Why I Asked Everyone to Read My Dad’s Poetry When His Cancer Returned
This was originally posted on Medium.
My dad published his first volume of poetry when I was a teenager.
Until then, I was quite unaware, yet totally unsurprised to discover, the man I know as Dad and everyone else knows as John Kilroy wrote poems. My whole life, my dad had been a thoughtful writer-editor type intrigued by the world. It made sense he’d been quietly interpreting his surroundings and those beyond with a curious, meditative pensiveness behind those golden glasses of his.
My mom knew his (I suppose for lack of a better word) “secret,” and one night he presented me, my sister, and my brother with his poetry collection Torque.
But it wasn’t ours to have.
A Lesson in Forbearance From the Forefather
“When can we read it?” I asked.
“When you’re 30,” he said with a laugh.
A pause kicked its heels up between us. I very obviously assumed he was kidding, and then the actuality of waiting more than a decade settled into me. Even though I stayed silent, I definitely thought, “Oh my god, it’s a bunch of poems about you boinking Mom, isn’t it? You pervert. You absolute goddamn pervert.”
But the good sir had long been a source of wisdom for me, so I rolled with it.
When he handed down his ’93 Toyota Tercel to me — a stick-shift whip that eventually became known as The Deathmobile in my hands, among my cohorts— he left boxes of Torque copies in the trunk. I unearthed the discovery while drinking (what I assume was Goldschläger) and smoking (what I assume was a clove) in the local parking garage with coworkers after a bunk shift at our restaurant gig. The three of them asked what I thought of his work and I told them I respected his wishes for me not to read aforementioned work at present.
You see, I write myself — just look at all these goddamn words! — and all you ever want is somebody to read your work. So if you outright ask someone to not read your work, there’s gotta be a pretty good reason.
So, that summer, my dad began going to poetry readings in the area with my mom, who, in these outings, he would ask to don scarlet headwear. That way, at the end of his set, he could (and certainly would) point to the back and tell the (assumedly captive) audience to find “the woman in the red hat” in order to buy his poetry.
Given that Torque was the self-published debut of an unknown poet, sales weren’t what the author had hoped. But the fact it happened at all is damn admirable and practically miraculous in my book.
See, this was 2002. Back then, even putting together a not-shitty website was some arduous nightmare headache. [I know because I published my own website called Zaftig! in 2004 and wanted to blow up my entire house.] To self-publish an actual book, my dad hired his designer friend to do up the cover and formed a company called Chrome Press. He was the publishing house’s owner and sole employee, unless you count the three teens who began answering the second phone line that suddenly appeared in their wall.
Years passed, the leftover copies of Torque wound up stashed in the garage, and my dad went on with his life, forever writing poems. And — like father, like son — I did the same.
Like Father, Like Son — Like, Forever
I’ve written and been fascinated with poetry my whole life. My poems were, I suppose, salvageable until I was bummed one year in my mid-twenties and used the medium to pull myself out of the funk, and suddenly my poems got a lot better. I discovered a way into myself then that was constructed out of meditative observance instead of reactive and fiery emotional turmoil.
A few years later, at the age of 29, I printed out three poetry chapbooks I made on my home computer and mailed out free copies to anyone who wanted them. A small part of me was likely and unwittingly motivated by knowing I would soon be receiving my copy of Torque and wanted the world at large to know, as well as myself to some degree, that I had my own way of approaching the medium that wasn’t inherited like an heirloom.
Meanwhile, my dad had offered up Torque a few years early and I politely declined and thus stuck to the originally discussed timetable. [If I had waited this long, what was a few more years? Let’s just make it a curious, extremely final rite of passage, I figured — like how you can’t rent a car until you’re 25.]
Sure enough, on my 30th birthday, as I held gifts in my arms and cheesecake in my stomach, about to exit my parents’ house, my dad stopped me with Torque in his hands and a little speech prepared.
The thoughtful, self-deprecating oration was more or less, “Well, here it is, a book nobody wanted, but also a testament to the spirit of simply doing. I couldn’t figure out how to get people to read it, but maybe this will offer some gems about life and insight into your old man.”
