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[whitespace] Warrior of Words

Cabrillo College instructor and poet Joseph McNeilly releases a new collection of verse that speaks of oral traditions and unexpected realities

AT THE AGE OF 27, after telling his bullying father in the dark barn that he was changing his major from soil composition to writing, he boarded a plane for the West Coast. Within a week, Joseph McNeilly saw the ocean for the first time, ate food on an airplane for the first time, then Chinese, Italian, Greek food for the first time, witnessed a nude beach and watched a belly dancer. His nerve ending are still recovering, he says.

Raised strict Roman Catholic on a very poor working farm in a predominantly Amish community in Northern Indiana, McNeilly led a less than charmed life. With what he says was physical abuse from his father, physical abuse from the labor of tending to the land, it was a life that is still visible today in his slight limp and strong arms that could choke a cow if such a thing needed to be done. But somehow, out of this Midwestern adversity, McNeilly, a Cabrillo College English instructor with a just-released new book of poetry, has fashioned a devastating sense of humor about that life, as well as his ongoing battle with Attention Deficit Disorder and bipolarism, which he is now coming to terms with at the age of 51.

Combined with this sense of humor and the fact that he is a dazzling storyteller, McNeilly easily tells an evening's worth of tales over a table at a noisy Aptos pub. The Midwest, McNeilly says, has a long-standing oral tradition.

"I go back to visit [the Midwest] and I'm immediately blown away how the mailman is a better storyteller than anyone out here," he says. "They'll burn your ears for hours if you let them. That's what's part of my background, my roots, my heritage. I'm part of that narrative tradition, and the oral exchange of information is how everything got done. That's probably shaped me as a writer more than any other thing."

McNeilly has been teaching English at Cabrillo since 1987. For the last few years, he has worked on the English as a Second Language and Basic English division. He has recently resumed teaching poetry workshops and transfer-level classes. McNeilly sees himself first and foremost as a teacher (though he reconsiders and says husband and father first). Teaching, he says, allows him the cherished contemplative life despite the days, brought on by his illness, when he would rather hide under the bed.

McNeilly has designed the poems in his new book to work both on and off the page, to be read aloud or in the quiet of the head. These brutally honest poems are actually more like his stories that he tells but with the words carefully crafted like dovetail joints to make a box around the narrative. These are poems that provoke shivers and, among the final lines, offer not a blessed clue about what to do next with life other than to read on--poems that are clever and emotionally honest enough to make it impossible not to squirm a little, roar laughing. If anything there is a reflexive continuity and kinship with William Carlos Williams or William Gass--and then some.

Dennis Morton, host of KUSP's weekly poetry show, calls McNeilly's poetry "intense, direct, honest and unsentimental. Surprisingly, it is often also very tender. Mortality is an abiding theme in his work, but so is gratitude. Simple pleasures and the persistence of beauty receive generous and eloquent praise in his poetry. He doesn't mince words, but he knows how to make beauty of them. Joseph is a real poet."

In a love poem titled "Sunning With My Wife," three boys on the beach with a boom box watch the protagonist's wife. He is aging and wrinkled, while she still elicits a sexual response from the boys. McNeilly's genius lies in the direction the story takes. It is not aggressive or even dramatic jealous anger in the outcome. Instead he ends tellingly with perfect, sweet lines: "She would break their hearts as crisply as she has mine."

"I was unfortunately raised to be a violent person, and it was the women in my life that saved and tamed me from this," he says. "But at the same time I am tired of those pussy-whipped male poets, or men in general, that don't honestly face up to their sometime ugly and sometime constructive warrior side."

As we talk of poetry and life, I can't help but notice that McNeilly eats the now cold French fries not for the potatoes but for the ketchup. "But you know what?" McNeilly says brightly, over clinking glasses "My biggest desire for this book is for people that don't read poetry to find a poem that they want to put on their fucking refrigerator. That would be my greatest joy."


Joseph McNeilly reads from his new book, Out Here, Tuesday (Oct. 10), at 8pm at Bookshop Santa Cruz, 1520 Pacific Ave, Santa Cruz, and Monday November 6 at 7:30pm at Capitola Book Café, 1475 41st Ave, Capitola. Visit www.chantoyant.com for more information.

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From the October 4-11, 2000 issue of Metro Santa Cruz.

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