Anthony DiMatteo Interview, with Nicelle Davis
Why do you write poetry?
Like any life-long poet, I'm driven to the page with thoughts, images, feelings, memories of past and future events that I don't know what else to do with. Often the compulsion to write feels like an alien being or force field inhabiting my head scot free. It observes my life, sorting out my experiences, living through my senses, waiting to be let free or fed or put to bed. It sometimes takes over my mouth in social situations, making me sound wittier than I know how to be. It also makes me come off as a compulsive truth-talker sometimes, a would-be parrhesiast, this rude, vulgar dude who puts on this pose of being forced to say what he thinks is true. Yes, that's how this onlooker inside me, barking and honking, makes me appear to others and to myself.
But I know I am no puppet of compulsion. I have to live in the outside world like everyone else, somewhat against our wills – I mean who asks to be born? Our fictions and our motives for them meet in the brawling immensity of the same sky.
When I do a poem, I sit down with the barest of images or phrases. Yes, nowadays, with the visual no longer dominant as my catalyst, it's usually a phrase or two I first work on and I have hardly any idea where the poem is going or even if one will begin to look up at me. A piece of American idiom such as "you don't say" or "rats on that" or "is this road some kind of joke?" will stick in my head because it has a certain rhythm to it both as a fly-by day snippet and in the conversational context in which it typically occurs – maybe a bar in Michigan where I've never been or one in the Bronx where I first learned how to drink.
That opens up the possibility of a poem for me as a kind of experiment or potion. Sometimes the poem or charm works, sometimes not.
But whatever the outcome, writing throws a sop to the make-it-art compulsion dogging me. When I feel I've written a good poem – and which one is not in the first glow of a proud parent's gaze ? – then I can relax the rest of the day as if I had chopped and carried logs to heat the house or something. Of course, back in the outside world, not so far beyond my asylum mode, I'm holding a vacuum in my hand, feeding the cat, testifying before a parole board, or lost in the wilderness somewhere like everyone else.
I taught in a prison and grammar school,
one filled with cons, the other with moms.
I often fantasized about having them meet
for frank discussions of Oedipus Rex
and Lady Chatterley’s Lover.
Frustrated in different ways, they were
fiercely motivated to read.
“Heh prof, we doin’ Eatty Pussy today
and his momma Clit?” “It’s Clytemnestra,”
I had to aver, “and she’s not in the play.”
One lawyer-inmate reading the Greek,
left the class, not up to his standard.
Nearly the youngest in both classes,
I often hid my face behind my hands
before they caught on. “When you take off
your glasses, we know you don’t know,”
a group of the housewives decided.
I blushed when a forty-year old observed
of Lawrence’s sex-wise gardener,
“My husband’s a landscaper, knows
his flowers and shrubs, not much
about the birds and bees, though.
So much for blood consciousness.
What’s left but sex in the head?”
“Try belly-dancing,” two called out.
My inmates too, captive audience
twice over, posed riddles of fate.
“Oedipus slept with his mom and killed
his pops. He belongs in here with us.”
The warden told me to avoid talk
of sex, race, politics and religion,
but no one could clip Lao Tze
or my students reading late at night
in their cube. Most had lived
more than I knew, gap more of life
than of mind. “Don’t be afraid,”
they told me. “In this hole,
the stories open a light.”
The men suffered from ironies of violence,
the women from double binds of love.
In an utter silence of understanding,
my inmates read Kafka and Soyinka,
my housewives Sappho and Millay.
Their smiles often suppressed
a darkness that made me peer into mine.
I worked hard to keep my face blank,
fumbling when our eyes met. Mornings
would find me frisked at a barbed gate.
One evening, when I stooped to fix my hair
in the boys room, a little song
floated in through an open window,
making my childhood well up inside me,
once innocent of hatred and sin.