On the lam with poet Tony Medina

Tony Medina sweeps into the Japanese steak house with the old Vapors song on his lips: “I think I’m turning Japanese, I think I’m turning Japanese, I really think so.” Even as he sings, he swoops around the end of our long table to hug his former mentor, the poet Maria Gillan, sitting at the far end. In the background, a fireball fwooshes up from one of the other grills across the room.

Our own chef has not yet started to cook. We’ve been waiting for Medina, the guest of honor, who’s back here in Binghamton, New York, for a brief writing residency at his alma mater. “He needed pants,” Gillan had told us a few minutes earlier, when Medina called to let us know he was running late. “He’s at Boscov’s, trying on pants.”

This is how Medina’s homecoming gets announced, with great good humor and the smell of sizzle in the air.

Medina, who just made full professor at Howard University at the start of the semester, has a new book of poems out, although the work covers some old ground. Much of it had been written ten years ago as Medina’s dissertation.

9/11 had just happened. Medina’s father, a victim of chronic high blood pressure, had just died unexpectedly. Medina had just relocated from Harlem to Binghamton to restart life at 35 as a college student. That tempest of experiences combined to inform the poems that would become My Old Man Was Always on the Lam.

“But I always felt like something was missing,” Medina explains to one of Gillan’s classes the morning after the steakhouse. “The narrative arc of the book focuses on my father. My mother was missing, though. I didn’t know enough about my real mother to complete the story.”

You have to get that other side of the story, he says. “You might not remember it from memories and stuff,” he says, “so you have to sometimes create that other narrative.”

Medina, born a heroin baby, was abandoned by his mother as an infant. “It’s easy to say, ‘Oh, she left her little heroin baby, her wheezing asthma baby,’” he says. “It’s harder to ask ‘What dreams did she have?”

Medina’s father, also on drugs, couldn’t take care of him, either:

My old man was always on the lam
From love & life from family & me
Ran the streets like they was a

Treadmill & he, Richard Simmons,
Charles Atlas or Jack LaLanne
Ran through women like they was

The Holland Tunnel & he, a little
Red Corvette….

So, Medina’s paternal grandmother raised him. “She had raised nine kids of her own—all of whom had the same father,” Medina says. “That was ‘old school.’ She raised those kids and some of her kids’ kids, and some of them gave her grief, and some of us turned out okay.”

He describes her as the “Last of the Big Mamas.” She’s visible only occasionally, appearing in poems like “My Father’s Mother Was My Mother” and “My Grandmother Had One Good Coat,” but her presence moves through the background of My Old Man like a pressure wave.

It was the “abundance of love, an atmosphere of love” that his grandmother offered, Medina says, that allowed him to open his heart—and his house—to his mother during the last year of her life, when she was terminally ill, even though they’d had only a sporadic relationship for forty years.

“Even though she abandoned me as a baby, when I needed her at the beginning of my life, I didn’t abandon her when she needed me at the end of hers,” he says. “I didn’t hold her feet to the fire for not being there for me.”

Instead, he took advantage of the chance to learn “her side of the story,” which then allowed him to tell it as part of his own story through his poems.

* * * * *

The narrative arc of My Old Man follows the sudden decline and death of Medina’s father, then shifts to the unresolved relationship Medina has with his mother. In the collection’s final movement, the two find closure before she, too, passes away.

“I had been prepared, psychologically, for my grandmother to go,” he admits. “You know, she’s older, you just sort of get ready for that to happen. But my father—I wasn’t ready for that.”

In “My Father Is a Brown Scar,” Medina captures the heartbreak of seeing his diminished father in the hospital. “My father is a beanbag slumped in a corner,” Media writes,

His mouth wrenched open
To received holy communion
From the world of medicine
And science, the world
Of mechanical breathing
And silence.

Medina eventually faced the decision of whether to take his father off life support. “As a Marxist/Leninist, religion wasn’t really on the table for me,” he says. “But I was holding out to the end. ‘Any miracle could happen,’ I said. ‘Let’s see what happens.’”

