Peter Covino Interview with John Hoppenthaler
Peter, clearly much of your work is informed by surrealism, “Insomnia (Seven Hours)” being a case in point. Can you talk about how this influence emerged and how it functions in this poem?
Surrealism has always struck me as the most underappreciated if not reviled Avant-garde movement, coming as it did late to the “party” of other Avant-gardes in the early twentieth century, that also include Futurism—Russian Futurism especially, which has always impressed me—Cubism, Dadaism, Expressionism, and later Objectivism, for example. In the 1970s and ‘80s Mark Strand, Robert Bly, and Michael Burkard, among others, held some sway working in this mode, but that era seems to be beyond many folks, while in a European and other world poetic traditions the trajectory from foundational Avant-garde texts and Modernism seems more continuous, especially if we think of the influence of André Breton, Aimé Césaire, César Vallejo, Pablo Neruda, and Central European and Russian poets who engage surrealist elements as modes often in response to extreme political violence and deprivation, just think of Ahkmatova, Tsvetayeva, Celan, or even Szymborska’s wit, etc. Many of these poets continue to influence me, but I’m getting too heady here and far afield at the risk of over generalizing. I teach a course on Avant-garde poetic movements on a fairly regular basis, but I also teach creative writing courses and contemporary poetry and poetry writing more regularly so my own poems have to feel important, dare I say, even urgent to me based on some unconscious test of varied intersections. Lately, in classes, I’m always saying, how can we keep our poems “real” and fresh and intense and still cultivate skill and invite a potential audience, even an imagined audience that may not exist yet.
For me to extend this Surrealist mode to the present day, I try to stress the intersection of private symbol and public consciousness and of course the understanding that making dreams a more conscious process was among Freud’s greatest revelations. Really tracking and trying to understand and manage these images psychoanalytically is a lifelong pursuit for many of us. I worked as a professional social worker for many years (more on that later) and I’ve been in therapy for close to two decades on and off, so I’m not afraid of confronting difficult, unknown, or even transgressive realities; and I perhaps value them even more than other poetic skills. Poetry and visual art, whether a Picasso, Miró, or Dalí, are after all ways of making these intersections artful and memorable even daring, hopefully. Just to get at the genesis of these somewhat abstract ideas more concretely and historically—because I think that’s also important—sections of this poem began to cohere after attending a workshop while I was at the University of Utah getting my PhD studying with Donald Revell and Jackie Osherow, when Paisley Rekdal came to visit. I had just read Paisley’s second book, Six Girls Without Pants, and loved it—the directness of the images and the odd surreal title stay with me still, along with all of Revell’s work and translations. It was an impressionable time and those interactions were formative examples to engage and argue against. Most of the specific images in my poem have actual correlates and they hold an emotional truth for me that took this many years later to better understand and to continue to appreciate. Jackie Osherow especially liked where this poem was heading in early drafts, and she’s always encouraged me to keep thinking about it, and to persevere in poetry, in general….
I love how this poem works. That is, on one hand the many sentence fragments and the almost dizzying movement in location create a fractured experience while the great originality and specificity of the images and sensory details tend to ground the reader in the tangible. It’s not an easy balance to strike. How long did it take you to find this sweet spot? That is, can you talk a bit about the revision process of this poem?
Thank you, John, truly. Wow, the “sweet spot”; what a resonant and fraught phrase. Makes me think, by surreal association, of the soft spot on a baby’s head, how I always try to be careful when holding babies as if I might hurt them otherwise. Or “sweet spot” strikes me as a figure of speech from baseball, probably because it’s baseball season, equivalent to “in my wheelhouse”—a phrase I like to use a lot. Of course there’s also a sexual connotation to the phrase that seems appropriate to the poem; and in general since I came to English later, I don’t trust idioms as they frequently baffle me or set me thinking too much, as you see. With regard to this poem, and others in my new manuscript, tentatively titled Armies in the Blood (just like the second section of this poem), I’m trying to balance metaphor, directness, and issues of self and sexual identity, and loss, in as compelling ways as I can. I’ve always liked a lot of the moments in this poem too—and unconsciously that second section has given me the impetus for this whole manuscript, which is almost done and includes several poems with that same title. I see “armies in the blood” of course as an image that has to do with disease, invasiveness, and surveillance, all at once… and by extension violence and war. This new manuscript tries to take on these concepts as they intersect with my own realities in a microscopic and biological way; the vantage point of the poems is tighter, closer, and personal as always, but I also don’t want the poem to be perfectly well-behaved stripped down mythical lyric either.
