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Friday, December 18, 2015

Book Review/ Interview: J.W. Gardner IN THE SHADOW OF THE BOMB. Lummox Press, San Pedro, 2015 (229 pages).

Joe Gardner, 40, lives in East Lakewood, California and In the Shadow of the Bomb is his first full-length collection of poetry. The book consists of 135 free verse narrative poems. The writing is characteristically first person and recount memorable experiences from Gardner’s life. The tone is candid and colloquial and poem by poem, section by section, Gardner reveals different perspectives, new layers of meaning to help the reader to connect with his world and to understand the poet more intimately.

In his preface, Gardner pays tribute to his late father Lee Gardner (1949-2008). When Joe was about 14 he showed his dad his fledging attempts at writing and drawing. Lee’s response to his son’s “generic macabre imagery” was, “Why don’t you paint me a sunset? Write to me about a dog finally coming up on some luck? Give me something I can find identity in, something I can understand. Tell me about living a real life.”

Gardner’s work is solidly entrenched in the real, in lived experience, however messy, and unresolved. As Gardner explains in the preface, “Now, here I am, 40 years old and I’m repeating my father’s words; trying to tell you what this is all about. I write about what I know. I write about the last 40 years of life I’ve seen.” 

In the extended interview with Gardner which follows this review, he states clearly his intentions in putting this book together, "This book was like a greatest hits of the last forty years. I wanted to write a book that the kind of people I grew up knowing would be able to read and get. My stories/ poems are nothing new or unique. For a whole segment of America, hell a whole generation, this is just living. Just how things are. So I wanted to tell those stories."

The title In the Shadow of the Bomb derives from the title poem in Part 1: The San Joaquin Valley. Gardner says that his was the last generation to grow up “in the shadow of the bomb.” They grew up in front of a television which taught them fear and in the process their parents "squandered our future away” and never gave them a chance. In the interview he is more scathing about how the baby boomers stuffed things up for his generation, "Baby boomers dropped the ball. Dumped my generation onto grandparents and the state and had their party. Our infrastructure is falling apart. Our living wage jobs are being outsourced to either technology or to 'more lucrative labor markets'. My people, all these people from so many different backgrounds and cultures and places, they used to be innovators and builders and workers. We used to build things. We used to be the people who did the impossible. Now it seems we've all been turned into mindless, sightless cave fish consumers."

The cover illustration was painted by Gardner and displays an inverted American flag with what appears to be in the foreground a homeless person sleeping on a green park bench wrapped in the stars & stripes. He says of the cover, "It is meant to express a lot of different things. From Veteran homelessness to the 22 a day we lose to suicide, to being shunned and mistreated by the VA, to being Generation X, the Baby Boomers forgotten burden who grew up in the shadow of their bomb." 

The book is loosely chronological in structure and is divided into five distinct parts of approximately forty pages, each of which represent different periods in Gardner’s life. Most of the first four chapters were written over a 20 year period while Part 5 was written between 2011 and 2015.

Part 1: The San Joaquin Valley

This section covers some of Gardner’s earliest memories. There is a pervading tone of nostalgic gloom as the poet recollects growing up in the 1980s in the working poor area. The opening poem ‘The End of the Grapevine’ cleverly establishes the context by explicitly giving the reader directions on how to find the valley and what you may see along the way. In subsequent poems, Gardner describes his first house, the park he smoked his first joint and kissed his first girl, and he also includes several poems in which he describes the vicious school bullying which made his life a misery as a young boy.

Despite the grimness of growing up in California, Gardner provides us with a few sympathetic portrait poems of friends and relatives who gave him a helping hand through the debris. These include ‘Keep Up’, a tribute to his grandfather, Mr. Paul Wieber; ‘Mrs. Rose’, about his Grade 4/5 teacher who gave him hope and ‘My Friend With The Guitar’ about his friend & mentor Crazy Joe Riley.

