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Lee Stockdale turns to poetry to work through and beyond family trauma

Lee Stockdale image.png
Matt Peiken | BPR News
At its core, “Gorilla” is a poetic record of Lee Stockdale trying to make sense of—and heal from—a father who died by suicide when Stockdale was just 12 years old. 

Lee Stockdale recounts several decades of memories in his new collection of poetry, titled "Gorilla.” The book is a collage of poems tracing Stockdale's experiences growing up Catholic in the 1960s and ‘70s, peeling off into an adulthood lined with a long career in the military and a reclamation of faith.

But at its core, “Gorilla” is a poetic record of Stockdale trying to make sense of—and heal from—a father who died by suicide when Stockdale was just 12 years old.

“Some of them were really tough to revisit or admit to the difficulty in the feelings I had about what my father had done,” he said.

Grant Stockdale served as an American ambassador and was friends with the Kennedys—a specific memory Lee Stockdale draws into one of his book’s central poems.

Here’s a passage from a poem titled “Are You Jackie Kennedy?”

I’m suddenly embarrassed to be driving a cab,

The son of President Kennedy’s ambassador to Ireland.

I don’t tell her I live next door to the4 Hell’s Angels,

And chase rock and roll poetry up East Village fire escapes

I’m taking time off from college. I don’t really know

What I want to be. Maybe a psychiatrist. Or an Episcopal priest.

Oh, John and Caroline don’t know that they want to do either.

And just like that, she makes me feel like one of her kids.

“My own thoughts and feelings about my father were so convoluted and difficult and surreal in ways that I felt the poetry allowed for that expression in ways in which I think nonfiction or fiction don’t quite allow,” Stockdale said.

After retiring from a career in the Army, Lee Stockdale lived in Tryon for a decade before moving to Fairview five years ago. Sprinkled among the darker poems are more pastoral remembrances and small observations pulled into long yarns of poetry. There’s also Stockdale’s pathway to faith, cemented in one poem about watching Johnny Cash perform at a Billy Graham event.

“I wasn't a country person, but I thought ‘Hey, here’s Johnny Cash—who wouldn’t want to go see this guy?’ So I did,” he recalled. “And they said ‘Come down and accept Christ,’ and I thought, well, that’s not a bad thing—I’m gonna go do that.”

Over the years, Stockdale has had a hand in several forms of writing. He wrote a work of musical theater while serving in the military and a novel he wants to see published.

He reads from “Gorilla” Jan. 18 at Trinity Episcopal Church in Asheville and Jan. 26 at the Tryon Fine Arts Center.

Matt Peiken, BPR’s first full-time arts journalist, has spent his entire career covering arts and culture.