Staff Q&A: John Shea

The Anxious Poem

Did you ever start a poem and you had an uneasy sense,
nothing you could put your finger on, but a foreboding,
as if someone was going to die somewhere,
yes, maybe even in the poem, and there was nothing you
or anyone else, maybe, could do, and even if you stopped reading,
even if you just stopped writing, it would still happen,
and then whose fault would it be? Now I’m not saying
that this poem is one of those poems, it’s too early to tell,
it’s hard to determine which direction it will take,
toward a garden, perhaps, where a butterfly loses its way
among azure flowers drooping on tall green stems,
drawn without a hope of escape to their delicate scent;
or perhaps to a crowded city street on an August evening,
when shirts stick to back and neck, when horns honk
even before there’s a reason, where people sit on windowsills,
dangling their legs, hardly noticing the police siren
because they’ve heard it so often, but this time it’s coming
closer, and someone darts from between two parked cars,
and suddenly you think this might be the one, and you
glance ahead, desperate for a glimpse of a prairie night
full of stars, say, when the universe guards its secrets
with a hum you cannot quite hear but you know it’s there,
and the doings of men and women are inessential,
you can’t hear them, you can’t see them, and that way
you know that someone won’t die in this poem,
because there are larger things, things that matter more,
like mountains that have modeled for the finest poets,
rising sharply into air too thin to breathe, and it’s not safe
for anyone to climb there, so they don’t, and so nobody
will be there to stumble off a trail, or clutch his heart
with exertion, or turn at the muffled sound of an assailant,
no, not in that scene, not in this poem, I’d do anything
not to have someone die, even though it’s not my fault,
so let’s not have anyone die, it’s not your fault, nobody,
nobody to die, nobody to blame, not here, not now,
not in this poem.

Reprinted with permission from Philadelphia City Paper



Editor, Penn Medicine

Length of service:

4 years; 18 years total at Penn

Other stuff:

He has even been published in a foreign language—one of his stories appeared in the German edition of Alfred Hitchcock's Mystery Magazine.

Photo by Tommy Leonardi

When John Shea (Gr’84) came to Penn to pursue a doctorate in English, he fully intended to pursue a career in academe, researching and teaching English literature.

He ended up with a career in academe, and one involving English literature to boot. But the literature in question has turned out to be magazine and newspaper articles for Penn publications—first for The Pennsylvania Gazette, then for this newspaper’s predecessor, The Compass, and now for Penn Medicine and other periodicals produced by the Health System’s Office of Public Affairs.

But that’s not all the writing Shea does. He has written numerous poems and short stories, plus a novel or two, over the years, getting published in magazines ranging from Partisan Review to Alfred Hitchcock’s Mystery Magazine. And he has managed to pick up a few awards along the way for his work, mostly for work done while a graduate student at Penn.

In January, he snared an off-campus prize, winning the poetry award in the 2002 City Paper Writing Contest for “The Anxious Poem” (right). We spoke with Shea about the award and the writing life in his office recently.

Q. What was your reaction upon hearing you had won?
I guess it was a happy daze. David Warner [City Paper editor-in-chief] read a snippet of what the judge had said, and it was exciting. I probably submitted enough over the years to City Paper’s contest to fill up a small landfill, so it was nice to actually break through this time around.

Q. What inspired you to write “The Anxious Poem” and enter it in this contest?
Well, it was one of four poems in this submission, and I just figured City Paper readers might like something a little edgy, not quite bland and traditional, and I thought this was one of the ones that might give me a better shot.

I think I’d written it about two and a half to three years [ago]. And I can’t swear to this, but I think I might have entered it in that contest, maybe in the previous year or the year before that. In some ways, these contests depend on who’s judging in that particular year, what their tastes are, whether they’ve had a good day or a bad day up to that point.

[The poem] seemed to me a way to express the anxiety that many of us are feeling about a lot of things—it’s pre-9/11, but it fit with what went afterwards. You get a sense of that in the way the poem is written. It’s not to everyone’s taste because it is very rhetorical, you’re trying to grab the reader and do things with the reader there too.

Q. Do you bring any of your literary sensibility to bear on what you write for Penn Medicine?
I certainly try to, but not in an intrusive way that has my typical reader scratching his or her head. We have a little bit of flexibility here. In the most recent issue, for example, we had a memoir from one of our alumni, class of ‘46. He’s [in] that class that didn’t get to the Second World War, but was preparing to. I’m sort of receptive to that kind of account. I also get to fool around occasionally in my editor’s column. I don’t think people are going to read this and say, What is this, a literary magazine? But I’m certainly aiming for higher than a sixth-grade reading comprehension.

Q. Do you participate in writers’ support groups on campus like Penn and Pencil?
I’m actually the nominal head of that at the moment. …We’re a very democratic group, and for some people, it’s attractive, because we’ll consider anything that anyone gives us. It’s not special, it doesn’t focus on fiction, it doesn’t focus on poetry.

The Kelly Writers House has been a great boon for me, because of what they offer, who shows up there, the readings they do.

…People always say that the writer’s life can be lonely, so I think any way that you can communicate and create some kind of network is useful. We remind each other that there are people out there like you.

Originally published on February 13, 2003