NA: This is such a beautiful book, and a welcome gift in this dark time. But before we talk about it, I wanted to ask you about the anthology you are putting together in response to Trump’s presidency.
DD: Thanks for the kind words, Nin! I am working on this anthology titled: Misrepresented People: Poetic Responses to Trump's America. I’m looking for poetry (previously published and unpublished) that bears witness against the misogyny, racism, homophobia, and downright fascism that has always surrounded us, but is incarnated in the president elect. The poems need not be directly about Donald Trump, but should address any of the various complex social ills of which his election is a symptom. Poets interested in submitting work should send 3-5 poems in a word document by February 20, 2017 to email@example.com.
My dream would be that this anthology would be a means to raise funds for groups and causes that may find themselves steamrolled under the new administration. I also hope this work would in some small way galvanize opposition against the encroaching autocracy, jingoism, anti-intellectualism, and hate of a Trump White House.
NA: Your poetry really does speak of the ability to make light out of darkness, whether you are writing about chemotherapy, your mother’s tears, or your father’s death. I wondered if we could start with a poem from the book, maybe “Field Trip”?
DD: This is a poem I wrote a few years before my father died, after he had first undergone surgery for what was initially thought to be a routine form of thyroid cancer. I should also add that the staff at Sloan-Kettering, as anyone who has been there knows, is the most amazing medical staff in the world, from the orderlies on up.
On a day my father almost died,
I watched middle school children parade
by the window of the cab I sat in
as we waited for the light to turn
and York Avenue opened up like his sutures,
poorly stitched. I watched them walk on tiptoes,
woodwinds under their arms, necks free
of lacerations, tracheae intact.
I saw them disappear down 68th Street
and thought of the orchids that surround
all the waiting rooms in Sloan-Kettering,
how their heads dip downward, as if heaven
were a hollow beneath the earth.
NA: Who are some of the writers who have helped and inspired you?
DD: I have had wonderful poets who taught me at Binghamton University: Karen Terebessey, Paul-William Burch, Liz Rosenberg, Maria Mazziotti Gillan, and Joe Weil.
I admire poets like David Lehman, for whom scholarship and serious study of various poetic traditions is as important as their creative work. I particularly admire Philip Metres, Martín Espada, and Sascha Feinstein; all three of these men embody values of total empathy, committed social engagement, commendable scholarly rigor, and uncompromising artistic integrity.
I’m very grateful for my friendship with the novelist, Tom Bouman, who is one of the most honorable and intelligent men I know. I am grateful for my friendship with Nicole Santalucia, who is like a sister to me, and who introduced me to you, Nin. I am also lucky to count two talented poets and former guest bloggers at BAP as friends: Abby E. Murray and Tara Betts.
Two contemporary poets who died too young and whose work I continually reread are Jason Shinder and Joe Salerno.
Some younger contemporary poets I admire include: Patricia Colleen Murphy, Jen Levitt, Grace Bonner, and drea brown.
Recently, I’ve been reading through and loving The Collected Poems of Muriel Rukeyser.
In fiction, I love Dostoyevsky, Tolstoy, Borges, Twain, Kafka, and Cervantes. I have reread Don Quixote many times, and each time is better than the last.
The poets I return to again and again are the same poets I have been reading since I first fell in love with poetry at eighteen years old: Gerard Manley Hopkins, Robert Frost, Stephen Mitchell’s Rilke, William Blake, Christopher Smart, Allen Ginsberg, William Carlos Williams, Russell Edson, Walt Whitman, Emily Dickinson, Robert Bly’s Miguel Hernandez, and various translations of Federico García Lorca.
There are so many poets I love and admire! I could go on for hours. Even when I quarrel with a poem, I feel like it is helping me in some hard-to-define sense.
NA: You also teach high school? What a gift you must be to those students! Tell me,
What is the most challenging part of teaching poetry?
