Interview # 9: John L. Stanizzi
Sincerely Art: Interview Series
Sy Albright interviews John L. Stanizzi – poet/author/educator
JLS: I’m not entirely sure how these pieces came about. When I was teaching I remember reading about a writing contest for shortest story ever, or some such thing. The story could not go beyond 50 words. For a while I had my students try their hands at these tiny tales. However, many years ago, I abandoned assigning these “short” stories to my students, and I stopped exploring the form myself. Until recently.
I have always loved to explore form in my poems. I tried my hand at all the usual suspects – villanelle, sestina, pantoum, triolet, garland, ghazal, et al. My most recent book, Chants (which will be published by Cervena Barva next month), is a memoir written in sonnets. When I had completed writing that book I was searching for a new project. I wrote a couple of garlands. A few ghazals. And then the thought seemed to strike me out of no real premeditation. Poems or stories that are exactly fifty words…not 51. Not 49. But 50. And I was off writing. Somewhere along the way I remembered my father always referring to a quarter as “two bits.” I did a little research, learned the history of the phrase, figured if “two bits” were 25, then, logically, “four bits” were 50, hence the title of the book – Four Bits – Fifty 50-Word Pieces. It has been a very satisfying project. Eventually the book formed itself into two sections – the first called Heads, which comprises autobiographical pieces, and the second section called Tails, comprising so-called “nature poems.”
As I said, I’ve enjoyed writing this book very, very much.
SA: I must wait impatiently for the slow frozen season to silk its way across the far landscape, bringing you to me finally, born into your eyes again and then again.
These lines are from “Heat’s Brief Return” published in Ariel Chart during June 2018.
Please expand on the deeper meaning of the lines.
JLS: Sure. Hopefully the line evokes the gradual, nearly imperceptible waning of winter’s deep, dark freeze and interminable length of time for a lover of warmth and summer like me. Hence my impatience. And the season’s change, which, as I said moves imperceptibly, and feels so far off it will never come, finally arrives, the transition as smooth as silk from winter, to late winter, to early spring, to full-blossoming summer, and with it the emergence of the people we love. People have shed their heavy clothes, the outdoors is no longer the enemy, we can see each other, do things together in community, as family, as friends, as each day is born over and over again into sunshine and warmth and the easiness of being outside in nature, together with the people we love.
SA: I noticed in your biography you have had some of your work translated into Italian. Tell us the story about how that came about.
JLS: Well, thanks to Facebook, I have had the privilege of meeting so many wonderful writers and lovely people, many of whom have become genuine friends, in spite of the fact that we will probably never actually meet face to face. For all its difficulties, this Facebook reality has been a marvelous adventure for me. I have remained in touch with many hundreds of students whom I otherwise would have lost in the world. I am able to stay in close contact with all my relatives in Italy, which was utterly impossible before FB. And, as I said, I’ve also made many new friends, some of them brilliant and generous writers.
Along the way I met Angela D’Ambra, an Italian poet and translator. We got to chatting on FB and she asked if she might translate some of my work. My answer was, “Of course.” I was ecstatic. We have become great friends, and after a tremendous amount of work on Angela’s part, not just with the daunting task of translating my work from English to Italian, but the even more challenging job of finding publishers, she succeeded. At this point – thanks entirely to Angela -- my work has appeared in several fine Italian literary publications, including El Ghibli, in the Journal of Italian Translations Bonafinni, and Poetarium Silva. Angelaa is currently working on translations of some of my new work, and her plan – she is tireless, I swear – is to have a bilingual book published in Italy – my original work and Angela’s translations side by side. We are both very hopeful. This has been a marvelous and productive and mutually respectful friendship. I am so grateful to Angela D’Abmra for being solely responsible for this exciting aspect of my writing life.
SA: I have interviewed a number of poets with collections of poems published. I am curious about one thing: do you wade through a stack of poems to piece together a book or is there some rhyme (I guess a pun there) or reason to craft something that begins to take shape.
