Acclaimed poet, teacher, abstract artist, baseball player, and champion for victims of child abuse, James Humphrey (February 20, 1939-May 21, 2008) didn’t fit a simple classification. In his life and through his work, Humphrey strived to break barriers.
A victim of brutal child abuse from ages 5-16, Humphrey lived most of his life enduring physical torment. In his 30s, chronic spinal and sciatica pain stabbed at Humphrey and it increasingly dragged at him for the rest of his life. The agony from his childhood and the physical pain he endured became a focus of much of his work as he wrote to gain balance in his life and search for universal joys and truths. Writing with a non-conformist literary attitude, Humphrey uprooted his painful experiences to say something—sometimes so personal—it hurt to read. As Charles Bukowski (1920-1994) said, “Humphrey’s poems—believe them. He’s lived them. He knows that pain and suffering bloom like eternal flowers. He knows that trying is the one thing we have left.”
“Humphrey searched his horrific life experiences to say something—sometimes so personal—it hurt to read.”
With heavy snow falling in Sioux City, Iowa, Humphrey was nearly born in a taxicab in 1939. Spending most of his childhood relocating, he lived in 17 different states and attended 15 different schools. Mother and father were divorced by the time he was five and shortly thereafter, mother married stepfather, a Supply Sergeant in the United States Air Force. The military was his career and reason for the constant moving. Physically and mentally abused by his alcoholic stepfather—he was beaten at least once a week. Humphrey suffered through his childhood without support or protection from his mother or distant father.
On the first day of school, in first grade, it was evident, Humphrey stuttered. It was nearly impossible for him to read aloud in class. He also walked pigeon toed. He spent his first school year as invisible as he could, and failed first grade. A caring teacher, Mrs. Smith, noticed young Humphrey and tutored him during the summer. She became such a friend that he never forgot her. Later, on his own, practicing to speak and read without hesitation, Humphrey gained confidence as he read the daily sports pages aloud to himself during his newspaper routes. In this way, he discovered and learned about major league baseball and began to keep track of players and teams, dreaming of batting clean up for the St. Louis Cardinals.
“When I get big, I’m going to be a writer.”
As he listened to his mother and stepfather battle once again, eight year-old Humphrey, watched the sunset during the early summer in Sioux City, sitting outside on a step at a relative’s house. Suddenly the rear door of the house slammed and his younger sister, Judy, bolted around the corner and faced her brother—crying. He soothed her and they watched the sinking sun together. A few minutes later, Humphrey said something like, “When I get big, I’m going to be a writer.”
At nine, he was infected with Polio in both arms and legs. When the boy was diagnosed, doctors told him he might never walk again but after six months in the hospital he was released—and he ran all the way home.
Noting his stepson’s physical strength and athleticism, stepfather taught Humphrey to box. However, the training was done for stepfather’s personal gain only. As he progressed, young Humphrey was taken to boxing meets where his stepfather forced him to fight other boys older and heavier, so that he could wager on his underdog stepson—and win money, which he kept for himself. If Humphrey refused to box, his stepfather would beat him. With natural talent, Humphrey excelled in most any athletic activity that he tried. He set records for track and field events at the schools he attended and was a multitalented baseball player and was prospected in high school by college and professional trainers. When Humphrey was 13, after knocking out the South Dakota featherweight champion, he declined an offer from legendary boxing trainer Angelo Dundee to train at his facility. He said boxing wasn’t what he wanted to do.
“…when Humphrey was physically strong enough at 17, he beat up his stepfather and left home…. It was 1956 and he never saw them again.”
Stepfather would ridicule Humphrey for any academic or athletic success—large or small—and usually “reward” him with a beating. When he earned money from his paper routes, he would be forced to leave the earnings for stepfather. Even more severe, stepfather would threaten him at knifepoint—announcing he would cut off his fingers—if he didn’t obey. Along the way, principals and teachers from the schools where Humphrey attended would discuss opportunities for him to live with foster parents but his mother and stepfather never consented. So, when Humphrey was physically strong enough at 17, he beat up his stepfather and left home in Arizona. It was 1956 and he never saw them again.
He went back to Waterloo, Iowa, where he attempted to reenter high school for his senior year but because he didn’t live with a legal guardian, he was deleted from the student roster. Soon, he enlisted in the Air Force and spent barely over a year in service. Stationed in Greenland, with a roof over his head, Humphrey enjoyed eating regularly and having clean clothes, but the extreme environment was difficult. One night he was found, in a field, unconscious. He was taken to the hospital to recover from hypothermia and later released from service on a medical discharge.