Following Torque’s release, this is how my father would come discuss his poetry for the foreseeable future — “Nobody wants to read poetry, not even poets.”
He went on to explain why he jokingly threw out 30 as the minimum reading age. Paraphrased from memory, it was along these lines: “When you were a teenager, I was still someone who was hopefully guiding you through life. Those aren’t easy years to figure out, and so I had to live and exist by example. The concept of your father is all-encompassing, and I didn’t want you to read my poems about sex, drugs, and anguish and then confuse your dad the father with your dad the poet.”
At the newly minted age of 30, that made a crazy amount of sense to me and I was grateful I didn’t read his poems as a teenager. It would’ve changed things between us, well before we were peers.
It should also be noted that my dad writes poems in a wildcard alter ego of sorts that goes by the namesake of Clem. For him, it’s easier to go big, wild, and weird when he sees his words as fuel for the wily and restless existence of some rambunctious character in a world that isn’t necessarily this one. [I can definitely tell you first-hand this tidbit has come in handy with the more “spicy” poems, as one friend recently put it. Turns out the man did boink my mom, the son of a bitch!]
So my dad has always had a lot to say about and through poetry. He loves poetry. So do I. But the poetry industry, to the two of us anyway, is some bonk-ass labyrinth. Personally, I do my best to guarantee my best readership by mailing free copies of homemade volumes to people’s homes. One day, I’ll put together a real book that has a dollar sign somewhere. Still, it also helps me tremendously to be a millennial and thus be in constant, direct communication with literally every person I’ve ever met.
That was my dad’s only glaring error—not being born in or after the ’80s. Growing up with the internet reworked the entire prospect of artistic outreach. Your audience is already in attendance. Your PR is accidental. And everyone’s hustling in their own way.
Truly, as a millennial, I can better market to people because I’ve inadvertently established a long-standing network of people my age who fervently believe we have to support each other’s art and remain willing to donate our tiny pieces of money, time, and energy to each other forever until we’re dead. And we’re all so fucking online too, oh my god.
But here I was, finally the reader, with my new-old copy of Torque and inside was a tiny, dedicated note.
We sail on will alone.
And then I read the first poem.
[by John Kilroy]
steven’s dead in the new mexico desert
his bones picked apart and scattered cross the sand
same way elephants hide death
the way my father would have dealt with me
tear me apart and throw my bones
behind the bushes round the neighborhood
they say this is the life then walk away
handing you explosives
and expecting you to hold ’em quietly
with the fuse lit
no room for questions
they got somebody waiting to take your place
someone who won’t make a sound
until the moment they blow up
like steven and the way he’d shake
the week before he’d go back to college
and in his four years of selling insurance
he lost the ability to sleep
and the wife who made him apologize to a cocktail party
a house that ate him up
till steven’s taking shots at neighbors’ cars
walking naked through a park
smearing spaghetti sauce all over his bedroom walls
and finally walking straight out into this wasteland
leaving his station wagon running
alongside the interstate
an older brother you learn to hate
because he’s what might happen to you
10 years older, 10 years ago he died
and i’m stuck 40 miles out of albuquerque
looking for a ride
stilll no sign of steven
The poem knocked my socks off, but it wasn’t the first poem of his I ever read. I had scoped the few poems he previewed on the Chrome Press website back in the day. Plus, in 2004, his poem “Wave for Miki Dora” wound up in a book called Zero Break: An Illustrated Collection of Surf Writing, 1777–2004. He was in there with Mark Twain and Jack London — not bad for self-published poet who used to do readings at The Ugly Mug, a local home-turned-coffee-shop run by a mysterious dude who lived above and greeted each guest like he couldn’t figure out how people kept finding the place.
However, this was the first poem of my dad’s that I ever read in a book that was decidedly his. So I inhaled a handful of his poems in my apartment, only two or three cities over from my folks, and then it dawned on me — I honestly didn’t know when I would have new poetry from my father to look forward to again.
Up until that moment, I had spent the entirety of adulthood in close proximity to the good sir, waiting to read his poetry in full bloom, and now that I had it, there was a sense of rushing I wanted to kick.
