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Jim Mello finds poetry most important

Smithfield native authors two books

By Laurence J. Sasso, Jr.

Jim Mello of Esmond left Smithfield 28 years ago to go to Maine and work as a pastor and social worker. When he came back for the recent 50th anniversary of the high school, he returned a poet. He was in his fifties when he turned to poetry.

Employed as an addiction counselor, he still does a kind of social work, and sometime along the way he earned a degree in theology and became a pastor, work that he also still does part time. However, in an interview with The Smithfield Times not long ago he declared “poetry remains the most important to me.”

Now 66, he is the author of two books of poems, a 2007 chapbook called Early Late Bloom and a full-length collection entitled All Four Seasons, published in 2014. Moon Pie Press in Maine brought out both books.

Born in Smithfield, he was a member of the first class to graduate from the high school. In his youth he didn’t envision a career in poetry or social work, and he didn’t anticipate becoming a pastor either.

“I wanted to be a singer-songwriter, but I couldn’t sing and I couldn’t play music. I didn’t have the musical chops,” he says.

It didn’t stop him from trying, though. In high school he played what he characterizes as “a very primitive bass guitar” as a member of Ye Druids, an iconic band during those early days of SHS. He was also on the basketball team.

A child of the sixties, he cites some of his musical influences as Paul Simon, Joni Mitchell, Bob Dylan, and Bruce Cockburn, a Canadian. He is delighted that Dylan was awarded the Nobel Prize for Literature last month.

In reporting on the award the New York Times said, “Mr. Dylan has often sprinkled literary allusions into his music and cited the influence of poetry on his lyrics, and has referenced Arthur Rimbaud, Paul Verlaine and Ezra Pound.” This acknowledgment of the intersection of music lyrics and poetry surely will please Jim Mello.

“I always listened to lyrics closely,” he mentions. “I heard the lyrics before I heard the music.”

While Mello claims he wasn’t very successful at writing songs, he says it was the beginning of his metamorphosis into a poet. It might have taken him a good while to transform his musical interest into poetry, but he believes it was foundational.

He jokes, “I also attribute it to the encyclopedias my parents bought when I was a kid,” adding that one of his early teachers in Smithfield, Mary Mowry, was an early inspiration, too. She learned of his fascination with words and encouraged him to turn each word on his spelling lists into stories.

Of Portuguese and Irish descent, Jim wryly points out that his parents never fought with each other. “They fought ethnically,” he explains, assailing the supposed annoying traits of each other’s heritage, but not one another.

After high school he went to Rhode Island College, where he minored in English and cites the impact of Professor Bob Comery, who taught Shakespeare there.

However, social work became his career. He candidly reveals that in the past he also had serious issues with alcohol himself. Today, as an addiction counselor he considers his own experiences with addiction invaluable in his work.

One of his deep concerns professionally is the opioid crisis that is surging through the nation.

As for the ministry, Mello reports that he earned his master’s degree at Bangor Theological Seminary in Maine and became a Seventh Day Adventist minister, a post he held for seven and a half years in Calais and Lubec, Maine. Eventually, though, he went back into addiction counseling and has done that work for the last 20 years, but he continues to do itinerant preaching in the summer and is the resident poet at a Methodist church in Machias, Maine.

Of his immersion into poetry, Jim says “I am a late bloomer. When I got into it, I went deep.” He says that he has poetry anthologies all over the house. He lists among his influences Kenneth Rexroth’s essays on poetry, William Butler Yates, and W.H. Auden, especially his poem “Musee des Beaux Arts.”

“That’s a poem I go back to over and over,” he reports.

Having gotten what many would describe as a late start, Jim confesses that he is always writing “on the run,” adding, “It’s not my day job.”

Yet he is prolific, revealing that he has nine handwritten journals full of poems. “I have enough for another book,” he mentions.

He discloses that he writes everything in long-hand first. “Sometimes I use Latinate words, because I don’t think we should forget them. I guess I’m an archivist for language.”

He belongs to a poetry reading group in Maine and occasionally attends workshops, and he maintains a Facebook page – Jim Mello: Writer and Poet.

He has also traveled to Portugal and Israel. Perhaps the travel inspired his poem “My Stars (Meu Estrelas)” which appears in All Four Seasons.

My stars were there to welcome me home

From my transatlantic pilgrimage

Poured across the October sky

A thousand eyes winking

On the eve of the day of Columbus

To remind me of the universe

And oceans

We have yet to sail . . . . (copyright © 2014 Jim Mello)

Last month three of his poems were accepted by the Woodland Whispers project of the Smithfield Conservation Commission, and it is planned that they will be installed on some of the community’s walking trails in the near future.

Near the end of a conversation with this writer, he remarked “I grew up in the heart of free verse.”

It seems clear that free verse continues to grow in his heart as well.

Full disclosure: Laurence J. Sasso, Jr. is a member of the Woodland Whispers planning committee.