JLS: The process has gone both ways with me. With my first book, Ecstasy Among Ghosts, I was much younger and was just writing poems, with no real notion of theme. After I had about 80 or poems, most of which I had published in magazines and journals, I decided to take a close look at the poems and try to shape them into something like a theme. Ecstasy… sort of runs from my early childhood on the inner-city streets of Hartford, up through the present as it was then those poems were written. This thematic organization was very loose because, of course, the poems were not written with any intended cohesiveness.
My second book, Sleepwalking, a series of rather odd, surreal meditations, is different. That book is a series of 31 very, very short, unpunctuated, very strange, dream-ish poems which travel from utter darkness, through a gradual brightening, and finally into light. I enjoyed writing that book very much. It was a complete departure from my other entirely accessible, grounded work. It was a satisfying piece to complete.
My third book, Dance Against the Wall was written with a general idea in mind – the “idea” was Alzheimer’s. I had just lost a dear, dear friend to this hideous disease, and then watched my father battle it for a decade before succumbing. So there are several series of poems about my friend and about my father and their struggles. There are also quite a few nature poems intended to offset or soften the horror of Alzheimer’s. The title, Dance Against the Wall comes from an experience I had with my friend at the height of her battle with Alzheimer’s. She had fixated on the children’s tune Itsy-Bitsy Spider. She had a recording of it which her husband would play nearly all day. And my friend would dance and sing all over the living room, and, like a wind-up doll, when she would dance into the wall she was undaunted – unaware – that there was a wall there, and she would just dance and dance against the wall, until someone turned her back toward the center of the room. It was a profound thing to witness. My dear friend Mary – poet – professor – unaware little child – smiling at me and singing Itsy-bitsy spider went up the water spout…, complete with hand gestures, and marching feet, chest against the wall, as if she might simply pass through. It was remarkable and heartbreaking. Dancing against the wall became a metaphor for me representing our life’s struggles. Every one of us is dancing against some wall, trying as best we can to get somewhere. We may succeed. We may not. But the way will not be easy.
My fourth book, After the Bell, is a series of poems written from the point of view of a high school teacher. They are all poems about high school students, high school teachers, and the things that go on in the hall of a high school. That book has been very well received. I think folks are curious! There are unbelievable stories, as you can imagine.
Then came Hallelujah Time!, for which I will claim divine intervention. I’ve been listening to Bob Marley and studying Rastafari since 1974. A few years ago an idea came to me to figure out which scriptural passages Bob was using as inspiration for particular songs. For example in Small Axe Bob paraphrases the 52nd Psalm –
Why boastest thou thyself in mischief, O mighty man?
The goodness of God endureth continually.
Thy tongue deviseth mischiefs;
like a sharp razor, working deceitfully.
Thou lovest evil more than good;
and lying rather than to speak righteousness.
…while Bob sings –
Why boasteth thyself
Oh, evil men
And not being clever? Oh no
I said, you're working iniquity
To achieve vanity, yeah (if a-so a-so)
But the goodness of Jah, Jah
Oh, evil men
And not being clever? Oh no
I said, you're working iniquity
To achieve vanity, yeah (if a-so a-so)
But the goodness of Jah, Jah
The point is, Bob Marley does this in many songs. I decided to call the book Hallelujah Time!, the title of a Bob song, and then use as titles for each poem in the book the titles of two of my favorite Marley albums – Exodus and Burnin’. The poems’ titles correspond with the songs’ titles on those two albums.
I approached each poem in this way – let’s say I was going to write the poem called Small Axe – using as its epigraph the Biblical quote that inspired Bob to write the song. It is here where the real work begins. My task was then to try and write a poem which stayed true to both the sense of Bob’s song AND the scriptural verse, while at the same time becoming a poem that was neither directly related to either the song or the verse, but more in tune with how the sensibility of both effected me, my life.
The poem Small Axe is an example. The notion of the scripture, and of the Bob’ song says, oh evil man don’t brag about yourself. You’re not that clever, and in the end “we” the “small axes” shall tear down big institutions, corporations, establishments, the “big trees.”
I wrote this poem in the midst of two terrible battles – the Iraq war, and the war against Alzheimer’s that my father was waging. Inherent in both scenarios, I think, is the small axe as well as the big tree.
