The phone call came, ominously, at 7am. It was the morning after a CT scan and Jory Post, swallowing a growing dread, sensed bad news.
He sensed right.
“I’m sorry to hit you with this nuclear bomb,” said the doctor on the other end. Post had a large malignant tumor on his pancreas, wrapped around an artery. Pancreatic cancer is one of the deadliest forms of cancer—difficult to detect early, often resistant to treatment and infamous for its low survival rate.
Post and his wife Karen cried a lot that morning. “But it didn’t completely wipe me out,” he says months later, reflecting on the moment at his Santa Cruz home. “I know it’s the worst cancer in the world. I know I have a 7.5% chance of survival. But I’m a poker player. I’ve won a lot of poker tournaments at worse odds than that. Mostly, though, I’m a pragmatist. I know what’s coming and how to plan for it. So, I got to work.”
This is not a story of a man facing a life-threatening diagnosis. Tragically, such a thing is so common these days that it’s hardly newsworthy. Neither is it a story of a man beating cancer. He has kept it at arm’s length, and he has stubbornly pushed through it, but he hasn’t beaten anything.
This is a story of a respected community artist, writer and teacher living through a year that has been paradoxically both the worst year of his life, and the best. Pancreatic cancer has informed every waking moment of Jory Post’s 2019, from bouts of pain and exhaustion to chemo treatments to the psycho-spiritual labor of confronting death. Yet, at the same time, he has never been more in command of his artistic powers, attaining improbable professional goals while finding a wellspring of creativity in a newly discovered art form.
Amidst an epic struggle to survive, he’s somehow living his best life.
In February, about three months after his diagnosis, Post, 69, joined a writing group for poetry under the direction of Danusha Laméris, Santa Cruz County’s reigning Poet Laureate. (He already belonged to two other writing groups for fiction and playwriting).
After a frustrating start wrestling with traditional poetry, he happened upon prose poetry. What sounds like an oxymoron is actually poetry without the line breaks on the page, written in undifferentiated paragraphs. Santa Cruz has a rich history in this literary niche, thanks mostly to two men who devoted their writing careers to the prose poem—the late poet, teacher and critic Morton Marcus, and UCSC printer and poet Gary Young, whom Post refers to as “my poetry guru.”
Since adopting the prose-poetry form, Post has been on fire artistically. He has written close to 300 prose poems this year, many of which were published in his first book of poetry poignantly titled The Extra Year, released in September by Anaphora Literary Press. His work has also been published in The Sun, one of the country’s most prominent literary journals, as well as 82 Review and Red Wheelbarrow. And just last week came the cherry on top of an amazing year: He was informed that a short story he had published in Rumble Fish Quarterly was nominated for a Pushcart Prize, which honors the best work from small presses across the country.
He was also the subject of a celebratory book launch party that was one of highlights of the Santa Cruz literary community’s year, and held court at both a writers salon at Gabriella Café and a Lit Chat hosted by the Santa Cruz literary journal Catamaran. This month, he even traveled to Chicago, where he was invited to read his work at the 25th anniversary party of the Chicago Quarterly Review, which also published his poems.
The prose poems that have fueled this run of productivity often come to him in the middle of the night. Even in the midst of bouts of nausea and cramps, reactions to chemo, and the anxieties and worries that accompany serious illness, often he’ll be up at 3am, recording ideas or polishing them into poems in his journal.
“Something has upped my game,” he says. “I don’t personally take credit for it. I like to believe something takes over your pen, that you are writing through some other medium. I lucked into something I don’t completely understand.”
The literary output is accompanied by a similar flowering in his other art form of choice. For years, Post and his wife, book artist Karen Wallace, have run JoKa Press, their in-house art workshop that features her handmade journals and his found-art collage boxes, inspired by the work of assemblage artist Joseph Cornell. Post’s creations are often humorous or whimsical settings built into the drawers of old dressers and featuring everything from Scrabble tiles to star charts to 45-rpm records. Their Santa Cruz home has been a hot spot on the annual Open Studios tour for several years. Last October’s tour attracted more than 300 people to the Posts’ home, with sales of items triple what they’ve been in past years.
“I’ve never seen someone who has had this kind of creative arc before,” says Laméris, a veteran workshop leader and teacher. “It’s like seeing someone emerge from a chrysalis.”
“He’s experiencing his life and his art coming together in a really remarkable and inspiring way,” says friend and fellow writer Kathryn Chetkovich. “He’s been constantly shuttling back and forth between these physical objects he’s making and the poems. You get a sense when you’re over there that something is getting made all the time, in a very cool way.”
Novelist and former UCSC lit prof Paul Skenazy was moved by Post’s story enough to write an essay about his friend for the online journal Brevity. “He took his diagnosis as a challenge,” Skenazy wrote, “and answered it with his stern will, adventurous spirit, and imagination. We do make our own miracles sometimes, but not always, or often.”
Friends and colleagues stress that the timing of Post’s cancer diagnosis and his astonishing artistic output are not coincidental—that the former served as a catalyst for the latter. Whether it was his intention or not, the poetry has been a path that allowed Post to escape being defined by his condition.
“He remains,” says Chetkovich, “a person much bigger than this thing that has happened to him.”
Jory Post has lived in Santa Cruz most of his life. He moved to town in 1962 at the age of 12 with his family, living just steps away from the Santa Cruz Beach Boardwalk. His first summer in his new home was a rush of pinball machines and crabbing at the Wharf. He’s a product of Mission Hill Junior High, Soquel High, Cabrillo College—where he first encountered poets and role models Morton Marcus and Joe Stroud—and UCSC.
