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Tug (Wesleyan Poetry) [Paperback]

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Item Number 93706  
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Item Specifications...

Pages   64
Est. Packaging Dimensions:   Length: 0.25" Width: 5.75" Height: 8.25"
Weight:   0.2 lbs.
Binding  Softcover
Release Date   Mar 31, 1994
Publisher   Wesleyan
ISBN  081951215X  
EAN  9780819512154  

Availability  0 units.

Item Description...
Stephen Todd Booker, an inmate on Florida's death row, writes piercingly of incarceration. But he also sings, in a voice at once jagged and polished, of racism in Brooklyn and the South and of growing up black in 20th-century America, as he examines his life experience with metaphors that test the limits of language.

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More About Stephen Todd Booker

Register your artisan biography and upload your photo! STEPHEN TODD BOOKER's poetry has appeared in Kenyon Review, Seneca Review, Yankee, Cream City Review, and other journals. He published the chapbook Waves & license in 1983.

Stephen Todd Booker was born in 1953.

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Product Categories
1Books > Subjects > Literature & Fiction > Poetry > Anthologies   [8915  similar products]
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A Poet's Spirit Springs to Life on Death Row  Mar 10, 2004
New York Times - March 9, 2004
A Poet's Spirit Springs to Life on Death Row

AIFORD, Fla. � Stephen Todd Booker, who at 50 has been on death row for more than half his life, was explaining how his imagination kept working without the stimuli that most people take for granted. "I remember thinking one time � I'd already been here a while � and I realized I hadn't seen a star in 12 years," he said in an interview at the Union Correctional Institution here. "And I started to wonder about them, thinking they'd changed or something, and I wrote this poem imagining stars but from the perspective of a bat."

As a prison poet, a man whose creative spirit was set free by his body's confinement, Mr. Booker is in some ways a familiar American archetype. But unlike some jailhouse writers who have become celebrated causes (the murderer Jack Henry Abbott comes to mind), he has never been well known. He is, however, an indisputably accomplished poet whose work has appeared in top-level literary publications like The Kenyon Review, Seneca Review and Field, and has been championed by poets like Denise Levertov and Hayden Carruth.

"I'd have to say that anyone who has done 10 really glorious poems, and he's approaching that number, is a serious member of the inner sanctum," said Stuart Friebert, a former editor of Field who is retired from the creative writing department of Oberlin College. What is so exciting about Mr. Booker's work, he said, is that while there are poets who have influenced it � Gwendolyn Brooks is one � his combination of vernacular and formal language, and his perspective on the world give him a singular voice.

Having lived for 26 years under the threat of execution � a literal sword of Damocles � Mr. Booker can be seen as a case history: the criminal artist. Naturally gifted and emotionally tormented, he is an autodidact who did not take up the serious writing of poetry until after he went to prison and who has developed his craft entirely within a life of extreme circumscription.

The poem Mr. Booker was speaking about, "I, When a Bumblebee Bat," appeared in his book "Tug" (Wesleyan University Press, 1994), and like much of his often difficult work it contorts syntax with startling facility, deftly maneuvers the tools of prosody and leaps boldly from image to image as if laying down a challenge to the reader to follow him. Also characteristic, it echoes with the pangs of isolation:

Only twice in twelve long years
Has the Self in me transformed
To weighing less than a cent,
And blended with the evening,
Or heard ringing in my ears,
Or seen a star do its thing,
Umbrellaed aloft on air.
Swooping into a huge swarm
Of mosquitoes and gnats, there,
On velvety wings, I went
Gliding and eating until
Chilled to my buoyant marrow,
Convinced not to eat my fill,
To leave some for tomorrow.

To be clear: Mr. Booker's is not a romantic story, not a redemption story. He is a murderer, and his crime was especially despicable. On Nov. 9, 1977, evidently in a rage fueled by drugs and alcohol, he sexually attacked and stabbed to death Lorine Demoss Harmon in her Gainesville apartment, less than an hour from here in north-central Florida. She was 94.

Sentenced to death 11 months later, Mr. Booker is still alive because of a confusing welter of motions and appeals that in 1988 led to a United States District Court judge remanding the case for resentencing. Another decade passed before that resentencing happened, and by then several of Mr. Booker's literary supporters, as well as some of his victim's relatives, asked that he be allowed to live out his natural life in prison. But once again a jury voted to execute him. That sentence is being appealed.

"I won't be able to write fast enough, long enough, voluminously enough to make up for the stuff I've done," Mr. Booker admitted.

His story does, however, raise questions about poetry (what is it? what is it worth?) and poets (who are they? what do they need?), and about the value of individual lives and capital punishment. Mr. Carruth, who has never met Mr. Booker but whose correspondence with him goes back 20 years, said in an interview, "He's an intelligent guy, a talented guy, and intelligent and talented guys are not to be wasted."

