Gianmarc Manzione’s first collection of poems, This Brevity, was published by Parsifal Press in 2006,
portions of which appeared in The Paris Review, The Southern Review, Raritan and other journals. He currently is at work on a follow-up collection, portions of which have appeared in Alabama Literary Review, Inkwell, Iodine Poetry Journal, Literal Latte and elsewhere. Gianmarc has taught English and Creative Writing at the University of South Florida as well as the University of Tampa, where he served as contributing editor for the Tampa Review. He currently lives in Dallas, Texas, with his wife, Brittni, and his cat, Cleo.
Gianmarc Manzione Interview, with Kaite Hillenbrand
There are many things I love about these poems – the perfect verbs, the sounds, the narratives, the stacks of images. One thing I really love about these poems is the way time enters them. Time elements are juxtaposed in surprising ways that call for reflection – for instance, from “Voyage,” the lines “Now a wave that reaches for the window forever / withdraws for just as long”. “Summertime Blues” speaks of summer’s “passing / eternity” and “my life’s hurried minute”. The other poems you’ve shared with us are also aware of time and how it passes, what time brings with it, what it leaves behind, and ways people deal with that. What gets you about time? What is most wonderful about time? Most terrible? How do you deal with having to deal with time?
Thank you so much for your very kind words about my work.
This sort of question always brings to mind those amazing lines from Canto V of Dante’s Inferno, the gorgeous canto about the suicides, Paolo and Francesca. At one point, Dante turns his attention to the inflexible circumstance of the past, and I think Ciardi’s translation still captures it most powerfully:
The Double grief of a lost bliss
is to recall its happy hour in pain.
That is one thing that fascinates me about time and, more specifically, about the way the past works. The good times cannot be relived; the bad times cannot be undone.
One of my favorite radio talk show hosts—the brilliant Phil Hendrie of Phil Hendrie Show fame—went on a rant about this topic not too long ago. He was saying that the only element of time that is real and actual is the present moment—this fleeting moment in which I type these words, the moment that waits for no one—and that the past and the future merely are the baubles of our imagination. They do not exist anywhere except in the mind; they are just concepts we treat as real when in fact they are illusions.
Hendrie may not have known it—or, considering how brilliant and well-read he is, perhaps he did—but he was speaking to a favorite passage of mine from St. Augustine’s Confessions. I am yet to read a more fascinating treatment of the multiplicities of time than I find in that book. In chapter XIV of Book Eleven, Augustine asks “But the two times, past and future, how can they be, since the past is no more and the future is not yet?” In chapter XXI of Book Eleven, he takes his inquiry much further:
We measure time in its passing. If you ask me how I know this, my answer is that I know it because we measure time, and we cannot measure what does not exist, and past and future do not exist. But how do we measure time present, since it has no extent? It is measured while it is passing; once it has passed, it cannot be measured, for then nothing exists to measure.
So the only reason we know we are in the present is that it soon will be past; we recognize that a moment existed only when we cannot have it back. Perhaps the preoccupation with the labyrinthine nature of time you identify in my poems results from an ongoing struggle to hold time still for once. Of course, that is not possible. And thank goodness for that, because I may run out of poems if it were.
How do you understand the way your writing intersects with time?
I think the intersection between time and my poems is founded on a relentless anxiety about the passage of time. My first book of poems was titled This Brevity, of course, so perhaps this is an anxiety that has colored my aesthetic for a long time now. I find that most of my poems emerge from anxiety, actually—anxiety over the fear that I may never again write another poem; anxiety about life getting in the way of my poems, as inevitably it will; anxiety about those “things that will pass despite me” you note from my poem “Inconstancies.” No wonder the title for the new collection of poems I’ve been working on for the past six years includes the word “panic.”
I am someone who has gone years at a time without writing a single poem, because I felt I had said all there was to say the way I was saying it, if that makes sense, and I had to wait for new possibilities to find me. When you’re a writer, comfort zones are minefields. You must avoid them, unless you don’t mind being destroyed. That may be the hardest part about being a writer. The writing itself is hard enough, but it’s the time in between that can get you into real trouble.
I believe that, above all, is the explanation Andrew Solomon offers in his book The Noonday Demon: An Atlas of Depression for why poets historically have ranked among the most melancholic and self-destructive of writers. He pins it on the sometimes long wait between poems and the agony therein. Novelists or playwrights, he argues, at least have longer projects that can satiate the writer’s creative urge for years on end. Poets, perhaps not. Unless you’re Glyn Maxwell or Anne Carson and you have a book-length poem on your hands. (Incidentally, the book-length poem of Maxwell’s I have in mind is titled Time’s Fool.) But even so, it is not as if novelists are immune to the waiting that Tom Petty tells us is “the hardest part.” I believe I read somewhere that Victor Hugo fell into a debilitating depression upon completion of The Hunchback of Notre Dame. If you’re a writer, you can only outrun that doom for so long before it finds you.
