By Melissa Hale-Spencer
Three years after his death at the age of 23, Jonathan Pratt’s poetry has been born in book form. His mother, Debra Pratt, served as the midwife, delivering the poems into the published world, to see the light of day.
She plans to publish all three of his books. The cover of the first book, The Collected Poetic Works of Jonathan Pratt, is a photograph of a part of a favorite denim jacket on which Mrs. Pratt had embroidered for her son when he was in high school; that was when he wrote those first poems, now printed on 137 pages.
The second book will have a cover picture of his flight jacket — he went to school to be a pilot. Jonathan later wore it as a motorcycle jacket on a road trip during which he wrote his poems longhand in small bound volumes.
The third and final volume will feature a picture of a leather coat Jonathan wore in Hollywood. A musician, he went there to play the keyboard when his friends were recording an album, and wrote poetry about the experience.
“He kept a journal since he was in fifth grade,” Mrs. Pratt said. “He spent a lot of time learning vocabulary, studying words and meanings.
“He carried his journals everywhere. We said, ‘You can leave them wherever you want. We won’t open them or read them. You have total privacy.’ We never looked.”
It wasn’t until after his death that Jonathan’s parents discovered all of his poems. “We really didn’t know about the volumes of work he had done,” Mrs. Pratt said.
When she was going through his things, she found an orange folder, The Collective Poetic Works of Jonathan Pratt, all typed out and formatted.
“Jon left a legacy that he knew would be found,” Mrs. Pratt said.
“He was a gift,” she went on. “He struggled…People who struggle with strong emotions might get labeled bipolar.”
Mrs. Pratt eschews labels. She says, if a person “is gifted with extra strength,” he may be lauded as an athlete or, given exceptional musical talent, he is praised as a musician.
“Why is it not a gift to feel the joy or the pain and darkness more strongly?” she asked. “Why do we have to look at that as an illness? Why not see it as a gift?”
Debra Pratt and her husband, William, since Jonathan’s death, have been active in the American Foundation for Suicide Prevention,
supporting annual “Out of the Darkness” walks to raise funds for suicide prevention and research.
They also made a square for a quilt that travels from place to place, Mrs. Pratt said, “to remember people who have taken their lives.”
Jonathan’s square features a picture of him performing in New York City with the lyrics of a song he wrote called “Find Me a Way.”
Mrs. Pratt has taken a journey of her own in shepherding her son’s words to publication. She tells of an awakening.
“Last February, I had a dream. I could hear Jonathan’s voice — soft but insistent. He said, ‘Mom, the sandals.’ It woke me up…I thought, ‘What is that?’”
Her son often wore sandals and he called his journals “The Traveling.”
“Then I remembered the orange folder. I couldn’t bring myself to read it before. The wound was too new. But it had been three years. It was time. I knew that he knew these would be found,” she said of the poems. “In time, something would be done with them.
“I myself didn’t now how to do these things.”
Mrs. Pratt had worked at The Enterprise as a typesetter and copyeditor and has worked on books for Guilderland’s town historian, Alice Begley.
“I observed good writing,” she said. “I learned to edit.”
After her dream in February, Mrs. Pratt in March went to a poetry workshop conducted by James R. Whitley. “It was a bit daunting,” she said, but Whitley liked Jonathan’s poetry. “He encouraged me so much,” said Mrs. Pratt. “Of course I think his work is wonderful,” she said of Jonathan’s poems, “but I’m his mother.”
Whitley served as a catalyst, putting her in touch with the Troy Book Makers. Jonathan’s computer had crashed so Mrs. Pratt re-typed the manuscript of poems, becoming intimately familiar with them in the process.
The poems in the first volume were written when Jonathan was in high school. After graduating from Christian Brothers Academy as a Presidential Scholar, he pursued his dream of becoming a pilot at the Florida Institute of Technology.
He left in 2005 after enduring five hurricanes and three tropical storms. When he was flying solo, his mother said, “He looked down on Florida and saw a sea of blue tarps.”
Jonathan assembled the poems in his first volume between February and September of 2005.
In the poems, Mrs. Pratt can see her son as he grew to manhood.