Perhaps the best poem in this section is ‘Childhood Heroes’ in which Gardner describes the outlaw tattooed bikies “on their iron horses. ” He sees them as an inspiration for his later young adult quest for freedom:

It was during this time
That I found my hunger
To be wild
To be free
To be like these savages

Answering to no man

The narrative perspective of this collection is worth noting. Gardner presents a dual perspective on events. He reveals his feelings as a child and as a young adult but these perceptions are layered by his more mature views as a 40 year-old adult. As Gardner aptly writes in ‘Crossing Guard,’ everything eventually percolates in the brew of his creation:

Funny how things change but stay the same
But somehow still seem to go away.

I don’t know, one day it’s all right there
And then in the hustle of it all
The Army, two failed marriages, the booze
And always, always chasing my thoughts with my pen

In this collection there is never a straightforward recount of past events as Gardner constantly re-evaluates his experiences in the light of his present reality. He yearns for a simpler and more naïve time when there were no meth labs, no seatbelts laws, no cell phones nor video games. A simpler time as in ‘Flying Back Then’ when a kid could be brought to the cockpit by a pretty stewardess and sit with the pilot and fly a jet plane to his delight.

Part 2: ELKWD

ELKWD is an acronym for East Lakewood, a southern suburb of Los Angeles embodying the American Dream, created after World War 2 where Gardner moved to after his family left the San Joaquin Valley in the late 1980s. The poems in this section largely deal with Gardner’s exploration of his teenage haunts- such as Lloyd’s Pets, his introduction to the work place- washing dishes in a pizza joint, selling newspaper subscriptions and his search for identity which is shaped through a heady teenage recklessness. 

Good green bud, getting wasted on booze, sitting in a garage arguing who is the better band "GNR or Metallica or/ Sex Pistols or M.O.D" or having to listen to the hypocritical rant of a pastor after an acquaintance blows his brains away are all seminal moments in Gardner's quest for maturity. 
In ‘Troubadour’ Gardner takes a swing at the lead singer of a band & is lucky “to get out alive.” Returning home in the back of his friend Pat’s pickup he is euphoric, “I never had felt so alive.” In ‘Mi Amores’ a mate sticks a gun in his face and he is so drunk he doesn’t understand the danger he is in. He can’t stop laughing after he is caught “making out with a girl/ In the restroom” of a restaurant as he realises that “none of it really matters.” In ‘Old Cats and Hustle’ he and his buddies truant school and skateboard to Cerritos Mall to gawk at the girls and later make their way to Hard Times Billards to check out the old hustlers looking cool shooting stick.

A significant poem which marks an important transitional moment in Gardner’s life from innocence to maturity is ‘2 Counts of Felony Assault’ which surprises the reader. The poem relates how the author is charged with a serious offence in Los Padrinos Juvenile Court when he is 16 in defence of his sister.

In the meantime, Gardner is writing it all down, re-imagining the romance of the drunken writer, 'In ‘Freshman Year Artesia High School’ the persona, presumably Gardner, reckons he spent most of high school in a fantasy, drunk “in love/ With the romance / Of the drunken writer// I wanted / The grand adventure/ Of Hemingway and Chinaski,” the later being the alter-ego Charles Bukowski created for many of his poems and stories.

Part 3: ’93 To the Falling Towers

This is perhaps the most interesting section in the book because it credibly represents the most tumultuous period in Gardner’s life between 1993 to 2001. In the four opening poems, including the extended tome ‘Military,’ he traces his involvement as a young adult in Airborne Field Artillery between 1993-1996. Gardner is naïve when he joins, “My patriotism/ Was a hard dick/ Of imagined glory.” At Fort Bragg he becomes disillusioned with the “Body bag parade/ Dressed in flags, honors, medals.” In “Bar Fighting With Mullets’ he describes in a night out in North Carolina how he is knocked out by a fire extinguisher in a wild brawl with the locals.

