It isn’t often that you have the chance to understand a high school mentor as both a child and adult but I have had the fortunate opportunity to know poet John L. Stanizzi as both a teacher and friend. Myself, like many others have benefited from his ability to make poetry a deeply personal experience rather than simply a section in an English class. The very fact that I was able to attend his reading on a Wednesday in February as an editor at The Long River Review is largely inspired by Stanizzi’s generous guidance into the world of literature and creative writing. Stanizzi has a way of making poetry accessible and inviting. A testament to John’s guidance was clear as the black box co-op space filled to capacity with standing room only. The evening opened with remarks from Bessy Reina. Stanizzi opened with “Broken Arm” which is a recollection of third grade during which he broke arm his stealing peaches from a neighbor’s tree to impress girls, donning a Batman mask and cape. The poem commented on a desire for attention and love with humor. Stanizzi continued with several works about witnessing the experience of Alzheimer’s disease, including a particularly memorable one called “DLROW.”
After the reading, I had the opportunity to ask John some questions about his work as a writer.
Could you talk about your writing process? Do you have a writers group? Do you set deadlines for yourself or are you a “slave to inspiration”?
I’d say I am a “slave to inspiration” who insists on writing every day to battle that tendency. It becomes a question of which is worse – waiting around for something to say, or forcing myself to say something that isn’t very interesting. I tend to choose the latter.
I’m a very early riser; I’m up between 3 and 4 a.m. The quiet peacefulness of that time of day helps.
How has retirement changed your writing process? How have your “identities” changed?
Well, when I was teaching full-time I had to pick my spots. I’d have to wait for vacations or summer to be able to find large blocks of time in which to write. After the initial fear that teaching – the long hours, the intellectual drain – would destroy my writing, I actually got used to the schedule and it worked for me.
When I retired I was a little blindsided by what all that extra time can do. At first I found it really very easy not to write at all, thinking, “Well, I have lots of time. I’ll do it tomorrow.” I was in another realm of adjustment that I could not have predicted, though I probably should have.
As I’ve adjusted I’ve found – or am finding – that having more time takes the pressure off having to pick my spots, and it allows me to work more slowly, which has been a pleasant surprise. I mean I can spend long periods of time on a handful of lines as opposed to having to spend short periods of time on entire poems. I hope that makes sense to you.
You have five books of poetry published- what was the editing process like?
Well, by the time I have a book ready to go to my publishers it’s pretty much done. I mean that my own revision or editing process is really pretty thorough, and so the “editing” process with the publisher is more like “proofreading” than editing, though on occasion my publisher will suggest changes. Sometimes we agree. Sometimes we don’t. I find working with my publishers a very helpful and painless experience. Rennie McQuilkin, publisher of Antrim House Books, is one of my publishers, and Robin Stratton, in Boston, at Big Table Book Publishers, is my other. They’re wonderful!
How do you balance the idea of “poetry as product” and poetry as a personal catharsis? Do you ever struggle with the idea of packaging your work for a reader versus your personal catharsis?
No. I never think about it, not beyond the fact that I hope people like my poems, of course.
Do you have any acceptance or rejection stories that you would like to share with an audience of inexperienced writers?
I don’t think so, though I will say that you just never know. I’ve been sorely disappointed by some smaller journals, and quite pleasantly surprised by some larger ones. And vice versa, of course!
I’d also say that there are lots of so-called “little mags” that are very open to fairly inexperienced writers and that is a win-win situation. The small magazines are often labors of love and always on very, very thin financial ice. By supporting them you not only help them survive but you also advance the word of poetry. And it’s a lovely, symbiotic relationship because, in turn, the little magazines are getting your work out there.
Of course, if you’re writing for the sole purpose of publishing……..
You are very funny. Do you find yourself using humor in your writing?
Thank you! Now that is high compliment! Yes, I do like to write about things that make me laugh. And lots of things make me laugh, and laughing allows me to heal. Yes. I’d like to move my readers or listeners as much with humor as with seriousness. What’s better than a rowdy laughing jag!? In fact, I have a couple of poems banging around in my head about some things my father and I did together during his struggle with Alzheimer’s that are uproariously funny. And I know that if he were here and well he’d laugh his ass off!
I heard once that “poets are forever trying to recreate the first poem they really loved.” What was the first poem that you remember really moving you?
When I was very young – 8 th grade to be exact – I had gotten ahold of a copy of Dylan Thomas’s Quite Early One Morning. I can’t imagine where I got it, to tell you the truth, but I still have it. The words on the page were magical to me. It was the strangest feeling, the best feeling. They were not like words at all, but like a kind of music — or something — that got into me, that made me want to try and do it too. Very strange. Very surreal. So fortunate.