He spent most of his career in the classroom, first as an aide, then a part-time and finally a full-time teacher at Happy Valley School. He had a particular interest in technology, and was a pioneer in the early 1980s in bringing computers into an education setting. In the 1990s, he received a fellowship—named for Christa McAuliffe, the teacher who died in the 1986 Challenger explosion—to design computer-aided “virtual” field trips.
In 2000, his educational career took an unexpected turn when he was hired by Apple to help design an online environment for teachers and students, though his association with the world’s most famous computer company didn’t last as long as he had hoped. “It became apparent it was not the mecca I thought it was,” he says.
The last couple of decades Post has dedicated to his creative work, as well as to establishing relationships in Santa Cruz’s artistic communities. In 2011, he co-founded phren-Z, an online literary journal devoted to Santa Cruz County writers. He served as a formal and informal editor of the writings of friends and colleagues.
“He’s now bearing the profits of all those years of community service, connections with people who care about him, things he’s done for other people,” says Paul Skenazy.
Santa Cruz novelist Elizabeth McKenzie, another long-time friend, says that, “I really depend on him as a reader and as a literary critic.”
Filmmaker Jon Silver has known Post for years, going back to the days when both were involved in Santa Cruz educational circles. In September, Silver released a short film he had made titled Along for the Ride, inspired by the prose poems of The Extra Year. “It’s kind of amazing,” he says. “It’s been a creative explosion, and there’s something about those prose poems that capture the realness and rawness of (what he’s been going through).”
The poems in The Extra Year forthrightly address the exhausting rituals of having cancer in the contemporary world, from losing hair to grappling with doctors. The book is rife with gallows humor that walks the knife-edge of tragedy, such as contemplating with his wife the music to play at his memorial (“‘Another One Bites the Dust’ is first,” he writes). There’s a heartbreaking story about a long-lost sister who died as an infant. He names names, and expresses himself openly about the meaningful people in his life, as if coyness disappeared with his hair.
“I find his writing to be original and mysterious,” says McKenzie. “It always comes at you from an unexpected angle.”
Laméris has noticed the way Post knits together darkness and levity.
“There’s a real kind of unflappable coolness of tone that comes through,” she says. “And that really contrasts with the (inherently) hot emotional material and offsets it, making it more powerful. The poems really move between pathos and dark humor. They hit all the notes.”
But perhaps above all, the poems are deeply relatable.
“What I experience,” says Chetkovich, “is that it feels like he has opened his own road for other people to walk with him in a way that I find moving and really generous.”
Bluffs and Calls
The bifurcation between Post’s old-line Santa Cruz life and his not-so-old life as a literary lion is nicely symbolized by poker. He hosts two semi-regular poker games. One includes friends that go back to his high-school days; that game has been going on for more than 50 years. The other game is populated mostly by writers and poets.
For Post, poker is more than idle entertainment. The poker games at his house take place on a regulation table. He has been an accomplished player for years. In 2005, he walked away with $45,000 in winnings from a World Series of Poker event at Lake Tahoe.
He’s been entranced with the challenges of “beating the house” in poker since he was 17, when he won $100 at Harvey’s on Tahoe’s south shore. The same man who is now a prose-poet and visual artist said, “I’m really a numbers guy. Literature and writing were not my strong suit on the SAT. But I was 99th-percentile in math.”
His grounding in math (and cards) has given him a fuller understanding of probabilities, which is useful in avoiding both denial and self-pity when it comes to facing a life-threatening illness.
In November, a year after his original diagnosis, Post endured another CT scan. What followed wasn’t exactly bad news. But it wasn’t good news, either. The tumor was essentially unchanged after months of chemotherapy, still clinging to a crucial artery. He was disappointed, but the doctor told him that, with pancreatic cancer, “stability equals success.” He will return for another scan in three months. “So I’m going to be around another three months,” he says. “The doctor told me that maybe we’ll just keep doing this for a year or two, which made me happy.”
Meanwhile, the urge to create continues, only a tad less intensely. To get out of the house, he’s rented an office in downtown Santa Cruz, where he goes for the express purpose to write without distraction. In the last month alone, aside from the continued production of prose poems, he’s written two 10-minute plays and started a new novel, of which he’s logged more than 20,000 words.
He’s also revising a novel that he initially finished before his diagnosis in 2018. It’s about death and dying. “I had several people read the manuscript,” he says, “and many of them came back pointing to one particular character, that ‘She was a little flat.’ Well, then I got my diagnosis, and it struck me that my experience wasn’t anywhere in that book. So I looked at that character, and it was, ‘Congratulations Louise, you now have pancreatic cancer.’”
At the center of Jory Post’s creative life is his daily journal. Inside it, he brings order to his creative restlessness by the use of icons, most notably a yellow light bulb. The light bulb represents a germ of an idea, often one or two words, a fragment from a dream, a beguiling phrase.
He had the journal with him last summer when he watched a two-hour documentary on the late novelist Toni Morrison at the Nickelodeon. “I just sat there with my pen the whole time. I think I got 25 to 30 light bulbs that day.”
He keeps the journal in the zippered pocket of his Patagonia jacket, which he wears everywhere he goes. He carries the journal when he walks to his downtown office, a ray of light in the enveloping darkness of his health.
“The role of the poet,” he says, “is to look at everything and figure out how, say, looking at bunnies in the backyard has a connection to not only what’s going on in my life, but in all our lives as a universal. I want to hit everything head-on. And because I don’t know how much time I have left to do that, I’m always (referencing) the list of these light bulbs. There’s no ennui at all. The only times that I’ve really been slowed down have been related to my nausea or stomach issues. Otherwise, no. I don’t know what ennui is.”
“As an observer and a teacher,” says Laméris, “what I see is that he’s always had this in him. And because he’s under the gun of mortality in a more obvious way than most of us, he’s really stepped into more of himself. It turns out, this is who he was all along.”