Tribute to Leon Stokesbury

In one of the last classes he ever taught in Georgia State’s Creative Writing program, Leon read a menu to us, his poetry workshop students. Sitting at the head of the conference table on the 23rd floor of the SunTrust building, he held the laminated menu for Highlands Bakery, which had just opened on the first floor, and read us descriptions of breakfast items like canonical poems. “Fried Chicken Benedict,” he intoned. “Eggs / poached medium and / fried chicken topped / with jalapeño cheddar cheese sauce / on a grilled biscuit. Served / with a choice / of grits or potatoes.” His voice modulated the line breaks, clipped and emphasized end-words like “topped,” so that finally, somehow, at the end of this culinary prosody, the choice of grits or potatoes sat with us like a judgement laden with cosmic implications.

Dr. Stokesbury, Stokes, Leon. Students, peers, and poets knew him by different monikers, but all knew him as entirely, soulfully and willfully, committed to the preservation and practice of poetry. Leon’s first national publication was the poem “The Lamar Tech Football Team Has Won its Game,” published in The New Yorker in 1967 (first publication! The New Yorker!), but he used to tell me the publication he was most proud of was The Georgia Review, where he published the painfully beautiful poem, “Watching My Mother Take Her Last Breath.” More of the standard obituary details for writers, including publication dates and accolades, awards, fellowships, and honors, can be found in the usual places online. Thankfully, it does not fall to me to piece together a catalog of data. During my first years in grad school, I knew that he was finishing the second volume of his anthology of Contemporary Southern poetry, The Made Thing. He included a poem written by a fellow student in workshop, and I so envied her (both for the poem and for his recognition). I knew that You Are Here, the last collection he published, which coincided with my last years of grad school, went through a range of title choices before he settled on that one. Beyond that, I was aware of very little of Leon’s publication or award history because our time together was always concentrated on whatever poem he held in his hands in that moment.

We spent the most time together in class, but I most treasure the hours he read and talked to me in his office. “Lindberg,” he’d say in a greeting as I walked into his office for a consultation about my manuscript. He would be crunching on Altoids, which he ate six or seven at a time, sometimes opening and closing the little tin box absentmindedly as he read over my latest drafts. In the first few sessions, he would offer a piece of candy, tossing me a Hershey’s kiss or a Tootsie Roll. It wasn’t until I was able to produce work that showed some merit that he opened the real stash, the candy drawer to rival all candy drawers. The bottom desk drawer, the deepest, file-sized drawer, was stocked with full-sized Snickers, rolls of Life Savers, bags of Ghirardelli chocolates. In Workshop prior to his arrival, his students would debrief our conferences to assess our standing, asking “yes, but did he offer you candy from the drawer?”

Most of us knew he would never really like us, as people, but that mattered little. No one really likes grad students anyway. We wanted him to like our poems. His resonant baritone, reading a line of your very own words, was the culmination of everything you had ever wanted to be in your entire life. It was everything. For Leon, reading a poem was devotional. I remember the first time I encountered Robert Frost’s heartbreaking poem, “Home Burial,” was Leon’s reading of it. Twenty of us sat around a beat-up old table in a low-ceiling, cinderblock room, as his steady, quiet, perfect reading transported us all to a child’s grave in Vermont in 1914. “The nearest friends can go / With anyone to death, comes so far short / They might as well not try to go at all,” the poet writes. When Leon finished, the room was quiet, and all of us (hardened, sarcastic, bitter grad students, us) were crying.

Poetry was to be taken seriously, even if it wasn’t serious poetry. His shoulders would shake as he giggled over a line by Miller Williams or Russell Edson poem. Sometimes at the end of a workshop, if the mood struck him right and we’d produced work that was passable, he’d sing us one of his favorite songs:

I don’t care if it rains or freezes
Long as I’ve got my plastic Jesus
Ridin’ on the dashboard of my car…

I realized, too late, that I had never asked him to sign my copies of his books. But really, that doesn’t matter. Every time I read a poem, any poem, I try to hear it in his voice, with his care, with the reverence he modeled for each crafted line and image. When I can’t hear his voice in my head while reading, it usually means it’s not ready yet. “Not your best work,” he would say if a poem disappointed him. “Just about there,” he’d say, if he approved. “Yes, this one is just about there.” What I miss most is his voice.

Jessica Lindberg

Leon Stokesbury was born in Oklahoma City, OK, but grew up in southeast Texas. Leon retired from Georgia State University in 2018, where he taught in the creative writing department for 30 years. He earned an MFA in poetry at the University of Arkansas with an MFA in poetry, and a Ph.D. in creative writing at Florida State University. Author and editor of several poetry collections, he received the Distinguished Georgia Poet of the Year Award in 1992

His first national publication was the poem “The Lamar Tech Football Team Has Won its Game,” published in The New Yorker in 1967, while he was a student at Lamar University in Beaumont, Texas. His first book of poems, Often in Different Landscapes, was a co-winner of the first AWP Poetry Competition in 1975. He edited several poetry anthologies, including The Made Thing: An Anthology of Contemporary Southern Poetry; Articles of War: American Poetry about World War II; and The Light the Dead See: The Selected Poems of Frank Stanford. His most recent book, You are Here: Poems New & Old, was published by the University of Arkansas Press in 2016. Among other awards, he was selected for a Robert Frost Fellowship in Poetry from the Bread Loaf Writers Conference; was awarded The Poets’ Prize; and received a grant from the National Endowment for the Arts. Leon was widely admired as a masterful reader of poetry. Leon passed away in Tucker, Georgia on November 13, 2018.