Tampa’s Poetic Voice: James E. Tokley Sr.

Tampa poet laureate James E. Tokley Sr. Photo by Daniel Veintimilla for AliveTampaBay.

By Julie Garisto, AliveTampaBay Correspondent

James Tokley, Tampa’s Poet Laureate for three decades, projects an air of regality and wisdom that provides solace during today’s uncertain times.

He moves his glasses down to the bridge of his nose and proffers a soul-piercing stare with flecked, leontine eyes.

“These are the times of big poems; massive, empowering poems,” he says.
I pray to God and Calliope to allow me to write one of them.”

Tokley is the first official poet laureate for both the city of Tampa and Hillsborough County. In 1996, Tampa Mayor Dick Greco named Tokley Poet Laureate of the city, and in 2013, the Hillsborough County Commission honored him as Hillsborough County’s Official Poet Laureate.

“Some of the poems that he writes just grab you by the heart and you just can’t turn loose when you hear him speak,” commissioner Les Miller once told a WUSF reporter.

Today, Tokley’s verse appears on public landmarks throughout the city. The esteemed scribe has recited verse at the inauguration of mayors, as well as of Gov. Charlie Crist.

On Dec. 9, Tokley read a poem at the Poynter Institute’s annual Bowtie Ball, which honored famed news anchor and journalist Tom Brokaw with a lifetime achievement award.

Brokaw, whom Tokley praised for his “pioneer blood,” was not the Poet Laureate’s first brush with A-listers. He was invited to pen verse for Hillary Clinton’s inauguration had she won the presidential election.

The son of a dressmaker and Navy man, Tokley was born on April 26, 1948. He grew up in Delaware in a “happily integrated” farming community, reared by his grandparents and visited frequently by his parents. His mother encouraged him to learn to play music, and his father urged him to move to his hometown of Tampa in 1978.

Tokley first found his niche as a Tampa poet frequenting local watering holes like the Red Top Bar (which he lived above) and Grace’s Place, where he recited verse with rhythmic precision and a booming baritone. Enchanted by the century-old stories of immigrants in cigar factories and their lectores — scholars who read the news and literature to workers — Tokley adopted the persona of the factories’ first Afro-Cuban lector, Facundo Accion, from whom he muses he has reincarnated.

No aspect of Tampa life past and present didn’t inspire Tokley, who attracted the attention of Trib columnist Steve Otto and local politicos, including Tampa Mayor Dick Greco and wife, Linda, now close personal friends.

In an uncanny twist of fate, Tampa also brought Tokley the love of his life by way of his Delaware hometown.

Though he first encountered his wife, Joanna, as a child, talking to her through a car window, he didn’t actually meet her and court her for another three decades in Tampa. Tokley and Joanna offer consulting services through The Tokley Group, providing written work, communication and other services. They have provided human diversity awareness training for the U.S. Drug Enforcement Agency (DEA). Together, the couple has seven children and 29 grandchildren.

A well-educated man, Tokley earned a master’s degree in English Education (Curriculum and Instruction) from Temple University in Philadelphia while completing coursework toward his Ed.D. (Curriculum and Instruction, Temple University) and his Ph.D. (American Literature, University of South Florida).

Adaptations of Tokley’s poetry include WEDU’s Emmy-award winning documentary on the heyday of Central Avenue in Tampa, the onetime center of the African American community in Tampa. He also lent his voice to the film Good Samaritan.

Below are excerpts of AliveTampaBay’s conversation with Tokley on his writing process, life in Tampa and unusual first brush with poet Maya Angelou.

AliveTampaBay: Please tell us about your encounter with Maya Angelou.

Tokley: Since age 22, when I began teaching full-time as an English professor at Delaware State University, I taught the works of Angelou. She was like a sister to me, a personal friend, although though I had never met her.

One year, I came down here for at writers’ conference and she was featured. So, I’m sitting in the front row with a book containing her verse. … She’d read, stop to address the audience and glare in my direction.

I thought, “Okay, that’s cool, that’s cool.”

She went through the thing, got a standing ovation as you’d imagine she would, and I stood in line after to get her autograph.

When I finally got to her, I said, “Ma’am, may I have your autograph?” She looked at me, took her glasses off, and said, “I may give it to you and I may not.”

I was thinking, “Damn, what did I do to you?!” Her manager was falling out. He said, “Man, we’ve been watching you all afternoon.”

