Poet Jack Veasey writes stories—hard, nitty-gritty, ironic, heartfelt stories. And, after he’s finished with each one, he thinks about the advice he received years ago from a poet/novelist friend in Philadelphia. Writers, the friend said, must ask the question, “So what?”
“He was the person who taught me the most important lesson ever—how to give myself the ‘so what’ test,” Veasey says. “If, after you’ve written something, you read it and ask yourself, ‘So what?’—there better be a good answer.”
Veasey has come up with hundreds of good answers in his years of living the creative life, and they’re apparent in his dozen or so published poetry collections, his music and his plays. The Philadelphia native, who has lived in Hummelstown for the past 20-plus years, is a force in the Harrisburg poetry scene. Say the name “Jack Veasey,” and the first word that comes to mind is “poetry” and the group, the Almost Uptown Poetry Cartel, where he is an active member. Despite the image many have of the solitary writer chained to a desk while tapping at the keys, Veasey explains that poets need the camaraderie and support of other poets to continue to be inspired and to keep the art form alive.
“Throughout the history of the form, we’ve tended to clump together like cat litter,” he says. “You need to see what’s happening with and to the art form and to share your work with other poets. It’s the same reason painters establish art galleries and musicians form orchestras.”
Many of Veasey’s poems exhibit his struggles of growing up gay in the tough Fishtown neighborhood in Philadelphia, where Archie Bunker-types ruled and where the nuns in his Catholic school were tougher than old meat. It also didn’t help that Veasey had the attitudes and values of a hippie and that being gay in this place and at this time “was about the most despised thing you could be.”
“I had plenty to struggle against in Fishtown, and the neighborhood’s old atmosphere still pervades a lot of my work,” Veasey says. “I was a target for bullies, and that gave me an outsider’s perspective and made me identify with the underdog, which I still do. That colors a lot of my choices of subjects, and the viewpoints from which I write, even when they aren’t my own.”
Two poems from Veasey’s soon-to-be-published book, “The Dance That Begins And Begins,” illustrate that point. One poem is titled “Mr. Martin,” who was Veasey’s high school typing teacher and whom Veasey describes as the first man he ever loved. This narrative poem relays that yearning, the “pangs,” the loss after the teacher marries. Despite the pain, it offered Veasey evidence of being alive.
Another poem in this collection, “And Then Came The Plague Of Frogs,” tells the Catholic school story of Veasey freeing frogs that were about to undergo dissection in his biology lab. His action resulted in a suspension, a punishment he considers worth it. He writes:
“I may never have been/Popular, but, for a few years later/I’d be/Legendary.”
Veasey called his prior poetry collection “Shapely,” an autobiography in verse that sections his work by a particular form, such as sonnets and the Japanese 17-syllable forms of haiku and senryu.
“Some poets claim that writing poems in forms are limiting, but I found they enabled me to write about a much broader range of subjects, including some that had been too big to tackle or even to face,” he explains. “It pulled insights out of me. Sometimes, I’d articulate something in a form and then realize, ‘My God, I never knew I saw it that way.'”
Veasey has a lot more “So what’s?” to answer. Despite now being disabled with back issues resulting from spina bifida, he’s examining his entire body of work—from 1973 to the present—to see what remains to be brought out. And, of course, he’s always writing, always exploring. There’s possibly a collection of stories on the way, a murder mystery about Catholic priests, a full-length musical with new songs he’s composed.
Ah, but poetry.
“Poetry is my life,” Veasey muses. “I continue to write for pretty much the same reason as I continue to breathe. I need to. It’s how I make sense of being in the world.”
You can catch Jack Veasey and the Almost Uptown Poetry Cartel every Thursday, 7 to 9 p.m., at Midtown Scholar Bookstore, 1302 N. 3rd St., Harrisburg. His next book, “The Dance That Begins And Begins,” published by the Poet’s Press, is slated for release this year. All of his books are available at www.amazon.com.