Poet on Parenting
By Zoe S. Erler
Poet on Parenting

Three decades ago when Tom Hunley was scribbling his first lines of poetry, he couldn’t have imagined that he would one day receive a prestigious award for a collection of poems that detail his misadventures in parenting.

Hunley, a professor of creative writing at Western Kentucky University and a deacon at Grace & Peace Presbyterian in Bowling Green, recently won Rattle magazine’s 2020 Chapbook Prize and has his parenting struggles to thank for it.

His poems capture the unique challenges of parenting children with special needs. One poem describes his failed attempts to protect his teenage daughter from the foolish advances of boys, and another describes a run-in he had with a man at the movie theater who was angry because Hunley’s son was talking too loudly.

“It took me a while to start writing them,” said Hunley, “but then I realized that a lot of people don’t know anybody like Elizabeth and Evan.”

Evan is 17 and autistic. Elizabeth, 21, was adopted at 16 with a history of trauma and borderline intelligence.

“The poems would be very emotionally difficult to write,” said Hunley. “I would be in tears a lot of times.” He points out that much of poetic history is faith expressed in verse, not least of which includes the Old Testament poetry of the Psalms, Lamentations, and the Song of Solomon.

Not overtly pious, still rawly supplicative, three of the 18 poems in Hunley’s poetry chapbook “Adjusting to the Lights” are prayers. “Dear God, Show Me How to Walk in Wonder” describes the time Hunley and his wife, Ralaina, learned that Evan was autistic: My son couldn’t speak for years, /  and when the doctor said Autism / I couldn’t speak, and forgive me, / I turned my head from him. / I know You’ll understand. Forgive me / for reminding You how You turned Your head / while Your son hung there.

Other poems communicate his perceived frailty. In “What Feels Like Love,” he expresses his helplessness at being unable to shelter his daughter from a broken world: When she says she can’t won’t live / without some dirtboy / I feel like a gimpy superhero / flying but not fast enough / to protect her from her own confused heart.

“I kind of had a reputation of being a funny poet before this book,” Hunley explains.

“But these aren’t funny at all, so it’s been a big shift … these have definitely been the hardest ones to write.”

Hunley’s “Adjusting to the Lights” chapbook will accompany the winter issue of Rattle. 

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