The final moment comes, in the book, as a question from a bed-ridden, tube-filled father: “Is this it? Is this how it all ends? I don’t even get a chance to get my shit together and go out with some dignity?

* * * * *

Medina is best known for his political poetry and, in a much different capacity, for his children’s books, which include biographies of Langston Hughes and Bob Marley written as sequences of poems. His work appears in more than forty anthologies, and he’s compiled a couple of his own, including Bum Rush the Page: A Def Poetry Jam. He’s published sixteen books in all.

“He’s truly an American poet,” Gillan says of him. He writes from the gut, she explains. Place is integral to his work.

By the time Medina arrived at Binghamton in 2001, he’d already established a reputation for himself as a poet—well enough that he’d been able to adjunct for eight years at Long Island University’s campus in Brooklyn with only a bachelor’s degree. Adjuncting promised a dead-end academic career, though, so he sought out a program to “get my credentials and shit.”

That’s when Gillan snatched him up.

Taking a full schedule and piling summer classes on top of that, Medina earned his master’s and then his doctorate in two years—reputedly the fastest anyone has ever moved through the program.

“Some people gave him shit. They said, ‘That’s not fair,’” Gillan recalls. She laughs. “Not fair? Could it just be that he’s brilliant? ‘What’s not fair is that he’s smarter than you—that’s what’s not fair.’ Gimme a break.”

In fact, during his final semester, Medina’s work attracted the attention of the English Department at Howard University, which created the first-ever faculty position in creative writing especially for him. The job was waiting for him by the time he finished his dissertation—which happened to win the university’s distinguished dissertation award that year.

The poems in that collection incubated for nearly a decade before seeing print as My Old Man Is Always on the Lam in 2010. Nightshade Press published a small run—and then went out of business. “It had nothing to do with me!” Medina laughs. New York Quarterly Press picked it up and issued the current edition.

“Poetry had always been something strange to me when I was in school,” he says. “It’s like, ‘That’s poetry, and you don’t understand it, and you’re dumb.’ So I was like, ‘Fuck this shit. It’s too hard!’”

But Daniel Keyes’ Flowers for Algernon had turned him on to the power of words. “The book reeled me in like a big fish,” Medina says. He read it straight through over a single weekend. “I thought, ‘Wow, I want to be able to create worlds with words. I want that,’” he says.

A first-place win in a school poetry contest set his course as a poet. He fed his head full of Dylan Thomas, Hart Crane, Emily Dickenson, Langston Hughes, and others. They taught him rhythm and the music of language and how to immerse himself in the moment.

“You’re going to regret those times you wasted by not being present,” he tells an auditorium full of students who show up to hear him read on his last night on campus. “Unplug. Deal with the silences. Don’t be afraid of the voices in your head. The Muse is the voice in your head the rest of us can’t hear.

“I’m not talking about your schizophrenia,” he adds, triggering laughter through the hall.

He tells them to develop their listening skills. He tells them to engage art. Most of all, he tells them to read. “You’ve gotta read. You’ve gotta read,” he says. “Study the masters. It shows you what’s out there, what’s come before you, what you can do and what you can add to all that.”

After the reading, a few of us go out for five-dollar martinis. “Did that go okay?” he asks. “Did that go all right?” Medina orders extra olives and leans forward against the bar. The sweeping energy he’s maintained ever since he sang his way into Kampai on Saturday night has finally settled. He still brims with plenty of laughter, but I now get glimpses of his quietude, too.

By the time we leave, fog has started to rise from the Susquehanna River and spill through the streets of downtown. Sites once familiar loom out of the mist even as they loom out of memory—but then something snaps into place and Medina sees each thing clearly. The library. A church. The Forum.

It’s been ten years since he’s seen any of this. He’ll return to D.C. in the morning, but already he’s talking about coming back.

Tony Medina is no longer on the lam.