So I put it back on the shelf. Days later, I came back to it and read a few more poems. Days after that, I read a few more. And still I felt like I was blowing through it. And then things changed.
Out of Sight, In the Mind
Two months after my 30th birthday, I put all my belongings in storage, save for two duffel bags and in one of them was my copy of Torque. Ultimately, I took Torque with me on each bounce that year and a half on the road, from Mexico to France, and it came with me when I moved into a speeding Airstream. Eventually, the near-delusional motion of my dad’s poetry became as familiar as the practical delirium and constant fever action of my day-to-day life.
I read a poem or two when I worked at a bar above the Grand Canyon for three days, waiting for my buddy to come back up to the rim; while I befriended the bartenders, who tanked me on sundowners as bleak as blood thinners, and wound up at the fancy restaurant next door — drunk as hell, underdressed, and eating for two.
I read a poem or two in the Texan hotel bar overlooking the sprawl of Big Bend where I later drank with the staff until the on-duty bartender had to go home after being blinded by the ghost pepper extract she added to our bloody marys in a competition.
I read a poem or two in New Orleans, dozing off in an RV park beneath the big bridge and beside an empty street primarily used for late-night drag races; it was the evening after I witnessed my friend having his soul read by a pregnant mystic outside a jazz club and only hours after I was in some shotgun house chanting sound baths with topless women and a quiet healer I couldn’t figure out named Fox.
I read a poem or two at the campsite in Mississippi where I couldn’t go to the bathroom if it rained because the gators could blend too easily into the mud; better was the campsite later in the Everglades where the bugs were just as mean and damn near twice as big.
I read a poem or two as the only living soul on a windy stretch of desolate beach near the Florida-Alabama border while my friend surfed, since he had asked me to play lifeguard because, according to the locals, “nobody knows what’s in those waters these days.”
I read a poem or two while tripping on mushrooms in a hammock in the Great Smokies, believing I was at the bottom of the ocean, watching the great kelp sway above me.
*ahem* I had to reread that same poem or two the following morning over wake-up whiskey as my brain reassembled itself.
I read a poem or two in Havana the night the air-conditioning in the bedroom broke, so I slept in the unfinished, half-roofed room of a friend of a friend of a stranger, where my legs were ripped apart by bed bugs.
So Torque wound up as a travel companion of sorts that saw a lot of my world few others did and the whole eclectic collection made sense in the moments I opened it and gazed inward. But I never told my dad all this.
The Reverence of Learning Your Elders
In truth, reading my dad’s poems was an unintentionally sacred thing I did. It never involved anyone else. In fact, I might’ve made the subconscious point of reading those poems when no one was around who knew him. I didn’t want it to ever seem like I was promoting my father, which reads poser for both of us — him as writer, me as reader.
And while the text was by no means holy to me, I suppose I have to admit that I didn’t read his poetry like other poetry. Instead, it was this strangely tangible pull of a brain I never had access to — no one did. No one could. Poetry puts a lot of lessons on the whiteboard that don’t necessarily make the seminar. Reading it was like pulling out the pumpkin pulp by hand. It was reverential in a way.
Plus, all cards on the table, given the similarities between my father and me, there was a component of reviewing a possible future version of myself, so there was potential for the pages of poetry to operate like cheat sheets for yours truly: “This could be you; beware or relax!”
My dad’s an earnest and emotionally buoyant gent who I’ve never really seen shy away from the conceptual offering of emotions. In fact, he’s always vocally encouraged them. One of his (many) notable phrases has long been “…and that’s okay.” It’s always been meant as a closer to assure you that you were entitled to your feelings, that you had every right to react the way you did, that you didn’t have to forbid yourself from sadness or anger, as long as it didn’t take over for the long haul.
His sharpness as a writer seemed so obvious to me that it went without mentioning. And it shouldn’t have gone without saying, but any praise for artists you know dearly sounds inherently fraudulent. [We’ve all seen our friends’ friends’ band at some point or another. After that, each cheerful, familiar review comes with a cautionary suspicion — and rightfully so.]