For a long while, so much prizewinning poetry seemed too restrained for me or overly allegorical or erudite, and not as adventurous and emotional, but thank G-d that’s changing since I always struggle with the balance among bolder gestures and being too restrained or beholden to stale craft issues. This poem started as one larger, roaming chunk of text and then over the past decade or so, the sections slowly started to come apart in my re-readings and re-visionings and the less vital sections slipped away or became compressed. Only the images that still felt relevant enough to me seemed to need to be preserved to fill up the spaces of the page. Even figuring out how to pare / pair the lines into couplets, and indenting the second line created a psychic shift that enabled a clearer more lyrical parsing, without sacrificing the “coupling” intimacy or desire to connect; or that need to preserve parallel emotions and actual social markers such as economic crises, early memories of shame or comfort, and then therapy, or the ongoing yoga craze. The poem has always felt like a quirky meditation that I couldn’t exactly understand but couldn’t give up on either. One that emerged from real facts in my life that I jotted down in a little notebook I keep on my night stand; and which I still use when I have trouble sleeping, as the title suggests, or when I’m in that state of half-waking / half not wanting to wake up yet. We listen differently and sound different in those moments, which perhaps is closer to a more authentic self.
You were born in Sturno, Italy and immigrated to America as a child, and you are quite active in the Italian-American experience as it is represented in literature. You co-edited Essays on Italian American Literature and Culture ( Bordighera Press, CUNY, 2012) and you’ve been the poetry editor of VIA: Voices in Italian Americana since 2009. Can you speak to this interest? We live in a time when the experience of “–American” poets is an integral part of the poetry conversation, but are some of the—I don’t know—less au courant first generation experiences getting less attention? I’m a first generation German-American writer, but there’s not a lot of contemporary currency in that.
Italian American culture seems to be especially in crisis at the moment. I’m concerned that as with other assimilated immigrant groups who accept an easy racialization of experiences, Italian Americans risk the thought of becoming too comfortable in America, or “passing” for white along with its many related privileges, often at the brutalizing expense of other marginalized groups. Entire Italian American neighborhoods that were once securely working class, democratic strongholds, have now engaged this hurtful, un-nuanced rhetoric of fear and exclusion, which of course poetry vitally resists. I want to proffer an Italian American identity that is critical of nostalgia and that is active in a world culture, and certainly, with Italy and Italian diasporas everywhere, especially if one considers that 26 million people immigrated from Italy between the years 1860 and the late 1970s, roughly one half of its population…. That’s a significant psychological and economic toll on an exponential number of people, both on those who immigrated and on the country left behind.
Many of the images of this poem speak to the movements across cultures and geographic and historical boundaries and related issues of class and access to money and opportunity. There are many Italian and Italian American “signs” or signifiers as critic Fred Gardaphé might argue that locate the various speaker(s) as part of an immigrant and religious and sensual experience that is at risk of being contained or trivialized. The speaker(s) are sometimes unreliable, even somewhat unhinged, while trying to speak out against, or puzzle through, these restraints. For example, my mother, who is almost 92, made her own pasta on all special occasions and on most Sundays for years; I grew up in a strong Irish and Italian Catholic neighborhood, and I have worked in social services in New York City with a great diversity of people, so often the speaker is some construction of past and present selves, but never entirely a fixed or static self, I hope. I’ve always been drawn to the idea of “travel” and intimacy across psycho-geographic boundaries, thus the Odyssey images in that third section, or the religious iconography and locales in New Mexico in the fourth section. The challenge of trying to understand these movements and images in the way that psychoanalysis tracks experiences leaves us all feeling “behind” or wanting a common poetic (read, less hurtful, more inclusive) language that may be “familiar to some of us, at least.”
Italian American writers and a plurality of Italian American experience seems underrepresented for sure in American poetic discourse, and that may well be true of the German American experience as well, so don’t give up on that pursuit, John. Sadly the same stereotypes, which I cringe to elaborate, continue and inhere in entirely unsophisticated and unproblematic ways. We need to dig deeper as readers and critics to see what these cultural signifiers are doing in relation to other socio-political, economic, and poetic traditions. The fact that there are not more well known Italian American writers winning major national recognition is lamentable, and perhaps bad for America. W.S. Di Piero comes to mind and Elaine Equi, Peter Gizzi, Paul Mariani, Bob Viscusi, and Lucia Perillo, Kathleen Ossip, Anne Marie Macari, Maria Mazziotti Gillan, and Kim Addonizio, just to mention a worthy few. More to the point, exploring these writers from an Italian American and multiethnic perspective, and one that considers class and cultural markers could add a new, wider lens on their work that potentially enriches and educates all of us.
