Most people know the late Phyllis Tickle as the author of nearly 40 nonfiction books, the founding religion editor of Publishers Weekly, and as a religion expert and media commentator. Fewer know that four decades ago Tickle thought of herself “first and foremost as a poet,” says Jon Sweeney, who is writing a biography of her due out in 2017.
“It was her first career, and she was passionately involved,” he says. “She really wanted to be a poet.”
During that time, in the 1970s and ‘80s, Tickle also taught poetry to children in the Memphis area, where she lived. Then, at the urging of her husband, Sam, Tickle moved on to more “serious” writing and the other kinds of work that would come to define her life.
But in the spring of 2015, facing death from inoperable lung cancer, Phyllis Tickle circled back to poetry and moved to make it central to her legacy. With her long-time collaborators and friends at Paraclete Press, she established the annual Phyllis A. Tickle Award in Poetry; beginning in 2016, the winner’s first book of poetry will be published by Paraclete. The first winner will be announced in March.
Now Paraclete has published a volume of Tickle’s own poetry, Hungry Spring & Ordinary Song: Collected Poems (an autobiography of sorts). Of the 82 poems in the collection, most were written in the 1970s and ‘80s; a few are from the early 2000s. Many are about the quotidian joys and sorrows of raising a family (children smuggling kittens into their rooms; multiple miscarriages and the death of her infant son, Phillip Wade, in 1971). Some are about the time and place in which she lived and worked, touching on the Civil Rights movement and the Vietnam War; others are ruminations on the milestones of life, on love, loss, and faith.
In the last months of her life, after making her illness public, “Phyllis didn’t want to be maudlin,” Sweeney says. “That was counter to how she wanted to die. She turned to poems instead.” While editing Phyllis Tickle: Essential Spiritual Writings (2015), a volume in Orbis’s Modern Spiritual Masters series, Sweeney added some of her poems, and “She was delighted they were being brought back,” he says.
Promoting a book without the help of its author is always difficult, but perhaps especially so with poetry, which benefits most from readings by the poet. Pam Jordan, director of marketing for books at Paraclete, says Sweeney will do radio interviews, and Paraclete has sent review copies to key journals and bloggers, where “most contacts knew Phyllis personally and well. We also are selling directly to all the churches where Phyllis was invited to speak,” as well as through liturgical (Episcopal and Catholic) retail stores. Says Jordan, “We’ve been more focused initially on the religion market and are now moving into poetry markets as well.”