Back in Waterloo, working menial jobs, living in poverty and with his health waning in 1957, Humphrey wrote his first poem, “A Fallen Man Searching”. “The intention was to define myself in a single piece,” Humphrey would write in the preface of In Tribute to Survivors, 30 years later, “before starving or freezing to death.” It was published in Lyrical Iowa the following spring. Had it not been for poetry and the written word, Humphrey probably wouldn’t have made it past 18.
“…he bought pencils and paper (he couldn’t afford a typewriter), and began to serve his self-described writing apprenticeship…”
With a published poem, Humphrey didn’t suddenly think of himself as a writer. However, deep in his gut, Humphrey did know three things: he didn’t want to become like his stepfather, he didn’t want to live in poverty; and, the third, he would say, couldn’t be put into words. It was something that he felt—every so often—unknown, but good—warm. As he worked at his writing, he began to glimpse—that—something good. He discovered he wanted to be a poet. Following through, he bought pencils and paper (he couldn’t afford a typewriter), and began to serve his self-described writing apprenticeship—personally known as “writing at writing poems in free verse” and put words on paper, discovering his creative ability and imagination.
At 19, Humphrey married his first wife and was separated from her after the first year during which she delivered two baby girls—one white, one black. Separated, and with the babies in his care, Humphrey gave himself to parenting—feeding, clothing, nurturing—for nearly three years, until the marriage was finally, legally dissolved and custody was granted to the mother, as was society’s norm. During this time, Humphrey continued to work—construction, meatpacking, truck driver—to support the babies and himself. At 20, he was severely injured when a large block of cement fell on his left leg, permanently damaging his knee. It took nearly a year for him to recover and walk without crutches. Humphrey persevered, learning through painful experience how to feel a moment and in turn, work at writing raw memory and emotion into something contemplative and bitterly passionate. Through writing, he was learning, he could find dignity, hope and courage, as he rose above the scars from his childhood and living in poverty.
After the divorce, he took a job at Trigger’s Pool Room on West Fourth Street in Waterloo. Dick Triggs, a three-time state pool champion, owned the establishment and employed Humphrey for general duties and overseeing and dealing poker games in the back room. Humphrey found satisfaction working at the pool hall. He enjoyed the characters he met and on slow days/nights he would write in the basement, sitting on boxes of catsup under a bare light bulb—finally using a typewriter. He imbibed on these experiences and they would remain significant to him throughout his life, resulting in poems and stories about survival and beating the odds.
One day, in 1965, after stumbling over her suitcases in the hallway of the apartment building where he lived, Humphrey started dating Norma Van Vooren. New to the building, he helped the attractive young woman move into her apartment. She told him she was raised on her family’s farm in a nearby county located in Amish country and was a college student in her junior year studying Library Science at the University of Northern Iowa. They enjoyed each other’s company as they courted and on February 28, 1966, they married and in December 1966, their only child, son Saroyan—named after William Saroyan—was born.
They continued living in Waterloo, as Norma finished her final year of college and Humphrey continued writing. Upon graduation, she accepted a job at Marshalltown Community College as assistant librarian. And, later in 1968, Humphrey declared his writing apprenticeship complete with over 600 fully realized poems and 30 short stories as final drafts. In Marshalltown, Humphrey taught his first poetry writing workshops. While teaching, he also produced a notable poetry anthology, captain may i, with Ted Berrigan as guest poet. A practicing painter, he also painted murals for local businesses to earn extra money. Ready to leave Iowa, a year later, the family moved to East Falmouth, Massachusetts, found a furnished rental house and relocated to remote Green Pond a few miles from the Atlantic Ocean on Cape Cod.
“His book, nominated for a Pulitzer Prize in poetry, entered Humphrey into the ring of contemporary free verse poets, including Robert Creeley, Donald Hall, and Andrew Glaze…”
Humphrey’s first volume of poetry Argument for Love, published in 1970 by Kendall Press of Falmouth, was met with praise from established writers including William Saroyan. He said, “I think Humphrey’s stuff is getting it, getting the idea—that living is the first poem, and getting that understood in simple true words is the second,” His book, nominated for a Pulitzer Prize in poetry, entered Humphrey into the ring of contemporary free verse poets, including Robert Creeley, Donald Hall, and Andrew Glaze, who also became friends. Living on the East Coast was expanding Humphrey’s world as he continued to teach and read his work at grade schools, colleges and universities around the U.S. with grants from the National Endowment for the Arts. But because he lacked a college degree, he was not able to get a full time teaching position.