My first experience with you was as an editor at Barrow Street, a journal of which you were a founding editor. Can you let us know what’s going on there? I know you’ve been publishing some terrific books as well as the journal.
Barrow Street started in 1994 at the Greenwich House Music School which is located on Barrow Street in NYC, when a group of us came together to raise money for the Greenwich House arts and social service programs, including their senior programs, day care, and drug dependency services. With the nurturing and steadfast support of the director at the time, Anita Kurman Gulkin (who then tragically died of cancer at a young age), we began visiting programs to teach classes and raise money by hosting the Barrow Street Reading Series to support the work of the center. In those early days of the 1990s, Anita herself helped us fund the establishment of the journal and her niece, the poet, Hollis Kurman, continues to be a beloved friend and supporter of our work. Well known poets, such as Agha Shahid Ali, Patricia Spears Jones, Tomaž Šalamun, Phillis Levin, Billy Collins, Jean Valentine, Yusef Komunyaaka, Martha Rhodes, Lynn Emanuel, Tory Dent, Tina Chang and Steph Burt, and many others read for us for free or practically nothing, often donating money directly to the work of the press. In 1998, we became incorporated and printed two journals a year for more than fifteen years, much before it became more cost effective because of digital printing. Since 2007, the University of Rhode Island, where I have been teaching for the past decade, has provided essential support, and the books-end of press is also associated with the Graduate PhD Program in English and Creative Writing, where graduate students are given modest stipends to work as Managing Editors in charge of production and outreach. We publish four or five poetry books a year, and the print journal is still coordinated out of New York City, with a group of truly committed editors and trustees who all donate their time.
You had a ten-year career as a professional social worker in the fields of foster care and AIDS services in NYC, and then you decided to acquire a PhD in English and Creative Writing from the University of Utah. What brought you to that life-changing decision? Are there any regrets? Are there things you learned as a social worker that you’ve brought over to the making of poems and/or the teaching and service you do now at Rhode Island?
I love social work and miss the immediacy of it almost every day. My work in foster care started even four years before I earned an M.S. in Social Work Planning from Columbia University. I worked in Jamaica, Queens at a Catholic Children Services agency, and the devotion of the staff toward bettering the community and the frontline work of engaging members of the community as caseworkers and directors and supervisors, and even as foster parents was rewarding beyond anything I have done since, at some level. Armies in the Blood, my current manuscript, is a return to that era of the early and mid-1990s when I first learned the value of social justice causes firsthand and the value of healing myself from a violent Italian American family that didn’t accept my identity, even as all around me the ravages of the AIDS crisis were raging and the crack epidemic was still out of control. The love I found working in various social work settings has been unmatched; working in those varied systems gave me an inside look at how friendships are formed across racial and ethnic barriers. These are not friendships and realities easy to sustain, especially now, nearly two hundred miles and, in frequent bad traffic, six hours away. So, yes, of course there are regrets, though I don’t for a moment undervalue how fortunate I am or how important my work is here at the University of Rhode Island, which is a public university and where many students work full-time just to afford an education, even as the vibrancy of NYC and its literary scene is impossible to replicate. In NYC’s endless recombinant daily intensity, you learn so much and you are challenged in different social and emotional ways that emerge in the poetry as well, I would argue. My own work seems to have grown a lot in perspective, and I don’t think Rhode Island, in discreet pockets, is so different from the rest of the Rust Belt in the Mid-West. Rhode Island suffered mightily in the recent housing crisis of 2007-09 etc. and some people still seem somewhat resistant to hear my more radical voice at times, but that’s helped to sharpen my message and steel my resolve to work harder and to insist on the importance of poetry and creative writing in our state. We have a vibrant Creative Writing Program that is here to stay at the University of Rhode Island, which includes our Read-Write Guest Writers and Scholars Series; and Barrow Street Books; an annual three-day Writers Conference now in its eleventh year, as well as the Ocean State Review our literary journal, both of which I also help found. That adage about thrifty New Englanders is true to my experience, folks work hard in discerning ways to stretch a dollar, and we are trying to create a culture of “Yes” as our colleagues like to say, even when finances are meager.
Finally, you are also a translator. What are you currently working on in that area?
I’m currently nearing completion on a comprehensive translation project of the selected poems of Italian poet Dario Bellezza (1944-1996), who died a premature death related to complications of AIDS. Until 2015, Bellezza’s books were all out of print even though he won wide-acclaim including the Viareggio Prize for his second book, Morte segreta, (1975) Secret Death. Among other notable achievements, Bellezza’s work extends Pier Paolo Pasolini’s daring vision of political and queer outspokenness in a twenty-five year career during which Bellezza published eight full-length poetry collections and several novels and plays. I feel lucky to have a few presses interested in the project, and this summer I will be on a fellowship in Italy and hopeful about finalizing the book.
