It turns out the numbers guy was a poet all along.
“For decades,” he says, “I was filling notebooks with poetry without telling anyone. No one knew. It took a lot for me to tell anyone about it. And publishing it, now, is downright traumatic.”
For nearly 35 years, Tom Gillaspy was the state demographer, the top numbers cruncher and interpreter as Minnesota experienced tumultuous change, transforming from a homogeneous Nordic stronghold to the nation’s No. 1 destination for East African and other overseas refugees.
Now, those same thick fingers are laboring over minute subtleties of language: Should it be “Into this starlit darkness” or would “starry” be an upgrade?
Far from being something ginned up to fill the quiet hours of retirement, the 67-year-old Gillaspy reports, poetry is a helpless compulsion that he’s felt since the teen years.
“I’ve got things in my mind that keep revolving in an endless loop until I write them down. I have to do it, or I would go crazy. I don’t want to sound spooky, but I awoke in the middle of the night in Peru and it was like a poem was being dictated to me. And then once I’ve written them out, they’re gone. And I let them sit until I can craft them: edit, re-edit, re-edit.
“You know, there’s truth of a sort in numbers, but a different kind of truth in poetry.”
Calm now the day’s troubled waters / Dark clouds from the south dissolve / Revealing stars beyond counting, / The larger reflecting on the stilled lake, / Broken only by the occasional splash / Of pike chased perch.
— From “Moon Rising Over Phoebe Lake”
Gillaspy settled in Stillwater when he arrived as state demographer in 1979, and for the past 18 years has lived on three acres in nearby Grant.
Washington County is “a piece of heaven compared to L.A.,” he said. He’d been plucked from the academic staff at Southern Cal. “We’re small-town people, basically.”
Living in the east metro meant that on his drive to work, “the sun’s always behind you, rising in the morning and setting in the evening.”
The writing life he has launched into since retirement is as an author of children’s books.
Last year, with a friend who teaches art as his illustrator, he produced his first work for kids — “Piko, the Dog With No Tail,” a story that flowed out of an actual experience walking his son’s dog in Washington state.
“We learned a lot with that book,” Gillaspy says, smiling. “We had no clue what we were doing. It has to be a certain number of pages, it can only be 500 to 600 words — not a lot of words! — and there are certain size parameters, and the quality of the pages themselves has to be high so that it’s durable for younger readers.”
To read both his poetry and his lines for children is to get the sense of a man who was gleefully liberated from a cubicle working life into one of rugged hikes and firelit contemplation.
I will get my walking stick and go now,/ For the air is always filled/ With the sweet smell of alpine phlox/ Incensed by the afternoon breeze/ From the valley far below./ For I smell that sweet fragrance/ In my daily commute/ And in the stale office air.
— From “Hiking to Maiden Peak (After W.B. Yeats)”
The kids who read Gillaspy’s picture books might find it peculiar to know that the same writer toggles over at times to poetry that can be grim and even violent.
Gillaspy loves hiking in remote places among ancient peoples, in South America or Africa.
He relishes the extremes in those worlds: the plowman with a thousand-year-old approach to the land, and a cellphone.
In his poem “The Bus,” about political violence, the “bus eyes” are not a pair of headlights but the frightened faces of passengers at the windows as one of their number is seized and terrorized, then enters the spirit world.
On his gentler side, though, he also has several more children’s books in mind.
The writing there “has to be simple without ‘talking down,’ and it also has to be something a parent wouldn’t mind reading every night for three or four months in a row. I know parents who’ve read mine that many times, and they know the words better than I do.”
But the “real fun is reading to a bunch of kids. It’s worth the price of everything.”