I said, “Why?”

“You look just like Vusumzi, Maya’s ex-husband,” he answered.

Wait a minute … I do! Their son looks like he could be my son!

… I sent her a copy of my book, Oh, St. Regent, and she sent me back a lovely letter, and we slowly — and for her, painfully — began a friendship. The last I saw her, she was in a wheelchair and had come down to USF to hear a poem I had written for her called ‘If She Were Here.” I didn’t expect her to be there. She heard my poem, and after, she called me back into the room and kissed me.

Do you write poems every day?

What I decided years ago was to think as poetically as I dare, to make poetry a part of my daily life existence without being maudlin, without being buffoonish, much like Robert Frost did.

… I either write poems or think about them. I always have my pen and notebook with me. There’s nothing worse than a writer who’s stuck like a turkey without a pen.

How do you manage to stay so prolific?

“I sleep a lot. I am like a pregnant woman. (Laughs)

Then I begin writing scritch-scratch, just writing random words. Then all of the sudden the words stretch into sentences. … I love to write heroic couplets. When I reach the point of creating a heroic couplet, then I know I have something. And then I also pray to the muse, Calliope — and I pray to God too.

How have people described your poetry? Who influenced you most?

One guy said to me (imitating a blustery old man), “What you sound like isn’t poetry but I like it!”

My wife has come up with a name for what I do. She calls it histoetry. We were talking about it on our way here … that what I really do is I’m a storyteller. I can’t think of many of the pieces I’ve written that didn’t have a story or was part of a story.

To that extent, I compare myself to Robert Frost, Paul Laurence Dunbar, Langston Hughes. They have influenced me. Walt Whitman — ah, you don’t get much better than he.

… Now, Shakespeare as a poet speaks reams about what poetry is about. One of my favorite poets is Stephen Vincent Benet. If you ever get a chance, read his poem “Don Brown’s Body.” You will understand the power of poetry.

Tell us about your love of Tampa.

Whenever I want to make my beloved wife mad, which is not often, I make this statement: If Tampa had been a woman, I would have married her. One of the highlights of my life was when the Florida Sentinel Bulletin, which we write for, put out an article about me almost 30 years ago. In the article, they referred to me as “Tampa’s own.” Oh, I cried, I cried. I realized with those two words that I had found a home.

My father is from here. I’ve got more cousins by the dozens in Tampa than you can shake a stick at.

I have become what the Latinos call a Lector. One of my best poems is called “The Lady of Brick.” I took the cigar factories and brought them back to life as beautiful Latina women. The bricks became gowns. We had a dance at the Italian club just down the street. I became Facundo Accion, the only official Afro-Cuban lector.

What’s it like to be part of Tampa’s inner circle?

Don’t know if I cracked the code but I got deep within it to … the extent that we have become a part of the history of the place. That’s important. What I didn’t want to happen was to be here and yet nobody know that I had lived. It’s important to be recorded by history — to come, to live here and die … and be unsullied? Nah. That’s not what poetry is about. I’m happy that people will know I was here.

Mayor Pam Iorio asked me to write a poem about a police substation in East Tampa. The name of the poem was “Officers Friendly.” … I told the story of a substation that had a welcome mat. It had hot coffee. People could come in from the community, and it had a cat. “It had a cat!” … So,  I read the poem. It was well received, and when people were leaving, this short, curly-haired blond fellow, approached me and said, ‘I’m the architect who designed this building … everything you said in your poem, I pictured in my mind when I designed it.” That’s when I began to realize that a true poet is a language architect, an architect with words.”

You seem to attract to a sort of synchronicity.

Yes, yes … I love that word.

You have experienced special, fateful coincidences involving your connections with others. Do you feel that people should open themselves up to these connections?

Only when a flower opens up can it get the benefit of the sun and the rain. When a rose is like a fist, it ain’t happening. … I can’t write when I’m uptight. It doesn’t come. Even in pain, it only comes when I open myself up.

I wrote one piece when I was really tied in knots. It’s called “The God’s Honest Truth.” Out of gestation like that comes some very good poetry.” It’s from my Epic of a Sandwiche Cubano chapbook.