In August 2017, my dad’s resilience was tested when he was diagnosed with Stage IV cancer in his neck. That was a big blow; because, otherwise, he was the healthiest I’d ever seen him, making the 5k and 10k rounds as someone who didn’t get into running until his children were moving out. But cancer came and it came mean.
The treatment process tore him up. Chemotherapy drained him and radiation ripped him up so bad he couldn’t speak some days. He was distant with a notepad and his lively nature was largely diminished. As a huge fan of craic — a Gaelic term for what is basically the essence that is the life of the party (whether it be a joke, a story, a game, or any source of good vibe) — him being without spirited charm was rather disorienting to behold. It was a long bad autumn and winter was worse.
Finally, in January 2018, he got the all-clear from the doc. He had beaten cancer. The good sir got his life back.
The Hunger of Cancer
Last month, however, my dad was given the cancer diagnosis once again. This time around, squamous cell cancer is pressed against his carotid artery and pinching his spinal accessory nerve. His surgery is next week.
This round of cancer shook me weirder, not necessarily harder, than the first time he had it and the time my mom had breast cancer in 2014. There’s something inherently weighted about a surgery like this rather than months of treatment with continual updates. Thus I hurried up and finished Torque, so I could discuss it with the good sir before the blade came, and the collection closed with a familiar line.
[by John Kilroy]
My skeleton a mast,
and skin a sort of sail;
desire blows a wind;
I find my body here —
the long calm at 47 years,
slumped on a weathered deck
from thirst and hunger. Yet
I sense a breeze, as hope
brushes by my cheek, then fails
to fill the empty sheets,
end this life adrift.
The hell with this!
It’s only up to me,
to make my own fine wake,
and discover in the race
of night skies or omens
written on the waves
a course due north
to final islands, green,
before the Arctic ends.
Fly the skull and bones!
Let stars crowd round!
Dolphins, rhyme the bow!
We sail on will alone.
How to Build a Book Club
Last Thursday, I finally opened Proof of Flight, my dad’s second volume of poetry, published in January, a year after his cancer was gone. As I prepared to blow through it in days instead of years, I noticed inside was the same handwritten note.
We sail on will alone.
Being an online geek, I took to Goodreads to move Proof of Flight to my “Currently Reading” lineup and I noticed the book had no ratings or reviews. It was zeros across the board and it bummed me out.
That observation shouldn’t have struck me the way it did — it’s a self-published book of poetry and its author doesn’t exactly spend his entire waking life online — but the sight knocked me around that hour before bed.
I mean, of course it did. Earlier that evening, I had spent my entire therapy session finally owning up to how legitimately scared I am about this surgery. On the drive home, I recited a makeshift eulogy and my eyes wouldn’t shut the fuck up. I could barely get words out to my empty car. [Admittedly, I shouldn’t have been listening to Youth Lagoon’s first album on the drive home. That one’s on me.]
So before turning out the lights that night, I did the only tangible thing I could surmise and blocked my dad on Instagram — look, whatever you’re thinking, I know — and posted a story offering to buy a copy for whoever wanted to read Proof of Flight in hopes they’d post about it on Goodreads. I posted the same offer on Twitter and Facebook, where my dad and I are not chums.
I went to sleep feeling assured because at least the prospect was…something. I couldn’t cure cancer — I can barely patch holes in the wall because I also can’t hang things correctly — but I could at least ensure my dad’s words traveled a bit farther from home. To me, there was suddenly more of a spotlight on what he offered up to the world rather than what the world came at him with. I word it like that because, although my family has an enormity to be thankful for, cancer is still a goddamn horror. Meanwhile, my dad’s been, in all outward appearances, at peace with everything — “I’ve had a good life” / “I’ve been very fortunate” — though my mom would say that goofball husband of hers is a little TOO at peace.
Friday morning, I woke up to folks enthusiastically asking to read Proof of Flight. I was grateful. Then I got questions about Venmo and direct purchases. So I clarified to all that the book was indeed available via Amazon and Barnes & Noble, but I wasn’t asking or expecting anyone to buy it outright. [We’re millennials; reading a new book is a dang luxury.]
