Stockdale becomes man he wants to be. A father, poet & scholarPublished 11:28am Tuesday, January 28, 2014
by Kiesa Kay
Now, time has come to put the writing at the center of Lee Stockdale’s life, and never again will poetry linger on the periphery.
Stockdale stretches back in his chair at the Open Road coffee shop where his poetry group meets every other Friday, and his eyes gleam with stark sincerity. He spent 30 years in the Army and retired in 2007. Now he knows who he needs to be.
“I always wanted to write,” he said. “I wanted to write a great, epic poem, something people would remember and love. I wanted it to be accessible and quotable, like Robert Frost’s ‘Stopping By Woods on a Snowy Evening.’ I haven’t written it yet, but I won’t stop trying. I realized when I retired that I’ve been practicing law my whole life. My whole life has been spent living my back-up plan.”
Stockdale comes of strong and sturdy stock.
His mother was the poet Abie Proudfoot, Alice Boyd Stockdale Beaird, who wrote “To Ireland with Love,” and his father, Grant Stockdale, was ambassador to Ireland in the Kennedy years.
His father cast a long shadow, as the first official to introduce anti-Ku Klux Klan legislation in a southern state and a friend to John F. Kennedy Jr., but Stockdale grew strong in that comforting shade.
“I met JFK at age 8 and asked him how to become president,” Stockdale said. “He said ‘learn your history and mind your mother.’”
Stockdale’s father died when Stockdale was a young man, from a fall from his 13th story office 10 days after Kennedy’s assassination.
The loss changed the course of Stockdale’s life.
“I was on path for a political career,” Stockdale said ruefully. “I’d been writing since elementary school, and in seventh grade I wrote my first short story, ‘Hooves on a Cobblestone Street.’ Had my father lived, though, I would have gone into politics, but his death changed all that.”
He kept writing at Sewanee Military Academy, and created an underground newspaper with the teasing title of “The Harold,” with Harold spelled as a man’s name instead of the traditional spelling.
Before the military took him, Stockdale wandered a bit in his earlier years, from Antioch College to Washington DC to Fillmore East. He immersed in the music and poetry of that area, listening to Allen Ginsberg and Gregory Corso and Patti Smith at St. Mark’s on the Bowery in the East Village on New Year’s Day, and going to performances by the Ramones, Talking Heads, and Blondie.
“I drove a cab for a while, and I sang songs in my cab,” Stockdale said. “I’d park my cab for a couple of hours so I could work at the TransAudio Sound Studio.
One night, he struck up a conversation with poet, author and performer Patti Smith.
“She was spirited, wonderful, funny, imaginative and fun,” he said. “I was starstruck. She sat at my table and I felt like a fraud, like whatever I was doing wasn’t me; it wasn’t authentic enough. I left New York within a month and started college in Washington state. I didn’t want to teach, though. Did Hemingway teach? Did Sandburg? Writing always felt like my strongest thing. I was floundering about what to do with my life, trying to be honest to some star in the soul.”
He got his law degree at Case Western Reserve Academy and kept working. He eventually became a colonel in the U.S. Army JAG Corps, assigned to Berlin, Afghanistan and the Pentagon.
“I felt like a cowboy sometimes,” he said. “I knew secrets, like where we kept nuclear bombs, and I’d guard them. I was a White Hat military police officer on the road, going from one base to the other. You know, we were these young kids with .45 caliber pistols on our belts. Oh, we were so young.”
Stockdale revels in his love of language and words, and he used this skill as he worked for the Army and in his successful international practice for soldiers. He was available by phone, fax, and email 24/7 to clients in Korea, Germany, Afghanistan, Iraq, Saudi Arabia and more.
“I was incredibly helpful to a lot of people, helped them get promoted and helped save their careers, and I prayed a lot about people,” Stockdale said. “I have such excitement and love for poetic expression in language.”
He also met and married Gail, the love of his life. Stockdale has a strong marriage and has raised five children with Gail, a beekeeper and horse enthusiast. They shared their lives, raised their children.
Stockdale’s voice grows warm and softens when he speaks of his family.
“I told them all, and will tell them all, to follow their hearts, something no one ever told me,” he said. “Feelings are feelings. You don’t have to give yourself more trouble for having them. It’s amazing to sit back and think that this is the plan. All the law stuff happened so fast. For me, my marriage to Gail and nurturing our children, seeing their growth, has been the sine qua non for success in life.”
Hurricane Andrew destroyed their Miami home in 1992. When Stockdale retired, they knew they wanted to live in Polk County.
“We could go anywhere we wanted, and we had lived in big cities,” he said. “I wanted to salvage my kids’ childhoods. We have met such great, supportive, gracious people here. It feels like we have come home. If not for Hurricane Andrew, we probably would have stayed in Miami, and it wouldn’t have been as good.”
Now, he writes.
He plans to go to school to attain his master’s in fine arts in a low residency program as he continues to polish his writing.
“Now I ask God to bless my writing,” Stockdale said. “God is a healer. I love the academic milieu, and I feel like I need a tune-up. I need to get to know the new writers and I need to know what’s going on. I know the MFA program will sharpen me as a writer.”
He maintains a deep appreciation for the writing of Samuel Beckett, whose style has influenced his work.
“I do my writing by longhand,” Stockdale said. “I can’t concentrate with those stupid icons on a screen. It’s like putting my head into a digital blender and trying to feel the spirit. I can edit on a computer, but I can’t write poetry on one.”
Stockdale has written a novel, “Murder by Law,” and one of Stockdale’s poems, “The Old Barn,” placed first in the Sidney Lanier Poetry Competition last year. The poem looks back in time toward the Holocaust atrocities.
“Poetry allows us to leave out and elude to so much,” Stockdale said. “That which you leave out in words you can give in a way both metaphysical and spiritual. It was such a surprise to win, like winning the lottery, and it meant so much. I am going to write anyway, but how nice it has felt to have my work affirmed in this way. It’s very encouraging.”
He has joined the steering committee for the Lanier Library Poetry Festival, which will occur on April 26. Find out more information at
www.lanierlib.org/poetryfestival2014. He also happily promotes the Lanier Library Poetry Competition, www.lanierlib.org/sidney-lanier-poetry-competition.
“I’m very excited about it,” Stockdale said. “We have a lot of talent here. The festival will feature some great poets, like Cathy Smith Bowers and Mark Doty. We would like to put Tryon on the map for poetry. We have so many wonderful graphic artists and galleries, such an energetic community.”
Stockdale, who has achieved much in his life, insists that he has no remaining list of tasks to accomplish or dreams to achieve. Even as a child, he felt obligated to achieve, as if he had a responsibility to do so.
“I hate the bucket list concept,” he said. “It’s too finite. That concept does not belong in my spiritual vocabulary, because it limits what you can do, and I don’t believe in that. I know I want to write a great American poem for our time, and I haven’t written it – yet.”