“You can run on for a long time,” Johnny Cash sings. But that’s about all you can do. And when it comes to time, that is precisely what it demands, that you run on for as long as you can only to end up where everyone else eventually arrives. No one in any station in life is allowed to just sit still. “Is not man’s life upon earth trial without intermission?” St. Augustine asks in Book Ten of his Confessions. Man, this is getting depressing. [Insert fluffy kittens here.]
On a related note, many of the poems you’ve shared with us mention memories – both the awareness that a memory has just been made and the impact those memories have on the present. These poems show a fondness toward memories. But they also reveal what is described in “Inconstancies” as “an initial unease / with the momentary, with things that will pass despite me.” I’ve heard it said that memory is “imperfect” – that is, no one remembers things the way they actually happened; most people forget things, and no one’s initial perception is the whole picture to begin with. How do you understand memory? Is it imperfect? And/or is there a perfection (or some other virtue) to the imperfection?
I hope you will indulge one more passage from Augustine here, because, once again, his voice seems like the most appropriate one to summon in response to this question. In Chapter VIII of Book Four, he has this to say about the alchemy of memory:
Time takes no holiday. It does not roll idly by, but through our senses works its own
wonders in the mind. Time came and went from one day to the next; in its coming and its passing it brought me other hopes and memories, and little by little patched me up again with the kind of delights that once had been mine, but which in my grief I had abandoned.
When I taught Intro to Creative Writing at the University of Tampa, I used to tell my students that the senses are the only tools writers have to convey information to their readers. But they also are the only tools human beings have to retrieve information about their pasts. Memory is indeed inherently flawed, I believe, because it is something we have to reconstruct in our imaginations, using the five senses as the bricks and mortar with which we build it. The more age distances us from those memories, of course, the more illusory and unreliable they become. But in my reading of the above passage from Augustine, it seems that is where all the fun is to be had! Those hopes and delights that patch him up again in a time of great grief, those wonders the senses work on his mind as he loses himself in reverie—that is the alchemy only memory bestows. Nostalgia is a narcotic.
In my life, I know that every time I hear those achingly tender opening notes of Cindy Lauper’s “Time After Time,” or the weeping synthesizers that open Billy Idol’s “Eyes Without a Face,” or that stinging guitar solo in Steve Perry’s “Oh Sherrie,” I instantly am transported back to the rear seat of my parents’ red Buick in 1985 on our way to the Silver Gull Beach Club in the Rockaways out in Queens, cradled in one of those glorious and long-ago New York summers of my youth, my older sister with her frizzed violet hair blasting the hits of the day on the car stereo. I know that a whiff of rosemary is all it takes to summon a memory of the just-trimmed hedges I’d ride past on my bike on the way to school in the fourth grade, how they had grown so aromatic with spring that to this day I have not forgotten them. I think that is the particular memory that plays out in the opening line of “Voyage.”
I see that you write about the greats of bowling. How interesting! When I was living in Long Beach, one of my neighbors was a really nice young guy who was an award-winning amateur bowler, but that’s about the extent of my knowledge on the subject. What draws you to learn about the legends of bowling and to write about them? Also, are you a bowler yourself?
One of the greatest action bowlers of all time hails from Long Island. His name is Mike Limongello, and actually I am hoping to record an interview with him and post it online soon. I believe another famed action bowler by the name of Rudy “Revs” Kasimakis also hails from Long Island.
I am at work on a book called PIN ACTION: Hustlers, Con Artists, and the Outrageous Men of Action Bowling. Action bowling is a form of high-stakes gambling that flourished throughout the New York metropolitan area in the 1960s. Today, I think most recreational bowlers tend to think of bowling alleys as places where the martinis will cost you at least as much as the bowling and a mirror ball twirls over neon lanes while a DJ shouts in the booming dark. But back in the 1960s throughout the northeast, they were places where kids too young to shave made more money in a night than their parents made in a year, con men faked heart attacks to evade mobsters who came around looking to collect, and no one went home before sunrise. This blue-collar circus comprises an overlooked but colorful corner of American cultural history, and my passion for this project resides in an inexhaustible drive to preserve the memories of that bygone era before they are gone for good. I know, I know. Here we go with memory again. It’s OK to roll your eyes at me at this point.
