When I contacted Clay Harrison, Readers' Choice winner of the 2013 Daily Press poetry contest, to chat with him about his work, he told me he'd been in his yard, tending his garden. It didn't take more than a few minutes of conversation for me to understand that tending others is what Harrison does, not only with his works, but with his words.
It started with the death of a neighbor's 2-year-old daughter when Harrison was in high school. To help the family through its grief, he wrote "Little Lorraine" and had the poem printed on funeral cards. In the 55 years since, Harrison has written poems for his neighbors and members of his church to pay tribute to and celebrate the lives of those they'd lost.
But Harrison hasn't confined himself to writing for the bereaved. Over the years he has written poems to honor those who struggle with disease, such as cancer, Alzheimer's and muscular dystrophy, and he has donated his proceeds to organizations that fight those diseases.
He has written poems for those who work to better the world, like Mother Theresa. He has written about people who make news, like astronauts, military generals and even presidents. And he has written about events that touch us as a nation, like Sept. 11, 2001, and the shootings at Virginia Tech and Sandy Hook Elementary School. So it's not surprising that Harrison wrote a poem about the attack at this year's Boston Marathon. He entered the poem the Daily Press poetry contest, and it was selected by our readers as their favorite entry.
The poem titled, "April 15, 2013," speaks of the horror of the attack, bringing it vividly to life with stanzas like this one:
"A sudden blast, a cloud of smoke,
A shriek, a cry, a moan
Followed by a second blast
And precious dreams were gone."
Despite its grim images of terror, the piece ends on this note:
"Evil never takes a holiday
But hope lives on and on!"
Hope is a common theme in Harrison's work, which might seem an odd mix for a man who spent his professional career of 35 years in law enforcement, first as a military police officer in the Panama Canal Zone during the Vietnam era, then as a local law enforcement officer in Florida. But Harrison said that he has always relied on hope and faith to help him endure and overcome heartache.
"Enjoy every day and all the beauty that surrounds us, especially in our gardens," he said via e-mail. "My faith in God, poetry and gardening have gotten me through many difficult times."
Harrison stated that he is stirred to write by nature and everyday events.
"Many times I wake from a sound sleep with a poem or two in my mind and rush to write them down. God does work in mysterious ways."
Harrison believes God places people in our paths to influence us, inferring that it was God's doing that put him in the path of an English teacher who first inspired him to express his thoughts through poetry. When he was 16, he witnessed his no-nonsense English teacher weep while reciting Eugene Field's "Little Boy Blue." He decided that if poetry could cause that kind of reaction in her, whom he described as a "take-no-prisoners" type of teacher, there must be something to it. He found he liked it, and hasn't stopped since.
In addition to writing for friends and neighbors, Harrison has published his poems in various devotional guides and anthologies, including the Christmas and Easter editions of "Ideals," "The Saturday Evening Post," "Women's World" and Salesian Missions books. He even supplies verse for his wife who designs greeting cards. Most recently, his work was included in June Cotner's collection "Gratitude Prayers: Prayers, Poems and Prose for Everyday Thankfulness," released in February by Andrews McMeel Publishing.
As prolific as Harrison's poetry, and as seemingly generous as his spirit, there is a limit to his willingness to help a friend. While working as a police officer in Florida, he was approached by a female colleague to write a poem for her wedding vows. He agreed but declined to participate in the ceremony itself which was held at a nudist colony. He said, "If there's nowhere to pin my badge, I'm not going."
Harrison was also the recipient of a marriage proposal, via fan mail from a lady who said she'd been reading his poetry for years. (He turned down that request as well.)