questions. Audiences like that excite me; they make my trip there stimulating. And I've found that they buy copies of After Shocks in higher proportion than audiences at my other readings. Half the people at these Sunday school sessions buy the anthology.

So, if you have a book that is in the least bit spiritual—even fiction or short stories—pursue this angle. Start with your own church or synagogue, and the word will spread.

The other nontraditional area is recovery groups. I have spoken and read at a few of them. It's been quite a moving experience to be in a room of people who have suffered the loss of a spouse or child or who are recovering from addiction or divorce. The comments and questions dig deeply into my emotions. I've learned a few things there, too. I made a comment during one such meeting, something about "the death of a child is the worst of the life-shattering events" and a woman in the room challenged me. She had lost her daughter in an auto-train collision. Her daughter was 17. The bereaved mother said that losing a child was no different than any other loss, and she didn't want to be pitied any more than anyone else. So, I'm a pretty quick learner. No more hierarchy of recovery in my talks.

JC     Have you been doing much of your own work as a writer? How has your writerly life changed since you also became an editor?

TL     My very first job in journalism, at the age of 24, was as editor-in-chief of this small community newspaper. I've always had "editor" in my title in subsequent positions as a daily newspaper copy editor, a magazine associate editor and senior editor, executive editor, and editor-in-chief. Along the way, I've written a good bit—news, features, profiles, editorials, etc.—but it seems I've always been an editor. My tombstone should read "I edit, therefore I am."

I've written poetry for as long as I can remember, but my formal MFA training focused me deeply on poetry craft. I became a much better poet and a much more eclectic reader of poetry.

But After Shocks has actually had two direct effects on my creative life. I am now poetry editor of Press 53 http://www.press53.com, and that's a great position for me. And the anthology has in a roundabout way brought me more freelance writing opportunities. I've been asked to write several pieces lately. For example, most recently an article on the dramatic increase in self-publishing [http://bulletin.aarp.org/yourworld/reinventing/articles/so_you_want_to_publish_a_book_.html] and another piece based on an interview with Kay Redfield Jamison, whose second memoir, Nothing Was The Same, about the death of her husband and her recovery, was just released by Knopf. Those two freelance assignments fell directly from the fruit of the After Shocks tree. So, in an odd way, being editor of After Shocks has turned me back toward feature writing, which I did a good bit of early in my career.

One negative fallout from my work on After Shocks. Because everything that gets done on this anthology is done by ME, including mailing the copies to customers, I have lost a great deal of my creative writing time, and I have not written new poems in about a year, and that upsets me. Most of my writing time these days is taken up with personal essays, one of which was recently nominated for a Pushcart Prize, Best of the Small Press. I generally have one or two of these essays accepted for publication each year.

JC     How do you feel about people calling your anthology self-published, given there is sometimes a stigma attached to that word?

TL     After Shocks actually does not fall into the typical self-published category. I had acquired a publisher for After Shocks, a reputable literary publisher, very well-respected, who's been in business for 2 decades. After a breakfast meeting, we shook hands on a deal. We had a verbal agreement, then he disappeared. Would not respond to repeated emails. I heard later that he had serious financial difficulties in the recent mortgage bubble burst. At that point, I had a finished ms. in hand, and I didn't want to waste time pursuing another publisher. I felt an urgency to get After Shocks published by Fall 2008. I thought, "Shoot, I've worked in the publishing business all my career, I can do this myself." So I formed my own publishing company, Sante Lucia Books, named after my son (Sante) and daughter (Lucia). For one thing, I wanted the publishing experience, and another was I didn't want to pay Author House or iUniverse or one of the publishers who specialize in self-publishing for expertise I already had learned through my media experience. By publishing After Shocks through my own company, I kept costs way down. If I wanted to spend money on cover stock or paper stock, I did so without paying overhead to another firm. I hired some assistance in design and prep for digital publishing, again avoiding the overhead charges by a self-publishing firm. After Shocks became my own baby from beginning to end.

Usually the pejorative term "self-published," is thrown at authors or poets who publish their own work. After Shocks, in a sense, is my work, as I am the editor, but After Shocks contains only 3 of my own poems. After Shocks stands on its own, no matter who published it. There is a certain element of snootiness among writers who are published by traditional companies. If dinosaurs had larger brains, they would have had the same sense of superiority. While I know there are pitfalls in the self-publishing world, I've seen the numbers and self-publishing growing exponentially. In 2008, the number of self-published books surpassed traditionally published books for the first time, according to Bowker statistics. Traditional publishing is falling apart, and many poets and authors are not well-served by the traditional publishers these days, especially those who are not celebrities or don't garner Dan-Brown—like sales. Traditional markets links to their customers seem to be unhinged by electronic media. Ten years from now, the only thing certain is that the publishing landscape will be quite different than it's looked for the past century. That landscape may be littered with fossils. Authors can sit around decrying the situation and wringing their hands, or they can get up and move forward into the new world of publishing.

JC     Along the idea of self-publishing, did you consider, or would you have considered work that had been self-published?

I would have considered self-published work had it been submitted. About 60-70 percent of the selections of poems for After Shocks came in via mail or email in response to my calls for submissions or by networks spreading the word. So, some of the submission may have been from self-published books, but I do not know. In the bios of the contributors, there do not appear to be poems from self-published books.

The remainder of the submissions came from my own reading, especially the books of my favorite poets like Douglas Dunn, Carol Ann Duffy, Simon Armitage, Major Jackson, Cathy Smith Bowers, Rebecca McClanahan, Donald Hall. Their books were not self-published.

TL     What is one thing you'd like to tell anyone who is considering putting together an anthology that you wish you had known?

JC     On the negative side: The 13-oz rule. This rule has been the bane of my mailing effort. The United States Postal Service requires that all packages weighing 13 oz. or more be hand carried to the P.O. and hand stamped by a postal clerk, so there is no dropping of my packaged anthologies into a mail box. I was told by my postman that 13 oz. is the weight of an explosive device that would bring down an airplane, and that this limit has had been imposed by Homeland Security. Because my anthology is 388 pages long, it weighs over a pound along with its No. 2 padded envelope. So, I've had to hand carry each and every envelope to the post office myself, wait in line, and get the things stamped.

I anticipated every publishing detail except that one. This is the first direct—though very minor—impact upon my life of international terrorism. Others have suffered much more, so who am I to complain? It had to be done that way, so I've incorporated this trip to the P.O. into my day. There's a very nice, small, friendly P.O. near Atlanta's Morningside Elementary School, where I pick up my kids after school, so many days I go by that P.O. to drop off my packages.

On the positive side: The nearly universal praise from poets and writers, reviewers, and anyone who's read the anthology. There have been several anthologies geared toward alcoholism, Alzheimer's, etc., but After Shocks is sort of all-encompassing. It covers many, many topics in recovery. After Shocks readings have been very well-attended and the response has been rewarding, invigorating. I think I hit an exposed nerve—or many nerves—with After Shocks. Had I known this would be the reaction—I don't know if it would have affected any of my planning. I had a very strong vision for After Shocks, and executed it precisely. I would have done the same with or without the reaction. But the reaction made all the work worthwhile.


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