By Blair Jackson
“In this culture, poetry is like zucchini squash, you’re lucky to give it away,” says Gerry Sloan. The writer, who has taught music at the University of Arkansas for 40 years, calls himself a “double-agent” of the arts, and has recently published a full-length book of poetry entitled “Paper Lanterns.”
His love for literature began in high school, when a teacher read poetry aloud in class. Sloan wrote throughout college, and after receiving his bachelor’s degree at the University of Arkansas, he came to a fork in the road: study creative writing in Iowa, or study music at Northwestern.
Literature became Sloan’s expressive escape from teaching music, and over the years he has published poetry in various magazines and has also published three chapbooks.
Encouraged by Liz Lester, personal friend and owner of Fayetteville’s Half Acre Press, Sloan released his 72-poem collection last month. The collaboration is a mark of Sloan and Lester’s friendship and has resulted in what Sloan calls, “locally grown literature.”
In part autobiographical, the subject matter of Sloan’s poems were inspired, not only by Fayetteville, but by the memories of his Eastern Oklahoma childhood home which, the poet says, defined his world view.
In a mere 107 pages, with few poems spilling over the length of one page, Sloan offers a complex and vivid description of the world as it exists today. By comparing the present with the past, Sloan uncovers an evolving and ever-increasing tension between nature and humanity and between war and peace.
In the title poem, Sloan questions his father’s decision to remain silent, after 40 years, about witnessing Hiroshima after the nuclear blast. The poem finds inspiration in his father’s silence and in the “nothing” created by nuclear weaponry.
In contrast to the devastating destruction of the atomic bomb, which killed 140,000 people, Sloan offers the image of paper lanterns. Each year, those who lost loved ones in Hiroshima write the names of their family members, along with words of peace, on pieces of paper and place the messages inside paper lanterns. They then send the lanterns down the Ohta River, in hopes the light will guide the dead.
In the introduction, Sloan calls upon the metaphor of the paper lantern to describe the purpose of his book. “It is a quiet plea for dignity and sanity, as we drift intertwined down the river of time,” he writes.
Sloan’s neighbor, Hisae Kimura Yale, created the art that is featured on the cover. Sloan explains, coincidentally, one of the ceramic sculptures Yale had been working one was entitled “Hiroshima,” and though the Japanese have many different characters to describe Hiroshima, the piece was entitled to specifically evoke the memory of the bombing of Hiroshima.
Although the elements of metaphor, history and art fell together seamlessly for the book, “Paper Lanterns” was Sloan’s second choice for a title.
Originally, Sloan had planned on calling the book, “Forlorn Hope,” but was advised that the connotations were too “depressing.”
The term “forlorn hope” is used to describe a group of soldiers who are sent to lead a dangerous, often suicidal, mission in battle. “We are all the forlorn hope,” Sloan explains.
“I wonder what will become of us, stuck at the wrong end of a century gone bad?” reads a query from his poem “Kissing the Corpse.”
Heavily influenced by his observations of the natural world and current events, Sloan says, “If you’re not depressed, you’re not paying attention.” Sloan has been influenced by man-made tragedies such as the Holocaust and 9/11; as well as oil spills, pollution and the depletion of natural resources.
“The natural world is being destroyed so fast, I am always in a state of stress. Anyone who considers himself a nature observer will be in turmoil,” Sloan says.
“Paper Lanterns” presents the possibility of illumination as the counterweight to destruction. “If I’m lucky, readers will be illuminated by some of the poems, but I’ve been illuminated by these recordings, by these epiphanies,” he says.
Tonight, at Nightbird books on Dickson Street, Sloan will be reading from his new book and will be available to sign copies afterward. The reading begins at 7 p.m. You can purchase a copy of “Paper Lanterns” at Nightbird Books or on Amazon.com.
Sloan also has three chapbooks: “Driving Through Fidelity” (Paper Moon Chapbooks, 1992), “Invisible Guests” (Piccadilly Press, 1993), and “Common Time” (Andy Anders, 1999).