In 1972, two chapbooks, An Homage The End of Some More Land, and The Visitor were published and the family moved from Falmouth to Attleboro, Massachusetts, where Norma accepted a job as a reference librarian in the public school system. Leaving Cape Cod was difficult for Humphrey and by the end of 1974, the NEA-funded poetry readings and workshops were fading. The United States was caught in the oil crisis, and the economy was headed toward recession. It was also the year that Humphrey began recovering from alcoholism.
In 1975, the Attleboro Public School system commissioned Humphrey to write the Teaching Poetry in the Schools curriculum. Met with enthusiasm, the 61-page teaching plan was adapted by other school districts in New England and around the U.S. At the same time, he gained confidence and made a bold step in furthering his own education: For the first time, Humphrey entered college as a student. In the fall he began at Rhode Island College, studying English and creative writing. Two semesters later, he began studies at Brown University. Proving his commitment during his first year, Brown allowed Humphrey to bypass undergraduate classes, based on the strength of his published work and years of teaching. So, in less than three years, he earned a combined BA/MA in English/Creative Writing. At age 38, in June 1977, Humphrey graduated with distinction.
During this time, Humphrey was besieged by a new demon that would stay with him for the rest of his life. In spring 1976, as he bent over, three discs ruptured in his lower back. He could barely move. To recuperate, doctors suggested he stay in bed for as much as 20-22 hours per day and move very slowly. Since he was a recovering alcoholic, he didn’t want heavy medication. Mindfully eating healthy and staying busy, to work through the pain, Humphrey continued his studies and at the same time, became more experimental with his work. He adapted his poem, “The Chance,” into a 28-minute movie, filmed entirely on super-8—state of the art—at the time. He also wrote several one-act plays, one of which was produced at Brown. In satirizing, the U.S. Bicentennial in 1976, Humphrey wrote, “Congratulations, John and Jane Allbright, on Winning Seventeen Million, Seventy-Six Dollars in the Largest Lottery Drawing in the History of the United States, July 4th, 1976,” a surreal look at consumerism. Too, The Re-Learning, a second volume of poetry was published, revealing a new chapter in Humphrey’s life.
“Writing in prose and free verse, Humphrey explored his childhood and early adulthood for the first time with this body of work.”
For four years, after graduating from Brown, Humphrey took a step away from academia. Supporting his nine year-old son’s love for auto racing and desire to be a race car driver, Humphrey helped foster his son’s dream as Norma and he purchased a quarter midget (scaled-down race cars designed for five-15 year-olds) for his son to race. During 1977-’80, the family traveled to and raced at organized competitions around the East Coast, and beyond. Young Humphrey performed well, too, consistently winning races, as he got a taste of competitive driving—and it made the family happy and proud.
Racing was a far cry from the poetry world but Humphrey continued writing (and even wrote extensively about racing) with conviction as he worked on his autobiography, Abuse (unpublished). Writing in prose and free verse poetry, Humphrey explored his childhood and early adulthood for the first time with this body of work. It was acknowledged with prestigious poetry awards from the National Institute of Arts and Letters, and the PEN American Center Award in 1980 and ’81.
With the promise of a poetry teaching position at Colorado College, the family moved from Attleboro to Woodland Park, CO, near Colorado Springs, high in the Rocky Mountains, in summer 1981. But in the fall, classes were cancelled due to budget cuts and low enrollment. Struggling to make ends meet, the family stayed in Colorado for less than a year before they moved to Greensboro, NC, in April 1982, where Norma took a Reference Librarian position at the University of North Carolina-Greensboro.
“With obvious spinal deformation, doctors confirmed that the damage was caused by abuse years earlier—the ultimate result of childhood beatings.”
The physical pain continued to get worse for Humphrey. X-rays and tests showed continuing deterioration of vertebrae throughout spine, along with fusing lumbar and growing calcium deposits. With obvious deformation, doctors confirmed that the damage was caused by abuse years earlier, the ultimate result of childhood beatings. Looking for internal hope, to combat the pain, Humphrey began to swim at the UNC-G swimming pool to build physical and mental strength. His deep fear was to be in a wheelchair, crippled, for Humphrey, a sign of defeat.