Gardner doesn’t find much glory in serving his country but in the interview which follows he states he is proud of his achievements, "It was a lot of fun and a lot of work and was the single best thing I have ever done for myself. I enjoyed the discipline, the structure of everything. Everyone had a job, had something to do. You knew your place and you knew everything was earned. With hard work and integrity a motivated individual can advance rapidly." Considering Gardner's staunch commitment to "the only Airborne Heavy Artillery Unit in the world," I would have liked to have read more poems about his involvement in the unit in this collection.

The most powerful poems in the collection arguably are ‘June 8th 1996’, ‘ Peeling’ and ‘One Bad Trip’ which describe a home invasion, a brutal kidnapping and how Gardner, at 21, was pistol-whipped and flung himself out of a speeding truck at 65 miles an hour and the terrible pain he had to endure in his recovery. The writing is experimental, impressionistic in its accretion of details.

This section also focuses on his dysfunctional relationship with his first wife. In ‘The Show’ the persona has all his clothes tossed out into the front yard in black trash bags, and from the back seat of a cop car, he notices his “house of love” has burnt to the ground. In ‘Telling Lies’ after another domestic,  he is shackled up in the back of a squad car and starts laughing. He tells the cop:

We’re gonna be doing this again
Come next Friday night
When I get paid again
She gets sick
Of her parents

Other important themes in this section include pill popping, drinking, suicidal thoughts, fear of the crowd and the need to escape. The metaphorical poems ‘Desperation’ and ‘The Front Yard of My Mind’ skilfully reveal this on-going personal struggle between hope & despair.

Part 4: 9 Years Adrift

Between 2001-2010 Gardner left California and tried to start his life anew. He travelled around "the better part of America," including the deep South and San Francisco.  It appears that seven of these years were spent in Idaho working for a while as a granite fabricator. '7 Days A Week' and 'Granite Fabricator's Son' are working class hymns to the filthy, back-breaking toil that he had to endure. 

In the early years of his self-imposed exile, Gardner works hard at manual jobs, writes confessional poetry and drinks heavily. The poems 'Fabled Excess Path', 'White Lies', 'Drunk and remembering Denver Joe' and 'Back Monday' point unfavourably to Gardner's out-of-control excesses.

Also prevalent in this section is Gardner's description of his love/ hate relationship with his partner/s and how self -destructive his behaviour has become as he totters on the edge. ‘Drunk Dial’, ‘Agree With Her’, ‘Psych Meds,’ and especially ‘Roller Coaster’ recount his venomous bile and his descent into rage and frustration. 

Gardner temporarily attends AA Meetings and dries out. In the poems ‘Serenity’ and ‘Me and Jim’ he demonstrates a commitment to clean up his act and to sweat the “sin out”. Yet he despises the constant babble, “the ego tripping bullshit” of the AA meetings and in ‘Leaving Serenity’ he finally relapses into his "own Mouth of Madness,” away from the prodding help of others.

Part 5: 20 Years Later

In the last section of the book, we are dropped into Gardner's life, post 2011. He returns to his old neighbourhood of East Lakewood much calmer and more stable this time. Many landmarks from his youth have vanished and initially he feels like a tourist. In ’18 Years’ he says, “It’s like seeing family and friends/ After being gone for 18 years.” Yet now in the revisiting of his past, he realises that his life now has real purpose and meaning:

Now I sit on the porch
In this beautiful backyard
At that same house
Waiting for my woman
To come home
So we can walk
Through the old neighborhood park
And ease the night away
With a good dark beer

Other poems such as ‘Drive Sober’, ‘Butterfly Kisses’ and ‘Listening to You’ elaborate further on his love for his new woman.

Gardner also writes poems in tribute to his late father Lee Gardner; including, ‘One of These Days’, ‘Old Photographs’, ‘Bullhead Catfish’ , ‘Listening to Joe Cocker’, ‘Funeral’ and ’37 Years of Memories.’