Mr. Booker's story also yields a glimpse into a world � death row � that few people experience and maybe no other successful poet has to draw on. He almost spits his words when he speaks of the seemingly ever-changing rules of the prison and what he sees as the ever-increasing indignities of prison life, some as small as the fact that prisoners are no longer allowed writing implements other than finger-size flexible pens, which they must buy.

He clearly lives with intense stress, "not knowing whether they're going to whack you or what," he said. "That's an everyday thought, whether they're going to snuff you."

In addition to his poems Mr. Booker has written a volume of cabalistic biblical interpretation and a breathless autobiography. He is also a prolific letter writer, and as his correspondents attest, he can betray a frightening anger in his letters.

He is always on his guard. A year after the murder, when Page Zyromski, the great-niece of the woman Mr. Booker killed, wrote to him to say she forgave him, he wrote back, Ms. Zyromski said, asking, "What are you, some kind of goody-two-shoes?"

"I wrote back to him, `I guess I am a goody-two-shoes,' " said Ms. Zyromski, 61, a religious writer and retired teacher who has visited Mr. Booker in prison several times from her home in Painesville, Ohio.

The interview with Mr. Booker would ordinarily have been conducted in a small cell with a pane of thick glass separating him from a reporter, but because of a power failure at the prison the interview took place in a common room where there was sufficient light.

Wearing an orange jumpsuit and white sneakers, Mr. Booker, trim and fit looking with hints of gray at his temples and a receding hairline, was led into the room with his wrists and ankles shackled. His lawyer, Harry P. Brody, was present, as were four armed guards, 20 feet or so away.

The interview lasted about 90 minutes, and Mr. Booker revealed the crafty, aggressive intelligence that is apparent in his poems and a fierce pride in his abilities. As he does when he writes, in conversation he uses a vividly amalgamated vocabulary, part formal English, part street vernacular. He speaks with a slight lisp, softly, and, as though measuring his conversation partner, carefully. He affects a calm, but his manner is taut. He declined to speak about his crime except to say that it was among many things in his life that he wished had never happened.

At times he can be unnervingly self-aware.

"I may be paranoid," he said. "That would take somebody else to diagnose, but if I am, it has served me well in here."

Mr. Booker, who said he never knew his father, was born in Brooklyn. He and an older brother were reared by his mother, who worked mostly as a civil servant, and her two sisters. In a bitter poem called "Democracy" he paid tribute to his mother, who died, he said, when she was 46, describing her as "a dandelion seed of a woman" who was nonetheless "the embodiment of strong."

In "Wisdom" he wrote about life in Brooklyn with striking, impolitic candor:

We kids did chase and stone a goofy square.
None of us knew the dude. A lapsed rabbi? . . .
Maybe . . . none of us cared. Shoeless, he ran
Through Crown Heights, and on into East New York

And while his life outdoors was rough and tumble, at home, he said, he read voraciously: Virgil and Homer, Robert Louis Stevenson, Shakespeare, the Bible, Edgar Allan Poe.

"I lived two lives," he said. "Outside I was a thief and a hustler. I used drugs. But I was a bookworm in the house. Both my aunts belonged to the Book-of-the-Month Club, and as they got older, they worked as domestics for white families, and the families would throw away books. So they brought books home. I was never at a loss for anything to read."

He said he left school at 14, eventually joined the Army and was sent to Okinawa, Japan. In "Sandii," a poem that shows off his acute ear for dialect, he wrote about a romance with a Japanese woman. One stanza takes place in a restaurant:

Before lowering the extra large milk,
she whispered, "You ordering that whiskey
and a beer is bummer. This is place of eating,
not to do boilermaker, Stevosan. You tripping?"

Heroin was his drug of choice, though he said that he did everything, and that alcohol was his real downfall. After the Army, he said, he slipped back into the hoodlum life, ending up in Florida. He was arrested for robbery and served three and a half years of a five-year sentence. Shortly after his release he committed the crime he has been paying for ever since.

It was early in his confinement, he said, that he decided to revisit his reading.

"When I got here," he said, "I wasn't going to let my mind just ferment. I started thinking that maybe everything I'd read hadn't done me any good, and I almost convinced myself that what I'd read had got me into prison, that it was too informative about life, that it answered too many questions for a young guy. You know, translations of Baudelaire, William Burroughs. You're not supposed to be reading `Naked Lunch' at 11, `Doors of Perception,' by Huxley. That had me in the kitchen cabinets trying to get off on nutmeg."

He continued: "When I got to death row, I couldn't blame it on society. I knew I'd put myself in prison. But if this was the end of my life, I wasn't going to sit in a cell and watch TV or crane my neck trying to look out the window at the other wing of the prison."

Mr. Booker said that he had not been writing because of stress and frustration at being unable to get his manuscripts typed. Even so, he said, he has about a dozen poems circulating at various publications.

"Writing is like a magic carpet or a time machine," he said, before the guards cuffed his wrists again and led him away. "I go back in time to my own experience. I finally saw stars again, you know, when I was coming back from court or something. And they hadn't changed. I got it right. So I can leave the cell in my poems."


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