DD: I try not to teach it. I try to make poetry the center of my classroom. I try to model my engagement with poetry, which is more essential than academic. I begin the school year by reciting Robert Pinsky’s “Samurai Song,” which begins: “When I had no roof/ I made audacity my roof.” On the door to my classroom, I have the Ezra Pound poem, “Commission,” which begins “Go, my songs, to the lonely and the unsatisfied.” Most of my career as a public high school teacher has been spent teaching students with learning disabilities in a general education setting. Despite the fact that many of my students are reluctant readers, I’ve been able to expose hundreds of students over the years to the work of poets as various as T.S. Eliot, William Shakespeare, Rodrigo Toscano, Eileen Myles, Wanda Coleman, Christina Rossetti, Kay Ryan, Reginald Dwayne Betts, H.D., Frank O’Hara, Lucille Clifton, Gwendolyn Brooks, Rae Armantrout, Robert Lowell, and so on. And the wonderful thing about working with kids is that they meet these poets and their poems with none of the prejudices that an experienced reader might…for these kids, a poem is a poem is a poem. A poem by Natalie Diaz enters the air of the classroom with the same bona fides as the best lines of Tennyson. Many of the students I teach will go no further than community college, many will wind up working in retail, most, it’s safe to assume, will never seek out a book of poetry in their adult lives. However, in tenth grade they will have swam with me and Melville and the Maldive shark.
Last year, my wife and I were in a local clothing store and when we went up to the counter, the girl at the register was one of my former students. I hadn’t seen her since she graduated about seven years previously and, honestly, I did not remember her at all. When she saw me, however, she very excitedly rolled up her sleeves and held out her wrists to show me the words “Nothing Gold” on the left, and “Can Stay” on the right, tattooed in beautiful green and yellow cursive. Then, she thanked me for introducing her to the poem. I’d like to think of this former student’s tattoos as a metaphor for what I hope to accomplish as a teacher. You never know what few words might be carried at the wrist through much suffering, might offer a calligraphy of hope, might overwrite a racing pulse.
NA: I am always interested in titles. When did you know that this was your title?
DD: The line is adapted from a line in William Carlos Williams’ Paterson. I have been in love with Paterson and WCW since I was an undergraduate in Liz Rosenberg’s advanced poetry workshop. Liz encouraged me to write my own Paterson about Binghamton, NY, my hometown. I spent years writing mostly bad poems about this place. Years later, thanks to my teachers, the New Jersey poets, Maria Mazziotti Gillan and Joe Weil, I became acquainted with the real Paterson, New Jersey, and Williams’ work gained added nuance for me.
After my father died (he had a rare form of thyroid cancer along with bile duct cancer), I returned to Paterson. The sprawl and beauty of Williams’ failed epic gained poignancy when I read it against the profound suffering and degradation I witnessed firsthand as I took care of my father throughout his final illness. Poetry at its finest affirms the dignity of human life, a dignity which fountains through even the worst degradation and the most profound suffering.
NA: Is there anything else you’d like to say about this book?
Just that this book chronicles my enthusiasms and loves. In addition to poems about my family and my hometown, there are poems about my heroes: Sun Ra, Thelonious Monk, Don Cherry, Professor Longhair, Muddy Waters, Charles Mingus, Nina Simone, John Coltrane, Mississippi John Hurt, and Junior Kimbrough.
I’m a practicing Roman Catholic and the book includes many poems that explore issues related to faith (in the Kierkegaardian sense—as a process of infinite becoming).
The book also explores the limits and backwaters of American empire.
I try to write from what the great Irish poet Patrick Kavanagh called the parochial perspective. The provincial poet, Kavanagh argues, “does not trust what his eyes see until he has heard what the metropolis—towards which his eyes are turned—has to say on the subject.” The parochial poet, on the other hand, never doubts the artistic and social validity inherent in his home turf. My home turf is as much the music and art that I love as it is upstate New York, my family, and my Catholicism.
For all the flaws in this first book, I’m proud of it. If there is anything good in it, the merit belongs to the excellent teachers that I have had over the years and to the people whom I love, especially to my wife, Christina.
Dante Di Stefano is the author of Love is a Stone Endlessly in Flight (Brighthorse Books, 2016). His poetry, essays, and reviews have appeared in Brilliant Corners, Iron Horse Literary Review, The Los Angeles Review, New Orleans Review, Obsidian, Prairie Schooner, Shenandoah, The Writer's Chronicle, and elsewhere. Most recently, he is the winner of the Red Hen Press Poetry Award and Crab Orchard Review’s Special Issue Feature Award in Poetry. He lives in Endwell, New York.