Jonathan spent his earliest years on the Miller farm off of Lone Pine Road in Guilderland. “There were trees there so big you couldn’t put your arms around them,” said Mrs. Pratt. “The dune wrapped around our house.”
She recalled, “Johnny would pick a tomato or a sugar-snap pea out of the garden and just eat it.”
When the trees were cut down for development, the land felt naked, Mrs. Pratt said, and the family moved to Altamont.
Her ancestors, French Hugenots, had lived in Rensselaerville in the 1700s. “Maybe that’s why we love the Hill so much,” she said. The family also has Mohawk ancestors. “Jon thought about that. It was in him,” she said.
From his earliest years, the Pratts knew Jonathan was special. “When he was 4, I thought, ‘How do you raise a child like this?’ He would ask for Cassandra’s second-grade math book for a bedtime story,” Mrs. Pratt said, referring to her daughter, Jonathan’s sister. “It would have been easier if we were rich,” she surmised.
Jonathan enjoyed his years at Altamont Elementary School and loved the wildness surrounding the village. “He’d explore the creek with his friends,” she said. “He would just follow the creek and hike to Buttermilk Falls.”
When he was older, Jonathan would often write poetry at the Thacher Park overlook. “At first, the park police would roust him,” Mrs. Pratt said. “He’d show them his books and, after a while, they’d wave.”
Jonathan went to the University at Albany for English in 2005 and 2006. “He decided to do a road trip for spring break in ’06,” his mother said. “He rode a motorcycle to see friends at Florida Tech. He journaled all the way down and back. It turned into The Virginia Acid Rain Experiment,” she said, naming his second volume of poetry. “He was experimenting with a different kind of poetry and prose….He hand-wrote that in bound books and would sign them and hand them out to friends.”
She likened the process to the way medieval monks would carefully copy manuscripts by hand.
Jonathan was back at the University at Albany when, in March of 2007, he got a call from friends in Los Angeles. They paid for him to fly to Hollywood to play keyboard for an album The Hills were recording at the Warner Brothers Studio, Mrs. Pratt said.
His Hollywood experiences led to his third volume, Life in Radioland.
In addition to writing poetry, Jonathan also wrote music.
His love of music had roots in Altamont. “He was privileged to take lessons from Agnes Armstrong.” Mrs. Pratt had seen “just a little shingle that said ‘Piano Lesson’” hanging at Armstrong’s Altamont home one summer and waited until the fall for her return.
“How was I to know she was touring Europe?” she asked, referring to the well-known organist.
Jonathan started lessons with Armstrong as a second-grader.
He loved it from the start.
“He understood music theory,” said his mother, “but he knew how to improvise.”
He took to music easily. When he was a sophomore in high school, he picked up his mother’s guitar and taught himself to play. “He started to play and was better than I could ever be,” she said.
Mrs. Pratt is passionate about having her son’s words printed and read.
“I want people to know the Jonathan we knew. He had a sense of time and place and people and history, where he was and who stood there before him,” she said. “To have this live again. To me, his spirit resides in his words.
“I was an advocate in his life. How can I not be an advocate now?” she asked.
It cost $1,300 to print 100 paperback books, money that came from a fund set up by Jonathan’s friends. “Any money made from the books will go back into the fund, for getting the next one published,” said Mrs. Pratt. “It’s recyclable. Jonathan would like that.”
Mrs. Pratt believes local residents will like the book as well as “anyone who loves nature.”
Since working on her son’s book, Mrs. Pratt has started looking at things differently. “Driving here, I saw a redtail, puffed in sunlight,” she said. “It makes you boil it down — that’s what poetry is.”
She said of the first book, “Each poem is independent, but each section is a part of his journey. The poetry is timeless.”
Mrs. Pratt hopes her journey will encourage others to “set a goal and keep to that goal.” She went on, “I wanted to do this when he was alive. I didn’t have the skills. I’m on a journey.”
She said that working on her son’s book has led her not just to a deeper understanding and appreciation of him but of the meaning of poetry.
“I was thinking about what poetry is and where it comes from,” she said. “It’s birthed out of internal conflict as the writer seeks resolution.”
The Collective Poetic Works of Jonathan Pratt, which sells for $14.99, is available through The Troy Book Makers, The Book House of Stuyvesant Plaza, and Market Block Books in Troy.