Gardner loves the sense of belonging he feels in returning to East Lakewood and quickly reintegrates into his local community. He becomes involved in poetry readings and appears to appreciate the more simple pleasures of life. The poem 'Long Beach Harbor' wonderfully evokes a sense of place of the harbour and it uses the central metaphor of human heart to show the fusion between the "endless flow" of human activity and the growing skyline. The poem won the Joe Hill Poetry Award for 2013:

(2013 Joe Hill Poetry Award Recipient Poem)

Bellowing of ships horn
The low constant rumbling
Of heavy trains grumbling
Of new products and labors born
Steel rebar and concrete
Sinewy muscles
Contract moving
Groaning bone protests
 Another building
Growing into the skyline
Connected together
By freeways
And bridges
And streets and alleys
And sidewalks and bike lanes
Glued together by endless flow
Of cars and trucks and trains and planes and people
Like blood pumping through the body
Seized with coronary traffic congestion failure
Of the human heart
As another work day
An end

(reprinted with the poet’s permission)

Yet not everything is now perfect in Joe's world. In 'Paranoid' we learn how he likes to sleep with a loaded weapon and how he must euthanise his cancerous dog in ‘A Dog Down.’ In 'Lesson In Mortality' he snaps a bicep in three loud pops. More disturbing still in 'Husband Father Family Man' are his random thoughts:

And I don't know what I'm playing at
Not sure I'm cut out for this

Still dreaming about the freedom
Of the open road and nowhere to go
The freedom of the hustle

And I don't know what I'm playing at

Dreaming about putting the gun
Back in my mouth

As you can see, there is a great variety of work to admire in Joe Gardner’s first collection of poetry. His writing is highly accessible and rings with authenticity. There is no bullshit or posturing in Gardner's writing. He has lived a tough life and he has survived and now acts as a leader and mentor to fellow ex-servicemen and aspiring writers. Joe Gardner is a fine new voice which strums of truth & of a growing disenchantment with America's plight.


Joe Gardner is an Army Airborne Veteran and a 2nd Generation American drifter and writer who calls East Lakewood, Ca home. More nights than not he can be found at home, enjoying the comfort of his family and his dog.

Joe is the Founder and hired gun for Working Class Production, as well as creator and co-producer of The Last Sunday, An Evening of Poetry and ArtHe is also the 2013 Joe Hill Labor Poetry Award recipient and his work has appeared in The Modern Drunkard Magazine, The San Gabriele Valley Poetry Quarterly, Cadence Collective, Spilt Ink Poetry and AMASS Magazine.

He has also been published in the following anthologies:
Gutters & Alleyways: Perspectives on Poverty and Struggle
The Men's Heartache Anthology
Lummox Anthologies, 1 thru 3.
Edgar Allan Poet 3

Find out more about Working Class Productions here:

Buy the book here:

Find a 56 page sampler from the book here:

