Most little boys, arguably, don’t want to be poets when they grow up. James E. Tokley, however, comes pretty close.
At age three, he fell in love with the sound of words. He remembers the early epiphany at his grandmother’s side while she read to him in their rural Seaford, Del., home. He was captivated, he recalls, by the words “cantankerous cat” and fascinated by “rapscallion.” They were easy on the ear and fun to say.
He became a lifelong, voracious reader – and writer, including music.
Fast forward 44 years. It is 1996, and the former literature instructor at Delaware State University has been appointed Tampa’s first poet laureate by Mayor Dick Greco. Among his subsequent works: poems dedicated to the inaugurals of Mayors Greco and Pam Iorio as well as Florida Gov. Charlie Crist. Last year Tokley’s poem “Leviathan” bedecked the side of the Park Tower in downtown Tampa where, at 63 feet by 45 feet, it became the largest poem ever produced and posted in the history of literature. Other prominent Tokley works have been featured in forums ranging from the National Urban League Conference to a White House Millennium traveling exhibit.
“What a special gift he has,” says Greco. “He sees things that others miss and then captures them.”
The “gift,” says Tokley, 58, is a byproduct of diligent research in pursuit of a “personal or historical anchor.” Next step: going to the mental mattresses for “word-thing associations and analogies.” Then he entreats The Muse for the first line.
“When I get it, that’s the hook,” he says. “Then the endorphins kick in, and I’m in a sea of images.” After numerous drafts, the process concludes with the “litmus test”: his wife Joanna, who’s no poetic pushover. Sometimes it’s love at first reading; otherwise, her criticism is prefaced with the euphemistic “It needs seasoning.”
While Tokley’s love affair with the evocative power of words continues unabated, he does have a prosaic side. Man does not live by stipend and modest commissions alone. He owns Tokley & Associates, a human resource training and consulting agency.