Published in 1984, In New York City Air, dedicated to the recent passing of Ted Berrigan; and In Tribute to Survivors, chapbooks, show Humphrey drawing from personal experience, both recent and past, and inter-weaving current experience to create a linear narrative. Also, illustrated by his son, now a teenager, with abstract gesture drawings, Humphrey collaborated with him, marking the beginning of a life-long publishing partnership between the two. His son would continue to be involved in all of his father’s subsequent books as designer.
A breakthrough in 1986, After I’m Dead, Will My Life Begin? was published. It marked the first published writing about Humphrey’s abusive childhood and day-to-day struggle to be a poet as he remembered major and small experiences from his life to create illuminated scenes and flashes of distant and recent memory about suffering, anger, love, humor and faith. Published in 1988, The Athlete is a continuation of After I’m Dead. Humphrey continued to delve deeper into his childhood, emotional scars and expanded on his dreams of being a baseball star, instead of a poet.
Oh, the pleasures of being down but not out.
In July 1988, Jim and Norma left North Carolina and moved to Yonkers, NY, where Norma continued advancing her career, taking a reference librarian position with the Westchester County library system. Living near New York City and searching for refuge in the snarling New York suburb, the couple moved several times before finally making home overlooking the Hudson River at Greystone.
Over the next 12 years, Humphrey wrote prolifically, publishing eight volumes of poetry, and numerous un-produced screenplays inspired by his poetry. He wrote while his physical health worsened with acute arthritis and he lost sight in his left eye. He sought inspiration from visits to the Midwest, where he’d tour to reconnect with positive memories from his Midwestern roots. Ice (1989) began a four-book series where the poet explored the seasons of the year. Written in a spare, haiku-like style, the poems, about winter, relayed crystallized observations in concise stanzas. “Zen poems,” he called them. Continuing in the same style, the next book, Bud, focused on spring, farm life—and Charles Van Vooren—Norma’s father, a farmer, who died in 1956. In part three, Siz (sizzling summer sun), Humphrey interprets, the effects of a summer drought on fictional farmland characters, creating a linear story using free verse and prose. The final collection, Léf, explores autumn,—the harvest—and more characters brought to life through Humphrey’s imaginative and introspective free verse.
Published in 1998, Mize & Kathy is a book-length freeform poem, which explores the experiences of two young people discovering intimacy, love and death as Humphrey uses the seasons as a background. During the same year, Paying the Price was published—a poetry collection using multiple styles, as Humphrey continued with a sparse autobiographical thread. With the writing and publication of In Pursuit of Honor in 2000, Humphrey was hopeful, yet bitter, as he channeled his athletic dreams for baseball legend and the continued disintegration of his health.
“In a visual sense, his words had become brush strokes and color mixes.”
In the new millennium, Humphrey led a day-to-day struggle with arthritic pain throughout his body, and he began writing less consistently, finally writing hardly more than a few poems per year. He endured numerous lumbar epidural steroid injections for relief of pain. But the relief was mostly short lived. Humphrey gave himself to drawing and painting abstractly. He escaped in color as he painted with so much vigor that his writing room was sprayed with dots of brightly colored paint. In a sense, his words had become brush strokes and color mixes. Some of the titles for the paintings became poetic, as well.
When he heard the poetry muse again, during 2005, Humphrey compiled 40 years of his writing to publish his 17th book, Naked Poems Selected and New 1969-2006, a 350-page, career-encompassing volume of work, with poems gathered from all of Humphrey’s books. It also contained new poems, some bitter and dark, others nostalgic and some still showing a poet looking for joy in small things. With its publication, Humphrey celebrated and read publicly for the first and final time since 1975 in Yonkers and Cape Cod.
With his collection published, Humphrey continued to paint prolifically and opened gallery shows of his work in Yonkers and Hastings-on-Hudson, New York. He would say that he approached painting the same way that he approached a poem: feeling the paint, color and texture with his emotions and “let it just happen.” He spent the last months of his life working at promoting an upcoming show, and getting work ready for exhibit.
With his latest paintings hanging at a gallery a few miles away, he unexpectedly died of cardiac arrest at his home on May 21, 2008.
Although Humphrey wanted to be a professional athlete, instead of a poet with physical limitations, he ultimately wanted his work to give courage to others suffering a similar plight—and a reason to keep fighting. With his work he was able to shine a light in the darkness from which, he hoped, a less abusive, kinder, more aware world could evolve.
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