Interview With J.W. Gardiner 17 December 2015

How long has In The Shadow Of The Bomb been in the making?
It took about two years to collect and sort the poems for the book.  Most of the first four chapters had been written over a twenty year period. The last chapter were poems all written from 2011 forward. So about four years or so.
In your bio at the end of the book you note that your poetry appeared in Lummox Anthologies, 1 thru 3. Can you explain your association with Lummox Press and the processes involved in getting your book published?
I met RD Armstrong through fellow poet Don Kingfisher Campbell. Campbell had published me a handful of times prior in his publication The San Gabrielle Valley Poetry Quarterly. Campbell was guest editor for the first Lummox Annual. Don chose my poem 2.5 grams of Hash for publication in Lummox 1. Raindog wasn’t too terribly impressed with that poem.
A month or three later, I came across RD at a reading in the Barnes & Noble in Marina Pacifica Center, hosted by Murray Thomas, in Long Beach CA. RD was able to hear more of my work at that time. There were a few other readings where we ran into each other, and RD and I began to talk and email. He read and heard some more of my work and thought I had something going on. The man gave me a chance when no one else was willing to even look at my work. I really appreciated that. Still do. Since then, RD and I have also developed a friendship born both of similarities and differences; as any good friendship should be.
In the preface you state that you write about what you know. Is your poetry essentially confessional with very few exceptions.  For example, were you a victim of a home invasion, set your house on fire and attempt suicide?
I think my work is more narrative than confessional, though I suspect there’s not much specific difference.  This book was like a greatest hits of the last forty years. I wanted to write a book that the kind of people I grew up knowing would be able to read and get. My stories/poems are nothing new or unique. For a whole segment of America, hell a whole generation, this is just living. Just how things are. So I wanted to tell those stories.
Yes, I was the victim of a violent home invasion robbery. I got out of the Army in Feb of 96. Did a little travelling around, came home in late April, early May.  I was sharing an apartment with my father, sister and her 9 month old son. The home invasion happened on June 8th 1996.  Things didn’t go well; but they could’ve gone a lot worse. After pistol whipping me and my father around, they decided they were going to take me to the ATM machine. They had my father and sister tied up and blindfolded. They stole my father’s Toyota pickup. One guy driving, the other in the bed of the truck. My family had gotten loose shortly after the gangsters took me and my father’s truck. The Sheriffs spotted the truck and tried to pull us over. The guy in the bed of the truck started shooting at the cops, the driver pulled his gun up. I popped open the door, heard more gunshots and then jumped. We were going around 50 miles per hour I was later told. I ended up being hurt real bad. Spent a while in the hospital healing up. My face was pretty much broken and skinned raw, along with my arms and hands.
In the poem ‘The Show’, the whole last section was metaphor for the ending of the relationship and the spectacle that we put on. My first marriage was very turbulent. Looking back at it today, well let’s just say I could’ve been a better husband, and she could’ve been a better wife, but we had no business being married to each other.
The suicide attempt was very real. I was in a very dark and ugly space at the time. It seemed everything in my life was failing or had failed, and then that failed. It was big wake up call for me. I knew then that I had to change my situation. There was no other options.
You include four poems in Part 3 which reflect your experiences in an Army Airborne division. What was your involvement and how do you view that experience now?
I was 4th Section, Alpha Battery, 1/39th and 1/321st Airborne Field Artillery from 1993 to 1996.  We were the only Airborne Heavy Artillery Unit in the world. We fire the M198 Howitzer which fired 155mm round. We were the heavy fire support for the 82nd Airborne. We spent a lot time in the field, always training to go on a moment's notice.  It was a lot of fun and a lot of work and was the single best thing I have ever done for myself. I enjoyed the discipline, the structure of everything. Everyone had a job, had something to do. You knew your place and you knew everything was earned. With hard work and integrity a motivated individual can advance rapidly. At least when I was in the service. I can’t say how it’s working now.
Can you give your readers some insights into your writing process? Do you write every day? How do you go about writing a poem?
I pretty much write on the spur of the moment, when the mood or the inspiration grabs me. It’s kind of a write it or lose it thing with me. I generally don’t spend a lot time on any one piece. Most of my work is a “one shot” kind of thing. Of course I go back through and edit as needed. But for the most part, either I hit it or I didn’t. I don’t worry a lot about structure or form, though I have my own patterns, I really don’t have any hard set rules. I’ve tried my hand at haikus and a sonnet once. What I found is I just don’t have the patience to follow the form and structure.
Who designed the cover? It appears to be a reference to the “body bag parade” in your extended poem ‘Military’ which documents your service record in a telescoped manner. An American flag in the background is inverted and a homeless corpse is lying inert on a park bench wrapped in an American flag in parody to the dead military heroes who are honoured upon their tragic return. What were you trying to say in your book by using this image and how is this concept reflected in your work?
The cover is one of my paintings. It is meant to express a lot of different things. From Veteran homelessness to the 22 a day we lose to suicide, to being shunned and mistreated by the VA, to being Generation X, the Baby Boomers forgotten burden who grew up in the shadow of their bomb. My wife, Jennifer, and I both thought that this painting caught the feeling of the book.
In a few poems you indirectly mention the failure of the American Dream. In your overtly political poem ‘An Open Letter To Any Who Will Listen’ you make a number of scathing criticisms. Can you sum up your discontent and what is wrong with America? How can it be fixed?
Jobs. Idle hands and Devil’s playthings. Baby Boomers dropped the ball. Dumped my generation onto grandparents and the state and had their party.
Our infrastructure is falling apart. Our living wage jobs are being outsourced to either technology or to “more lucrative labor markets”.
My people, all these people from so many different backgrounds and cultures and places, they used to be innovators and builders and workers. We used to build things. We used to be the people who did the impossible. Now it seems we’ve all been turned into mindless, sightless cave fish consumers.
For whatever reason, our incredibly successful and insanely profitable big business can’t seem to be bothered to re-invest in Americans.
Education has been priced out of the realm of the common person, unless you want to spend the bulk of your life saddled with insane student loans.
Like I said, there is a lot of work that needs to be done and there’s a lot of people who need to be doing some work.
What brought you back to East Lakewood after so many years away? What did you gain in those years away?
I think ultimately everybody just wants to go home. I travelled around the better part of my country, and found that people are just people. From the deep South to San Francisco it’s always the same things that are the common denominator. We all have hopes and dreams and fears. We generally all want for the same things, some comfort, nourishment, and someone to love and to love back. As far as I can tell, we are really not as different as we all like to pretend we are.
For me, I just wanted to come home.
I was tired. I was tired of drifting around from state to state. I was tired of living out of a backpack. I just wanted to come home and rest.

