Paola Bruni and Jory Post connected at a literary workshop, then in letter-writing relationship, as each faced a dark period in their life. Post died of cancer in January 2021 before he could see the poems turned into a book; Bruni will be on hand Friday for an online reading from “How Do You Spell the Sound of Crickets,” published earlier this year.
At a literary conference workshop in 2019, Paola Bruni and Jory Post — both Santa Cruz-area poets — just happened to sit next to each other. The two weren’t strangers, but they were more acquaintances than friends.
The workshop leader, celebrated Pulitzer Prize finalist Dorianne Laux, was discussing epistolary (letter-writing) relationships between writers, and she paired off her participants on an assignment to exchange letters.
It turns out that newly designated epistolary partners Bruni and Post were each wrestling with some rather stark life-and-death emotional states at the time. Bruni was grieving through an agonizing period during which her mother, her father, her closest friend and her mother-in-law all died within the space of a couple of years. Post was facing his own existential crisis, dealing with a diagnosis of pancreatic cancer, the brutality of his treatments, and with the very real possibility that the cancer would kill him.
They didn’t realize it at the time, but they both needed the other to make sense of what was happening around them.
What began as a process and a relationship has now culminated in the publication of the letters that Bruni and Post wrote to each other over the course of subsequent months. “How Do You Spell the Sound of Crickets” (Paper Angel Press) collects the poems and thoughts that the two writers exchanged. Paola Bruni will be on hand for an online reading of the poems on Friday as part of the Zoom Forward reading series.
Jory Post did not survive to see the publication of the book. He died in January 2021 at the age of 70.
Bruni remembers that Post committed to the poem-exchange project immediately, right there in the Catamaran workshop: “Jory and I were sitting next to each, and he turned to me, right after Dorianne paired us up, and said, ‘Let’s do this, 50 poems before I’m gone.’”
In the two years between his diagnosis and his death, Post turned to writing and other creative pursuits with a focus and energy of a man racing against time. At the age of 69, he published his first collection of prose poems, poignantly titled “The Extra Year,” then published a second. Then he published a novel. At the same time, he had a poem published in the prestigious journal The Sun and three other literary journals. He was even nominated for a Pushcart Prize, which honors the best work from small publishers. When the pandemic shutdown hit, he established Zoom Forward, the online writers salon that hosts the event with Bruni on Friday (local novelist Paul Skenazy will read Post’s poems at the Zoom Forward event).
In the time that Post was writing his novel and his prose poems, creating a new literary form between nonfiction and fiction he called “fictography,” creating visual art pieces with his wife, artist Karen Wallace, and undergoing the ordeal of chemotherapy, he was still maintaining his letter exchanges with Bruni.
“We got off to a very slow start,” said Bruni, “because, again, Jory wasn’t feeling that well. And unfortunately, there are only 23 poems in the book because he got to the point where he just couldn’t write anymore.”
The book starts off with Post reflecting on his unusual first name and asking Bruni about her own unusual name. Then they move into weightier matters, responding to each other in kind about the urge for creativity, the shadow of mortality, the sense of time evaporating.
“You haven’t told me what terrifies you,” Post begins one poem. Bruni’s next poem begins with, “I need a new word for terror.”
Early on in their exchange, Bruni said, Post leaned into his constant writing as a possible means for surviving the cancer that was destroying his body. “He wrote to me through email, ‘Write to keep me alive,’” she said. “I think he believed that if he could focus his whole being on a creative endeavor, that he could literally change his DNA. And I believed it, too. I wanted to believe him because I didn’t want to go through losing Jory.”
One of the last things he wrote to her was, “I know that we will still hold each other after the harness no longer strings us together.”
“He knew that I could avoid the page,” said Bruni, “because I didn’t think much of myself as a writer, so he’d send me this little ‘Whatever you’re doing. Stop. Go write.’ It’s pretty amazing to have someone who believes in you in that way.”
Paola Bruni and Paul Skenazy will read from “How Do You Spell the Sound of Crickets” on Friday at 5 p.m. as part of the Zoom Forward series, presented by Catamaran, phren-Z and Bookshop Santa Cruz.