Jan '04 [Home]
A Quill Pen Dipped in a Shot Glass: a Memoir of Thomas M. Catterson
I was running a modified shell game at an open reading in Ridgewood, Queens back in 1993 when a shambling figure approached me and, like the mysterious Coleridge wedding guest, fixed me with a glittering eye (he fortunately wasn't carrying an albatross that night) and announced he wanted to join the staff of The New Press Literary Quarterly, the mildly disreputable poetry magazine whose nominal editor I was at the time. Something about this fellow gave me the willies at first sight, and I suggested he meet the publisher (a fellow who, for various reasons, took some getting used to) before signing on. He assured me it would be no problem.
That was my introduction to Thomas Mario Catterson, phone company technician by trade (retired by then) and poet by passion, with frequent detours into saloon-keeping and catering. He took his slot in the open mic, and within minutes had the audience hanging on every word, a state of affairs that lasted for over ten years of poetry events.
Thomas was a man of ability and pride; the pride was part of a uniquely personal code of honor forged on the streets of Williamsburg, Brooklyn. If he was your friend, it was for life; there was no escaping it. The opposite was true if you crossed him; there was no escaping that, either. He knew how to support his friends through pain and pleasure, and he was equally adept at sandbagging adversaries, often in such ways they never noticed until it was too late. He hung tough through circumstances that would have driven most people into a lunatics' asylum, and yet created poetry that could move total strangers to tears or laughter, depending on his whim.
He enlisted in my attempts to upgrade the status of The New Press, and helped to convince me to jump leagues when that proved unmanageable. We started the Medicinal Purposes Literary Review together, and such was the magic of his personality that we never had to twist arms or raid any other organization for talent. They came willingly. Some of them, happily, are still with us.
As we were preparing to go to press with the first issue of Medicinal Purposes, a freak series of misfortunes landed Thomas in the hospital, where the doctors discovered his diabetic condition. They had to amputate his leg to save his life (he did not lose his leg, as is commonly assumed, on a tour of duty of Viet Nam while serving with the United States Coast Guard), and his partial recovery was long and arduous. He never healed long enough to strap on his artificial leg, a massive piece of engineering that would have done credit to a space shuttle, but he did recover enough to rededicate himself to poetry—and for that, we are grateful. Because Thomas did not merely devote himself to his own unique oeuvre, he devoted himself to the art of everyone around him. Medicinal Purposes became his passion and his lifeline, and he fought like a lion to maintain the journal's integrity.
Thomas had three major themes in his writing: veterans, the deaf (many of his relatives suffered the affliction—his sister Rosemary Johnstone is an accomplished signer and interpreter for the hearing impaired), and the social discomforts of alcohol (based on observations made during his "19-some-odd years in the bar business"). His poetry reached three continents, North America, Europe, and Asia. And he managed to have two books published: This Pot Has Pepper (Cross-Cultural Literary Editions) a collection of his stop shorts, and My Father's Paradox (Founders Hill Press) a collection of longer pieces.
I can just hear you mutter, "What's a stop short?" In brief, it is shih, the basic unit of Chinese poetry—a four-line epigram of between 20 and 28 words (take note, you purveyors of four-page haiku) with a surprise or revelation at the last line. Thomas learned the rudiments of shih from Ming Wu, a visiting telephone engineer from China, and became so enamored of the form that he developed the definitive rules for creating shih forms directly in English. The stop short (in English) became Thomas's trademark. He would perform them at all his readings, and those pithy little shockers never failed to bedazzle or befuddle—frequently both at the same time. At the time of his death, Thomas was developing a new career as an Internet Poetry teacher. Who knows? A worthy successor may yet arise.
We spent a good deal of time on the road together, doing our double-team act at bookstores and coffee bars, and filming our public access cable television show, Poet to Poet. We'd divided up the responsibility for the show: Thomas was the director and I was the producer/host. In eight years, we managed to produce over 180 episodes with 350 some-odd guests (some were very odd, indeed) in six states. We never made a dime on it, either, but we had a wild time. The show aired in New York, Connecticut, and Illinois. Our primary production rule was simple: when the camera was off, it was Thomas's show; when the camera was on, it was mine. And woe to any prima donna (of any gender) who thought they could hijack an episode. Again, teamwork was the key; our double-teaming supported by our technical crew, primarily Anthony Scarpantonio and Leigh Harrison, on camera and sound, respectively.
Pepper always offered to help with the driving, by the way; but he was missing his driving leg and didn't have a license anyway. He finally stopped making the offer when I threatened to take his cigarettes away from him.
For the record, I believe that the cardiac arrest that claimed him (at a newly-minted age 60; just a kid, really) was a combination of diabetes, his craving for tobacco, an over-reliance on take-out junk food, and nine years of trying to make one leg serve for two. Just before his death, he had learned of a new laser surgery that might have enabled him to strap on the artificial leg; his insurance company wouldn't pay for it. Those of us who knew Thomas will remember him with a mixture of admiration and bewilderment. And I have no doubt that he is, even at this moment, hunched over a table in some cosmic watering hole, getting what happened to him down on paper. So, until we find that poem (poems, probably), I should like to end this small memoir with two other poems, a stop short of mine in Pepper's honor (those of us who knew him were privileged to call him Pepper, the only nickname he claimed he could stand; he had picked it up on the road someplace) and a slightly longer poem of his own. That wisenheimer always did like to get the last word!
In Memoriam: T.M.C.
reasons for opening my eyes tomorrow abound;
never forgetting to say I love you.
Crying, crying hello for another soft breath.
My birthday it's not just another day.
Today's endeavors will fit well in reflection,
since memories that shadowbox will stay alive;
while the space between my ears empties.
Thomas M. Catterson
Poems by T. Catterson
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