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Interview with Lee Stockdale: ‘It was a gift of the Holy Spirit’

04 August 2023

An American Christian army veteran’s poem about his father’s suicide has won a national prize. He talks to Sarah Meyrick

Lee Stockdale

Lee Stockdale

Lee Stockdale

THE first hint that the American poet Lee Stockdale had won the UK National Poetry Competition Prize 2022 came in a “curious” email from London at the beginning of this year.

The director of the Poetry Society, Judith Palmer, wrote to ask whether his poem “My Dead Father’s General Store in the Middle of a Desert” was his own work, and whether it had been published anywhere.

He replied (yes, and no), and then came a second message. “I was sitting in the living room at home with my wife, Gail, and I got this email from [Judith] that said, ‘Congratulations, you’ve won.’

“I called out, ‘Oh my God!’ — I guess with an unusual tone of urgency. Gail looked at me quite seriously and she said, ‘Has someone died?’”

The award is prestigious — former winners include Sinéad Morrissey, Ruth Padel, and Carol Ann Duffy — and the competition is stiff. There were more than 17,000 entries in 2022, all submitted anonymously, from 103 countries; so he was well aware of the odds against winning.

There followed a couple of months of secrecy, during which he was not allowed to tell anyone the news; the winners were announced at the end of March.

Lee Stockdale is still quite shocked by his win. “I absolutely believe that this was a gift of the Holy Spirit. I really do. Because I don’t know how else that could possibly happen. Really, there were almost 18,000 poems, and they took mine. I mean, it’s extraordinary.”

It is “a gift”, he says, because the poem refers to his father’s death by suicide when Lee was 11. “I’m now 70, and I’ve worked through that. I’ve come out on the other side.” He hopes that his poem offers hope.

“I really believe the Holy Spirit just thought, here’s a poem that may be not just literary, whatever that is, but could perhaps be helpful and healing. I think that’s what happened.”

His father, Grant Stockdale, was born in Mississippi, in 1915. His upbringing was overshadowed by a terrible flood that destroyed the family home, and by the Great Depression. His own father reportedly drank himself to death. Fortunately, Grant was good at football, and eventually he went to the University of Miami on a football scholarship.

Poetry is in the family: his mother, Alice Boyd Magruder, began writing poetry at the age of six. At university, she won prizes for her work, and, much later, she published a collection of poems, To Ireland with Love, dedicated to her late husband.

Grant Stockdale met his wife in Miami. It was also where he became friendly with George Smathers; Grant helped to run Smathers’s campaign for Congress after both men came back from the Second World War. When he was elected, Grant followed him to Washington as his administrative assistant.

Two doors down from Smathers’s office was the office of another newly elected Congressman, one John F. Kennedy. (“And further down the hall — literally and metaphorically — was Richard Nixon,” Lee says.)

The three men — Stockdale, Smathers, and Kennedy — had all been in the Navy, serving in the Pacific. “They become wonderful fast friends. They were all the new Young Turks, the new leaders,” Lee says.

“In his oral senatorial history, [Smathers] said that Grant Stockdale ‘fell in love with Jack Kennedy, and Jack Kennedy loved him, too’.”

Both men were fervent football fans — Kennedy had once played for Harvard — and they used to go to Orange Bowl games together. When Kennedy had back surgery, he was sent to recuperate at Palm Beach. “It was not far, maybe an hour from Miami, and Daddy used to go up there in the mid ’50s and visit him on a regular basis, and got to know him on a different level, a personal level.

“They became very close. They played golf together, and he visited our home in Coral Gables, Florida.”

Lee remembers meeting him when he was eight or nine, and an exchange that became family legend. “I asked Jack Kennedy, then Senator Kennedy, what I could do to become President, and he said, ‘Learn your history and mind your mother.’”

On the surface, it was an unusual friendship. “Jack was very wealthy, and from a wealthy family of well-heeled Bostonians, and Daddy was just a humble-origins kind of a guy. . .

“The story is that the first day my father met Jack Kennedy, he came home and he said, ‘This man is going to be President one day.’ I get goosebumps when I think about Jack Kennedy, and what he meant, and still means, to this country. His energy, his optimism, his vision . . . all of that.”

When Kennedy became President, he appointed Grant Stockdale as his ambassador to Ireland. The family came back to the US to support Kennedy’s second presidential campaign. And then, in November 1963, the President was assassinated.

Asked by the Miami Herald for a quote on the day that Kennedy was shot, Grant Stockdale said: “John F. Kennedy, our great President, is dead. Our magnificent American is gone. No man loved humanity more nor served it better. He loved Miami and its people. Florida was his second home. This is the saddest day in my life.”

Ten days after the assassination, a week after the funeral, Grant Stockdale fell from his 13th-floor office, leaving a widow, two sons, and three daughters.

 

GRANT’s death left Lee with a huge amount of anger, and a debilitating level of shame. He entered therapy when he was a student (“for all of six months, and then I declared myself cured . . . that’s the cockiness of a 20-year-old”), but it wasn’t until his retirement, decades later, that he began to address his feelings about the loss of his father.

Lee StockdaleThe cover of Lee Stockdale’s book Gorilla shows his father whispering in the ear of President Kennedy

“It was only ten or 12 years ago, when I began seriously writing poetry again,” he says. “It was unavoidable: poetry is not a surface kind of a discipline. It’s natural that I would go deep within myself. I began writing poems about my father, and then I began reaching out to other, better poets.”

The mentoring was game-changing. “I don’t think that I could have done it if I hadn’t had this period of two years of support,” he says. “It was really tough. There was a lot of sadness, that I thought, I’ve gotten over that. But, actually, I had not.

“That’s why I thought, when I wrote this poem, It will not win this award, because it’s really not poetic. It’s really so overtly . . . I won’t say sentimental, but just so obvious. That’s why it’s so crazy to have won this award.”