Thank you, John, for these insightful questions and for this wonderful opportunity to share some of my work.
Insomnia (Seven Hours)
I. Each Morning a Fog
A man with an Irish woman I loved once
visited the rocky cliffs on the West Coast of Ireland.
They wrote me cards in the lost language,
phoned me diligently each day—
so much devotion, their hearts
the size of two hands.
A mother is making pasta now, kneading dough,
flapping wings in the pasta.
The newlyweds sit at the table with us;
We know when to end our discussions.
No knots, no crosses.
Chili pepper for the pasta our conversation.
Soon I can leave this place.
But I can't see the morning for the fog—
the trees are roadblocks, stump people;
They speak in chirps, chirpers, perhaps birds.
The way a mother rolls the pasta, like rolling curlers,
Dippity-do on the paper wrappers.
II. Armies in the Blood: Florida
Sometimes my blood pressure drops—
it’s usually 3 p.m. or 9 p.m.—and I sleep:
two lulls in people’s lives, in their 30’s and during retirement
(many will argue this point).
Retirement communities are useful.
Though they seldom show hockey games.
There are little soldiers in the blood—
winning many battles
in spite of skyrocketing interest rates, and inflation . . . .
Sir John Barclay helped England recover from the War—
Barclays Bank, (you know) this could be true.
Lots of people in this room are sneezing; cannons,
sharpshooters, in the shape of pens (hard to hold steady).
I have to finish now; Florida has two hockey teams.
They’re catching me. Tomorrow they’ll find out
(or) I’ll be late for work.
Next to the bank
where they buy dust,
Main Street ends
near the river at the crossroads
with large, snow-capped mountains
that rise from ash heaps. . .
Schenectady doesn't exist.
Schenectady is not glorious Ithaca.
Even the name seems fake,
sounds like skinny naked lady.
The woman in the first part of the dream
is my grandmother.
Her hands are bandaged.
Because she has no teeth,
she speaks in the dialect of fish.
One by one she counts the street signs.
There are seventeen:
Stop signs, U-Turns,
IV. Seven Hours
Yoga or Melatonin. So many sleepless nights—
& I’m always dreaming of Gary Snyder and Nepal—
it snows all the time, blizzards,
and I can't understand a thing.
When I feed my mouth, my brain becomes bored
and tasteful. Rice milk (my favorite)
and raisins perhaps or peanut butter—
definitely not bank lines or loan officers.
If people or things are in the pictures we didn't see before,
I will be justified and vindicated.
If not, I’ll return
to the corner ladder-stool.
But be gentle—these seven hours
have lasted a lifetime.
V. Reliving the Past
Therapy’s not supposed to be traumatic;
but I'm hungry for body contact right now.
The sex was good, scary a little.
This reminds me of—and this reminds me—
when I make connections, the therapist is happy because I'm
on the worktable of youth, in the basement or
in the playroom with Rousseau's lions and leafy palm trees.
The room is not a jungle,
the room is a garden with geraniums, potted plants with heavy white bases.
A forklift moves them to the front porch
(I've never seen this happen—but I'm told the floor is scuffed,
the plastic slipcovers on the living room sofa covered in dirt).
A statue of Saint Anthony is buried upside down—or
maybe his back’s to the door.
Can you tell me where Taos is?
Why each house is an elaborate or not so elaborate adobe hut?
Why the mountains are Blood of Christ?
The whole point of this is to tell you of the naked man
by the hot springs, how he was urinating,
next to him, a military hat of sorts.
I want to die of old age in a tropical environment,
where they speak a language familiar to some of us, at least.
VI. Grandmother drank all the rice milk,
she ate all the mushrooms, sausage and peppers off
After the rats fell on her face and down her
she showed us the imaginary bite marks
on her sagging breasts.
It was a heartfelt gesture, tender,
except for the kitchen smell of must.
She gave us bad canned fruit
that made us sick on the plane ride home.
Grandma's dressed in black dancing with Angeline!
Angeline’s in a bright yellow jumper from Hee-Haw.
That was before the divorce; before Angeline
moved to Washington without the children.
My stomach, from eating raisin bran
and rice milk, looks like this—
In the reading from the Gospel today,
they mentioned God enjoys rice milk....
But I can't be sure. The church
is large and I’m so far behind.