[Reads notebook and begins reciting]

The God’s honest truth:

I could live forever

If I just don’t lose my mind

Beyond this place of never

To another space and time

Yes I could live forever

If I just don’t lose my mind

Like I could see completely

Through the trials and the tears

Through the headaches and the heartaches

That go with me through the years

And the days I didn’t want to

But I had to toe the line, baby

I could live forever

If I just don’t lose my mind

I could sing forever

If just didn’t lose my place

I could sing that note and hold it

Till the tears ran down my face

I could preach me up a sermon

And the words would be divine

And I would make folks love each other

If I could make some extra time

But, buddy, I could see forever

If I just could raise my head

I could put my life together

And it would do just like I said

And when my ship comes in to meet me

Like I knew it all the time

People, I could live forever

If I don’t just lose my mind

Spoken Word poets have lamented that they’re not taken seriously in the literary scene. What are your thoughts on the genre?

If a person tells me that he or she is a poet, I give that person all praise and respect. I do not question but respect. To say you are, means you are. If you aren’t, you will be.

For me, poetry is as much metaphorical as it is concrete. Without simile, without analogy, without metaphor, poetry isn’t as powerful as it might be. I also believe that there’s a difference between a speech and poem. Poetry describes the impact as opposed to the bullet itself. … That’s the reason for poetry. I would love to have seen Abraham Lincoln’s Gettysburg Address done as a poem.

But let’s get back to the spoken word. The fact that many people are doing it and consider themselves poets is good because you are not a poet until you say you are.

I would, however, have them invest more time and energy into imagery. I would have them invest more effort into the power of metaphor without the use of “as” or “like.” Personally, I prefer rhythm and rhyme. Or, if I’m using free verse, it must have the power of the image and the impact. Don’t preach.

Revolutionary poetry can become propaganda. You’ve got to be careful. You know, it’s all sharp edges. Poetry is not supposed to be about that. Poetry is much mightier than that. Poetry is not preaching. Political poetry sometimes reminds me of a Soviet sculpture. The imposition gets in the way of the message.

Does being a poet mean you have to allow yourself permission to be more vulnerable?

I try to protect my child. You do too. You can’t be a poet and be complete adult.

You can’t be a writer and can’t be both male and female. Even Hemingway was sensitive. You must be able to be a rock and a cotton ball at the same time (laughs).

… And I do protect my child.

One of the worst things I’ve seen is parents taking their kids to the State Fair. The children are scampering and having fun and the adults look like this (mimics zombie-like, expressionless face).

They say, we’re just here for the kids. What do you mean you’re just here for the kids? What! Do something. Let go! Kids are taught from a young age to learn how not to let go. (Sings “I Am a Rock” by Simon and Garfunkel). You can’t be a rock, an island and a poet at the same time. Well, you can, but you won’t like it.

American society makes a big deal about finishing things, achievement. You tend to focus more the process than completion.

Not even a mountain is complete. There’s no such thing as a perfect sunrise or sunset.

I agree with you. We spend too much time focusing on perfection, on completion. The most powerful number in the litany of numbers is the number zero. We call people zeroes (in sneering voice). Zero symbolizes the complete universe. We don’t see it like that.

Consequently, because we are so focused on perfection, our art suffers. I’m going to say this to you: You better hope and pray you never write the perfect piece. You better hope and pray you get the perfect picture. There’s a story wherein Satan invited Archangel Michael to hell. The two of them go into this one room filled with painters. Everything the artists painted was magnificent, and they were sad. Satan explained that they were said because everything they paint is perfect.

“We no longer have the choice to paint anything unless it’s perfect,” one said.

Perfection is boring as hell. Art is no longer a struggle. There it is a ceiling. Finis. It’s all over. That’s the same with poetry. I will never write the perfect piece until the day I die.

Do you consider yourself a private person, a public figure or a bit of both?

All of the above. I am still the Poet Laureate for the city of Tampa. I hope one day the city will decide to give someone else an opportunity. What I have I’ll always have. I will always be the Poet Laureate of Tampa and Hillsborough County, but I know there has to be somebody out there who wonders if they had a chance. People think I’m Poet Laureate for life, but I’m not. I’m just glad that Bob Buckhorn hasn’t kicked it out altogether. Bobby and I, we have an agreement: I don’t mess with him and he doesn’t mess with me (laughs).

Do you plan to keep writing?

I believe that my best poetry is yet to come.

Julie Garisto is a correspondent for AliveTampaBay.

Interviews may be condensed and edited for brevity, clarity, and style.

Tampa poet laureate James E. Tokley Sr. Photo by Daniel Veintimilla for AliveTampaBay.



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