Lee’s debut collection, Gorilla, was published just last year. His evolution as a poet follows a career that included driving a taxi in New York, and 30 years in the army. His website biography says that he “enlisted for three years in the Army to gain the discipline to become a writer. Three years turned into 30.”

That was quite a diversion, I suggest. “Oh, there’s no doubt in my mind that the Lord wanted me in the army, which might sound crazy, but there were a lot of dynamics going on in my life,” he says.

When he joined up, he was having difficulty with his family. “In Washington, DC, I got in a cab . . . and I started saying the Lord’s Prayer in this cab driver’s cab. I’m sure he thought I was nuts. But I joined the army a few days later.”

After the initial testing, he was offered options, one of which was to become a military policeman — “the furthest thing from my natural nature” that he could imagine. “I’m thinking about this in hindsight, but it felt so wrong, it’s got to be right. So I did that. I thought, three years of gaining experience, I’ll have something to write about.”

But, once he was in the army, interesting opportunities kept opening up, and, he says, “They kept promoting me.” Through the army, he went to law school, and became a judge advocate. He retired after 30 years as a Colonel, having narrowly missed promotion to General.

Meanwhile, he married and had five children. I ask him whether his own experience of fatherhood has made its way into his winning poem. He is taken aback by the question. “I’ve never even entertained that thought. My five children are nowhere in this poem,” he insists.

His father, however, is a frequent presence in his life. “I often see him standing over me with a clipboard when I’m doing yoga,” he says. “It’s a loving presence. That sounds too sweet and syrupy. But I feel like it’s almost comical that he’s standing over me with a clipboard, judging my postures.”

The desert — the location for the poem — is a place that holds a fascination for him. He’s recently finished a four-year Education for Ministry course. “The first year was all Old Testament; so I got a lot of desert there,” he says. He regards the Old Testament as the greatest literature in the world. “Even Shakespeare would say that. I mean, why look further than the Bible? It’s unbelievable.”

He speaks of time he has spent in the desert. “It’s pitch black. I mean, really, there’s no ambient light. I’ve gotten away, far away from the highway, because I don’t want anyone to find me. But then you look up, and it’s just this — I’m a poet; so I should be able to make this more interesting — but it’s just this dome of nothing but beautiful stars. And it’s truly memorable and singular.

“When you get out there, you just have the feeling that it’s a theatre where anything might happen. Nobody owns the desert. Jesus didn’t own the desert when he went out there for forty days and forty nights. It’s just a place where I think anything can happen.”

 

FAITH has always been part of Lee’s life. “I grew up with the trappings of faith, but I had to come to faith, personally. It wasn’t really a bolt of lightning or a road to Damascus: it was a cumulative effect of knowing intellectually, that this is where freedom was, human fulfilment.”

His mother’s faith was shaken by her husband’s suicide. “I mean, she cried in church for a year, or two years, and she cried every night. I know that shook her faith. I know it shook my faith.”

Today, he and his wife attend Trinity Episcopal Church, Asheville, in North Carolina. “My faith is strong, happily so. But I nurture it. I mean, I go to church every Sunday, I go to Bible study, because I want to nurture this faith. I want to be a vessel for God’s love, God’s healing.”

He loves writing. “Poetry speaks to me. I love writing. I [also] love performing. I love thinking that I can connect with an audience.” Poetry is the way in which he feels called to communicate God’s love. So, what’s next?

He tries to write something new every day. He is working on a new manuscript; and he is about to go on a writing retreat to a cabin in the mountains. “I had to apply four months ago, and I’m so excited to be accepted. I’ll be working on that manuscript, and I’ll be sharing it with a workshop in August in Vermont, and that’s exciting. It’s just fun to be involved with this wonderful community of writers.”

Winning the UK prize was huge, he says. “I really didn’t think I had any talent. I thought I’d been just sort of, going through the motions. [When I won] I thought OK, this must mean that I have some talent, putting the Holy Spirit aside. So, now, I’ve got some responsibility. And that’s a good thing.”

 

My Dead Father’s General Store in the Middle of a Desert

It has gas pumps with red horses and wings,
but is not merely a gas station, your father is not my father,
standing over me with a clipboard, checking off things done and left undone.

He seems happy at this last stop before death for those living,
before life for those not yet born,
where his general store deals in flour, sugar, pieces of hacked meat,
or liver, reddish purple, a heart he wraps in brown paper.
He cuts my hair beneath the tin awning. I must have gotten here
from one direction or other on the road that stretches horizon to horizon,
the desert heat shimmering my eyes into pools.

I crawled in on my hands and knees,
he handed me an ice-cold orange Nehi drink.
It’s pure coincidence that this store is my father’s.
I ask him where all this stuff comes from, as no trucks travel this road
to replenish merchandise no one buys.
He doesn’t like questions that challenge his existence.
I become quiet, he’s cutting my hair
and might consciously or unconsciously make me look bad.

You’re doing a great job out here, I say, which he knows is bullshit —
how many fathers, even if they’re dead, set up a general store in a desert.
I persist, You keep the shelves stocked, floor broomed, bathroom clean.
The more I talk, the more I encourage myself to love him for the trouble he went to
making all this seem real, with cans of various sized nails, beans, rice,
shelves of liquor, deli section with giant pickles.

I begin to see what a dear, sweet man he is. Is this because he is dead?
I wish he were alive again.
I don’t think he killed himself to be mean to me personally.
At night, he says, howling coyotes come down from the mountains
and leave notes, bible verses, threatening messages, love letters.
Everything a coyote wants to get off its chest.

I ask if they come every night.
He says, Without fail.

 

Listen to an extended interview with Lee Stockdale here

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