Thursday, October 3, 2019

Poetry world reels at loss of poet and editor Jon Tribble

“Team Jallison” — the late Jon Tribble and his wife, Allison Joseph

When we’re baby poets, undergrads and just beyond, we often find ourselves looking for mentors or exemplars — writers of stature we can emulate to help us reach our writing goals.

When I was just getting started, I would drive anywhere to see an important poet read, and I stood in countless lines just to exchange a few words and get a scrawled signature in a skinny book. I wouldn’t trade any part of that experience, because it really was a master class in poetry, albeit in bits and spurts.

These exchanges weren’t always the dream experience I’d hoped them to be. Once, in Missoula, Montana, I’d finagled an invitation to an afterparty to meet one of the most anthologized and lionized writers of our time. I happened to come across him alone there, in a dining room where a table had a huge spread of food. I tentatively approached, so glad to have a chance to tell him what his work meant to me — and it did. I had several of his poems memorized, and his words often leapt to mind to define the pinnacle (or nadir) moments of my life.

So I spilled my rambling, nervous sentence to the great man, and his response was a deep “harumph” before he turned his back on me and walked away.

Our heroes aren’t always the people we would hope they would be.

Another time, a little later in my life, I had the good fortune to host a favorite poet for a reading. Her work was astonishing in its depth, its truth and its heart. While it was often arch or damning, there was a great love underpinning it, and I couldn’t wait to spend some time with her.

This poet was a nightmare guest. She refused to carry out some of her commitments as a contracted visiting writer, and in the small city where I lived at the time, no available restaurant was suitable for her palate. My staff and I worked hard to get her the meal she wanted at 10 p.m. on a weeknight (she hadn’t wanted anything at 6 p.m., when food was actually available), and after lots of effort, she didn’t touch the Midwestern miracle we had managed to pull together for her. If you have ever lived in a small town in the heartland, you understand the challenge.

Both of these writers have names you would know, if you follow poetry at all. But yesterday, the poetry world lost a beloved figure whose work you may not have had a chance to hear of.

Jon Tribble was a prominent editor, both of the literary journal Crab Orchard Review and its corresponding Crab Orchard Series in Poetry, which operates through the Southern Illinois University Press.

Upon learning on social media of his death, dozens upon dozens of poets responded with expressions of shock and sorrow. It was astonishing to see how many people Jon had touched within the poetry world — people he encouraged at key times, people he mentored, people whose work he edited and made stronger in the process.

One person, my friend Michael Meyerhofer, posted about an instance where he told Jon about difficulty he was having with a manuscript, and Jon volunteered to look at the loose poems and see what he could do. What he did, it turned out, was to organize the poems “into a proper manuscript,” as Michael told it — “The ordering he came up with was fantastic and ended up being my fourth book.” It was a lot of work, but, Michael writes, “He did all this with humor and nonchalance, like he was just holding the door open for me.” It’s a gesture poets saw again and again from this good man.

As an editor and publisher, Jon Tribble spent many years focusing on the work of others, while his own astonishing poems languished on the back burner. In recent years, I believe at the urging of his brilliant wife, the poet Allison Joseph, Jon sought publishers for his poetry, and the result was three deliciously strong books in three years: Natural State (Glass Lyre, 2016), And There Is Many a Good Thing (Salmon Poetry, 2017), and God of the Kitchen (Glass Lyre, 2018). If you didn’t get a chance to experience the keen sensibility of this rare talent during his lifetime, you still can. Though Jon has left us, his poetry lives on forever.

There are a lot of curmudgeons and brats and lechers and opportunists in poetry, and sometimes you drive miles just to have them scribble on your page. But there aren’t a lot like Jon Tribble, who is remembered today as a generous soul, a talented poet and a kind, kind man. I hope you will give his work a try.


  1. Brava, what a lovely gift of a post to honor Jon!

  2. Thank you, Karen. Jon was one of the kindest men in poetry, a true gent.

  3. this is such a beautiful tribute, Karen. Thank you for it. I never met Jon (except through facebook) and the only time I had contact with him was when this past year he accepted a poem from me, but I have watched online his kindnesses and his love for Allison and hers for him, I his death has struck me hard as has my sorrow for Allison. What a wonderful man, what a wonderful couple. They am holding them in my thoughts and heart.

  4. Oh, this is such a lovely tribute, Karen! I've been feeling so sad, so sad for poetry, and just heartbroken for Allison. Thank you for this.

  5. A beautiful tribute. Thank you, Karen.

  6. Beautiful, honest and from the heart. A fitting tribute for Jon.