A conversation with Tom C. Armstrong, Writer (as he invariably announces himself on the phone and on letterhead), is an animated foray into several layers of expression simultaneously unfurling. The man with that wild spume of sky-gray hair stokes a craggy baritone into crescendos of inflection. At the same time, he punctuates his words with furtive paraphrases in the florid grammar of American Sign Language. It is daughter Allison’s deafness that originally coaxed Armstrong’s fluency in this mode of communication. But how strikingly appropriate it is that even the mere gestures of Nashville’s “humble poet” acquire the unconscious rhythm and lyric effect of “signing.”
“People think that I’m conning them when I use this shtick about ‘your humble poet,’ ” he confesses, almost plaintively. “But I really mean it. Yes, I am a writer, and I have been for 40 to 50 years now. In fact, I first got anything published, believe it or not, in the late ’30s, as a kid. It was just one little thing. But by the time the Beatnik thing came down, I was starting to get published fairly regularlynot with any big success or anything. Still, I was on kind of a roll.
“Where I made my mistake is, one, I got greedy for money; two, I got the big head. I thought, hey, I can’t make a living with poetry, and the safest money is in script-writing. That’s where the wheels are, the power, the girls. So, I started doing script-writing.
“Well, as it’s turned out, that wasn’t me. If I had it to do over again, I wouldn’t change itI certainly wouldn’t be ‘me’ now. But I do sometimes wonder what might have happened back then if maybe somebody had said, ‘Tom, just stick with the poetry.’ No one did, and I have gone on to become a minor American writer. I am your humble poet. It’s what I am; it’s the thing that I actually take some pride in.”
Armstrong’s special knack as a poet is to snatch paradox from the jaws of malaprop. Even his avowed pride in humility is slyly calculated. For Armstrong is the master of the pregnant quip; the loaded, smoking pun; the sneaky insights that he affectionately calls his “shorties.” Like little candies of phrase, the best ones are sweet and tasty and easy to chew. The medicine they contain, however, is often timed to release a lingering, later delight:
(from Word-Whys From the Would-Pile, 1992)
(from Bytes & Bites, 1993)
“This isn’t to deprecate the giants of poetry, but I’m finding that kids today literally don’t give a damn about poetry and can’t tell you the name of any poet. We live in an age of sound-bites. Well, when I read my little shorties at colleges and universities, I notice the kids starting to glom on and really get into it. Given this kind of feedback, I guess my poems are considered sound-bites themselves.”
Armstrong gives the distinct impression of having livedor more accurately, forsakenseveral former lives. A self-described “Hollywood punk” of the ’60s and ’70s, he acknowledges the heady swirl of near-celebrity and fast money that accrued to him while writing for network television’s The Smothers Brothers Show. He smiles wryly about the 14 Cadillacs in 18 years; the sprawling ranch house in the San Fernando Valley, complete with pool and “exotic, botanical” garden. Then, with a wince, he recalls the resulting spin-out into alcohol and “doping.” Wresting back control of his life, Armstrong moved east to Tennessee to start anew with a clean sheet of paper.
“[Wife] Bev and I moved here Jan. 11, 1976,” he says, “and we’ve been here ever since. I came to Nashville to get heavily involved in songwriting. Now, I can’t sing a note; I can’t even sing ‘Happy Birthday.’ But I have long loved country music. And the reason that I do is because I love words. Country music allows songwriters to use words and analogies you wouldn’t find in grand opera, rock, pop, what have you.
“As a songwriter, I’ve had some cuts. But I’ve got friends who’ve had 90 and 100 songs cut, and occasionally in one of their songs they’ll have a thing that goes, ‘Ooo-ooo-ooo.’ Well, see, because I love the words, that throws me. Of course, I understand you sometimes have to do things like that for prosody. It’s just that because I can’t sing, and because I don’t necessarily think in musical terms, I hate the ‘ooo-ooos.’
“So I realize my shortcomings. I’m not cut out as a script-writer; I’m not cut out as a playwright; I’m not even a songwriter, really. I’m happiest when I’m working on something that involves only words, with a thought or with a piece of philosophy or theology or something about friendship. I’ve got my desk and my pad; and when I can wake up in the wee hours of the morning and do a little shortie first thing, well, I just feel good about that. It’s a wonderful thing for a writer to say, ‘This may not be much, but it’s the very best that I think I’m capable of doing.’ ”
As many Nashville writers know, what Armstrong is uniquely capable of doing goes far beyond the personal task of weaving new shorties into a next book nearing completion, Bottom Lines and Other Curves. He is a tireless exhorter and encourager of his Nashville peers who have chosen to eke a livelihood by the written word. Characteristically perhaps, he both applauds and puzzles over a Nashville writing community whose denizens don’t always manage to acknowledge their own interests in common.
“I really believe there is a literary community in Nashville,” Armstrong stresses. “We have novelists; we have television writers; we have screenwriters now; we have short-story writers; we have poets. And many, I think, can go on to become major figuressome of them are already major figures. Well, I think this is a sadly overlooked element of Nashville’s overall character. Sure, in addition to calling ourselves Music City USA, there’s the phrase ‘Athens of the South.’ But I don’t hear a lot of people emphasizing this aspect of our city. Maybe it’s because people tend to think that songs are the only things that get written here, and they just don’t read between the lines.”
Tom C. Armstrong reads at the “Poet’s Corner,” 2 p.m. Oct. 9 at Legislative Plaza in conjunction with the 10th Annual Southern Festival of Books.
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