After that, it was My Grandmother’s Love Letters, by Hart Crane.
How have your political alignments inspired your work? What would you say about poetry as a vehicle for social justice?
I wouldn’t consider myself a “political” poet any more than I’d consider myself a “nature” poet or a “formalist,” or whatever. That question immediately makes me think of Mark Strand’s poem Reasons for Moving in which he writes,
We all have reasons
to keep things whole.
If moving is the same as writing, well then I write to keep things whole. If what I write about happens to be political then it’s because I needed to clarify or understand or cope with a certain political issue. But I am not, by nature, a political poet, which is to say I am not a writer who goes looking specifically for political topics to write about any more than I look for familial topics or nature topics. I just try to be open to all of it.
There’s a worry that self-publishing, whether digitally or not, creates a void of honest and difficult criticism. What do you think about self-publishing?
Poems are as varied and complex as the people who write them. And I think that however a person is able to arrive at some measure of satisfaction or fulfillment is OK with me. Whether you choose to labor a lifetime trying to publish or never spend a minute of your time worrying about it is entirely up to you. Your choice. Whether you’re banging on the doors of major presses or publishing your own work yourself is up to you. Again…your choice. You know, I’ve reached an age now where finding fault with how folks go about their own lives is not anything I’m interested in doing. If a person wants to self-publish I would say, “Best of luck!” Hey, look at the first edition of Leaves of Grass!
You have a history with working with physical space and your body—from your theatrical experiences. Could you speak a little about the merit of reading poetry aloud?
Well, yes, for me it’s very important. It’s an interesting thing. I don’t think I’m a very good conversationalist. I feel rather awkward and inept in casual conversation. But I find I’m very relaxed reading my poems aloud. Of course, that’s a bit complicated too. My wife will tell you that as I approach a reading I become more and more tense about the whole proposition, complaining quite a bit about how much I hate doing it. Once I’m behind the mic, though, I’m fine.
I always tell my students that poetry is spoken art! It is spoken art. If I assign poems for them to read I encourage my students to read them aloud, lots of times, memorize them even. I encourage students to “hear” poetry as “sound” first, something musical, a beautiful noise. Worry about “getting it” later on. Just enjoy the sound. I purposely choose so-called difficult poems to help them along. I’ll read Sunday Morning by Wallace Stevens, or long sections of The Waste Land, or Rimbaud, or James Tate…anything that I’m pretty sure will leave them in no-man’s land. That is a good thing! I want them to experience the language as lovely sound. We can move on to comprehension later. So I’d say that the merit of reading poetry aloud is very much akin to the merit of listening to music. It’s beautiful.
Would you like to talk about any upcoming projects?
Sure. I have a new book coming out, hopefully this month, maybe in April, called Hallelujah Time! This will be my second book with Big Table in Boston. This book is based loosely on the songs of Bob Marley, specifically the albums Burnin’ and Exodus.
The project began when I started looking for the biblical quotations that inspired Bob to write so many of the songs. It was really rewarding to compare Bob’s paraphrase with the actual Bible quote. For example in Africa Unite, when Bob sings How good and how pleasant it would be before God and man to see the unification of all Rastaman, he is referencing Psalm 133:1 – Behold, how good and how pleasant it is for brethren to dwell together in unity! Or in I Know, when Bob sings, Like a ship that’s tossed and driven battered by the angry sea, he is paraphrasing James 1:6 – But let him ask in faith, nothing wavering. For he that wavereth is like a wave of the sea driven with the wind and tossed. There are lots and lots of these kinds of examples.
Once I linked up the Bible quote with the lyric then I began thinking about the “sense” of the quote and the “sense” of Bob’s song. The “sense” behind these things. That’s when the idea for the book arose. Each poem bears the title of the song on those two albums (two of my favorites) Burnin’ and Exodus. Each poem’s epigraph is the Bible verse that inspired Bob’s song. And then my poem, hopefully, reflects the spirit or the sense of the song, but through my own experiences. It has been a very rewarding project, and while I’m a little sad to be finished with it, I’m also excited to see this book published.
John L. Stanizzi is the author of Ecstasy Among Ghosts, Sleepwalking, Windows, and Dance Against the Wall and After the Bell. His poems have appeared in The New York Quarterly, Tar River Poetry, Rattle, Freshwater, Passages North, The Spoon River Quarterly, Poet Lore, The Connecticut River Review, and many other publications. Stanizi has read at many venues throughout Connecticut. He has introduced both Connecticut poet laureate Dick Allen and Natasha Trethewey, Pulitzer Prize winner and U.S. Poet Laureate at the Sunken Garden Poetry Festival.
You can find more information on his website, http://johnlstanizzi.com/