My poem, Small Axe, is a variation on the renga, an ancient Japanese form, the primary difference being that the classical renga is a collaborative poem; obviously, my poem is not.
Here is “renga” defined. Renga, meaning “linked poem," began over seven hundred years ago in Japan to encourage the collaborative composition of poems. Poets worked in pairs or small groups, taking turns composing the alternating three-line and two-line stanzas. Linked together, renga were often hundreds of lines long, though the favored length was a 36-line form called a kasen. Several centuries after its inception, the opening stanza of renga gave rise to the much shorter haiku.
To create a renga, one poet writes the first stanza, which is three lines long with a total of seventeen syllables. The next poet adds the second stanza, a couplet with seven syllables per line. The third stanza repeats the structure of the first and the fourth repeats the second, alternating in this pattern until the poem’s end.
Thematic elements of renga are perhaps most crucial to the poem’s success. The language is often pastoral, incorporating words and images associated with seasons, nature, and love. In order for the poem to achieve its trajectory, each poet writes a new stanza that leaps from only the stanza preceding it. This leap advances both the thematic movement as well as maintaining the linking component.
Contemporary practitioners of renga have eased the form’s traditional structural standards, allowing poets to adjust line-length, while still offering exciting and enlightening possibilities. The form has become a popular method for teaching students to write poetry while working together.
SA: If you took a poll you would find some poets have latched on to technology as a means to raise poetry to another level. Some do readings. YouTube displays. Billboards. I am expecting a poem on a rocket ship. Is poetry in jeopardy or is this people being creative in a modern age?
I think technology certainly has the potential to bring poetry to another level. By that I mean, have poetry made available to more people. This is what technology does, right? More stuff to more people more quickly. And that reads to me like a recipe for disaster. In a way, technology reminds me a bit of television, a medium with profound and far-reaching potential which is used far, far too often as a medium for spewing out trash. On the other hand, I have faith that the younger generations of poets will figure out ways to utilize the technology available to them, while at the same time maintaining the integrity of the writing.
SA: I got into the habit of asking poets if they write based on an adopted artistic philosophy or is it all seat of the pants follow your muse method?
JLS: I write every day, every morning, up at 3 a.m. to work for three or four hours. It’s not always productive. Not even close. But it’s rather like going to the gym; some days you feel strong and fit and other days, well…..not so much. I suppose I would say that my artistic philosophy is “to write.” There’s no short-cut. You have to write….a lot. And read….a lot. You have to stay in shape, right? So to get back to your question, I guess my artistic philosophy is to fly by the seat of my pants, listening for the muse, and doing the things she suggests, to the best of my ability.
SA: I was originally going to ask you about rhyme schemes and sonnets but now I am interested in how a writer does a memoir in sonnet? Do explain.
JLS: My new book, Chants, is indeed a memoir written in sonnets. I got the idea from my friend, Marilyn Nelson, one our very finest poets in the country. Several years ago, Marilyn wrote a lovely book called How I Discovered Poetry, which was a chronicle of her life from the time she was about 12 until she was in her late teens. There are family poems. Travel poems. Dinner table poems. School poems, all written from the point of this young girl growing into herself and into her poetry, which continues to unfold along the path of her life. I loved the idea so much that I borrowed from Marilyn. Each sonnet (unrhymed) is a kind of anecdote or vignette about some experience of mine, ranging from things that happened to me when I was a young child, through my brief time in the military, to more recent days, topics which could have been expanded into conventional memoir (which may be expanded into conventional memoir), but for the purposes of this book were condensed into sonnet.
SA: Please list your past and present writing influences.
JLS: Well, of course this list will be quite different in a half an hour, but I will always being with W.S. Merwin. Sharon Olds. Gerald Stern. Charles Bukowski. Adrienne Rich. C.D. Wright. Charles Wright. Emily Dickinson. Donald Hall. Adonis. Jack Foley. Laura M. Kaminski. Robert Pinsky. Jane Hirshfield. Margaret Gibson. Rennie McQuilkin. Robert Cording. Agha Shahid Ali. Dick Allen.
Ask me again tomorrow, and with a few exceptions, the list will be quite different.