I note that you are the founder of Working Class Production. What is the intent of the organisation and what practical things has it achieved?
Working Class Production is a work in progress itself, with a goal of becoming a small, private multi-media press. There are a lot of people out there with important things that need a venue. I want to provide that venue.
Also, Working Class Production, along with Bobby Strahan and Robert Rodriguez produce The Last Sunday: An Evening of Poetry and Art. Keith Jefferies and The United States Veterans Artist Alliance have generously allowed us to use their stage and hall to host our show. It’s a monthly poetry reading with about an hour and a half open mic and generally a half hour feature. From 6 to 7pm we have the doors open so our guests and artists can have some food and a drink or two, and get to know new people and catch up with old friends as well. We have a very strong family vibe with that show. Our guests are just incredible and we have a very warm and welcoming vibe. We provide good food and drinks at the show as well, which is put together by The Mother’s Cocktails. We have paintings on display from different Veterans such as Christopher Sweeney, Veteran USMC and Roberto Carlos Zea, Veteran USMC. We also use the show to bring awareness to the plight of our homeless Veterans and with USVAA are staunch supporters of Mayor Garcetti’s program to end Veteran Homelessness in Los Angeles.
I know it’s off the topic, but the New York Times today in a front page editorial advocated for the banning of the sale of military semi-automatic weapons. What is your view on the issue?
I have mixed feelings about the matter. I think background checks make sense and should be done. I think that a thorough firearms safety and operation training course should be required I think that existing laws need to be enforced before we make even more contradictory laws. I don’t like knee jerk legislation of any type, especially when dealing with rights. I also feel that with rights comes responsibility. So if you prove yourself not responsible to own a firearm, then that should be the end of the conversation. I don’t think the average citizen needs fully automatic military grade weapons. The thing with the AR-15 style weapons, is they are no more dangerous than a .223 semi-automatic ranch rifle. One is just wrapped in scary looking black plastic. I think that is the biggest burn to me. All the misinformation out there. We have people trying to make very important legal decisions based off what they see on TV or in the movies. I really think a lot more thought really needs to be put into the matter. 
What projects are you working on at the moment?
Been doing some painting, a little writing here and there. I have a couple ideas for some new books churning around, but they haven’t really come to form yet.

Thanks Joe.

Thank you for this. I really enjoyed the interview. It made me think about my work and other perspectives. I've always said it don't matter what I meant when I wrote it, what's it mean to you? There comes a point, where it really doesn't matter what the artist meant in comparison to the eye of the beholder.