But friends kept telling me they either bought it or were planning to do so. Given that I had no expectations of any kind, paired with the heavy evening before, the whole deal got overwhelming for me rather quickly. I mean, this was already in addition to dozens of ridiculously thoughtful messages flooding my text threads and social channels in the weeks prior, ranging from “I’m here for anything you need” to “Here’s what I’m going to do for your family” — and my nerves were clearly becoming shredded and exposed. Simply put, my thank-you replies were bursting out of me like I was tripping on acid at my bon voyage party before being blasted into space. I was just so fucking beholdened to people who were who they’d always been to me and my family. It has always felt like there’s a million at least.
And it went beyond that still! People I respect on social media yet barely talk to bought copies, college students expressed their hopeful interest in free copies because the last of their money went to groceries, and two friends each donated $50 for three books respectively, so I wouldn't go broke in my drive for readership. In the meanwhile, I compiled a list of people to send free copies once they came my way and my phone continued to blow up with friends telling me their copy was downloaded, on its way, or soon to be purchased.
It wasn’t long until the shipping estimates for copies of Proof of Flight went from 1–2 days to 1–3 months. Torque sold out entirely.
The Other Side of Culture and the Waves Between
At my mom’s birthday dinner Friday night, I informed my dad that I had finally finished Torque. He cracked a self-deprecating smile and told me I’d joined a very exclusive club.
I had a loot bag of things I wanted to say, but I had read the collection over four long years in moments I could hardly even account for and explain, so there wasn’t much about cohesion beyond a handful of whimsical sentences. I soon realized I’d have to go back to the prose and return with specific lines that knocked me to the other side of the world. Still, only a few poems into Proof of Flight, I recognized there was a different vibe, but I couldn’t put it into words. So I asked.
Regarding Torque, he told me he wrote it to “rearrange your molecules” and that its objective was “to take the reader out of zombie culture” and show them a different world of what culture could be. He used feverish language that bounced and crashed and, in my humble opinion, had the buzz of that wild night in American Graffiti, where a million things were happening at once and any direction could prove the right one.
As for Proof of Flight, he mused that it was a part two of sorts, that this other world he’d previously suggested, where anything was possible, could actually work. It could be our reality, or something like it, if our minds got a bit looser and a lot better. So if Torque took your mind and soul there, Proof of Flight could show you how it might function as a truth you could make your own — Torque was the ticket, Proof of Flight was the explainer. He used everyday language to standardize the experience, to make it comprehensible, to engage in terms that were as mystic as they were makeshift.
People Being People for People
In the days following, my social feeds became dotted with Proof of Flight. Friends told me their favorite poem on Facebook, they told others to buy it on Instagram, and they told everyone out there how thrilled they were to dive into it on Twitter. I received texts about my dad and his poetry throughout.
After a month and a half of uncertainty, this last week has felt grounded and tangible. While our family cheers on the good sir in a notably more personal realm, putting his brain and heart out into the world relieves the familial weight — that exposure, by its very nature, invites more positive thoughts and good vibes — and the closed circuit of prayer and the like opens up to reveal some pretty mesmerizing grandstands.
My family has long been stoked on our bonkers network of supportive humans — I mean, truly, both parents have been through cancer once before — and the dramatic reminder of spectacular human beings within close range this past month has knocked the wind out of me. It’s one thing to be aware of love; it’s another deal altogether to be pulverized by its outpour.
Not only have dear friends and relatives delivered encouraging words and offered charitable actions, but I honestly had to spend an entire evening replying to people I’d never met — online friends and strangers alike — who came to me with the same giant, remarkable heartstring orchestra.
I don’t have a robust takeaway beyond gratitude with this, honestly. It just feels too big to hold in my hands or explain with the vocabulary I’ve been able to assemble in this brief life to grasp a full appreciation for how strange and lovely the world can be — even as my family loses speed, sleep, and energy. It’s just been a wild month and a wilder week, and I hate why I’m writing this but I love that I get to, that it can be the truth, that even the worst moments can indeed feature the best people.
I suppose my final thought is this: Know that tiny acts can mean the world. That’s basically all it comes down to anyway.
We sail on will alone.