I became aware of these stories while growing up in the bowling alleys of Brooklyn, New York, where I spent the lion’s share of my childhood. I am a bowler, yes, and I fell deeply in love with the sport back then. But when I started hearing stories about the gamblers, gangsters and guile that colored this subculture that flourished in the very bowling alleys I loitered in back then, I was riveted, and I remain riveted to this day. And this is where memory and attempts to preserve it become so important, because many of the bowling alleys that served as second homes for me as a kid now are gone. Leemark Lanes in Bay Ridge was razed several years ago to make room for a parking lot. And Maple Lanes in Dyker Heights is about to be shut down and razed as well, to be replaced with apartment complexes, I believe. This saddens me to no end.
But my book focuses primarily on the action bowling scene’s most inimitable performer—a guy named Ernie Schlegel who went on to be inducted into the Professional Bowlers Association Hall of Fame many years later. Ernie has become a dear friend of mine. I love him and his amazing wife Cathy very much, and I am doing everything I can to bring their stories—and the sordid characters that populate them—to the attention of the wider audience I think they so richly deserve. Do yourself a favor and look him up on Youtube sometime. The guy’s a hoot.
Would you share a story with us related to your knowledge of these bowlers, or to your undertaking to find and interview them?
One of my favorite characters from that action bowling scene is Iggy Russo, who used to drive around town with his own set of pins and bowling balls in the trunk of his car. The pins and balls were far heavier than normal equipment—I think he filled them with lead—and if you wanted to bowl Iggy for money, you had to bowl against his pins and let him use his illegal bowling balls. One night Iggy proved a bit too smart for his own good, though. He was dumping—betting against himself and bowling badly on purpose to lose and make some easy cash. But the problem was that his opponent in this particular match also happened to be dumping at the same time. Iggy was bowling a guy named Stoop. That’s one thing I love about action bowling stories; they are replete with monikers like Bobby Pancakes, Wrong Foot Louie, Bernie Bananas. These were real people; none of this is a joke.
So Stoop’s backer was betting on Iggy to win, and Iggy’s backer was betting on Iggy to lose. Both bowlers are shooting a terrible game, and by the tenth frame Iggy left an easy spare and faced a dilemma: He could make the spare for a win and get shot by his own backer, or miss the spare for a loss and get shot by his opponent’s backer. At this point, one witness heard Iggy’s backer say “You sold me out; he’s bowling worse than you!” And he heard Stoop’s backer say “Better throw a good ball; I bet a grand on you to win.” Iggy assessed the situation with the cunning acuity of a born thief: He faked a heart attack before throwing the next ball and was removed from the premises by ambulance.
As far as Iggy was concerned, he could leave that way, or he could endure whatever unspeakable pain the swindled backers wished to administer in retaliation for his fraud. Some stories have Iggy escaping the ambulance at the first red light; others have him making it all the way to the hospital before heading home. And I hear all sorts of things about what was done to his car after he left—that it was burned to a crisp, sawed in half, or various other terrible things. Anyone who wants to know more about the amazing tales of action bowling should check out www.ActionBowlers.com. That is not so much a website as it is an odyssey.
But aside from the action bowling stuff, I also had the privilege of working the past few years as the Features Writer and Managing Editor for BOWL.com, the official website of the United States Bowling Congress in Arlington, Texas. There, I came across many amazing people and stories. I wrote about Vietnam Vets who returned home triple amputees but found in the American Wheelchair Bowling Association an opportunity to reclaim their lives, teens who overcame speech impediments through the social interaction of bowling leagues, and international athletes who transcended bleak penury to become world champion bowlers.
I guess the thing I love most about the sport of bowling is the thing I love about all sports—the opportunity it offers people to rise above themselves.
What makes you feel most fulfilled?
Well, the time I shot a three-game series of 834 in a league back in 2004 made me feel pretty fulfilled! The only 800 series I ever have bowled. But more seriously, and perhaps predictably, nothing I ever have done in my life fulfills me more wholly than writing. Writing is the thing that makes me feel most fully alive. And Neil Young. He makes me feel alive, too. But nothing rivals the dizzying euphoria I swoon in after completing the draft of a new poem or a new story. Sometimes I see my addiction to the euphoric high that accompanies the creative process more as a curse than a blessing—it is awfully tough for writers out here in the real world—but what else would I do, really? That’s the question I keep coming back to these days.
Thank you for this interview. It has been quite a while since I thought about my work this closely, and I am grateful for the opportunity you’ve given me to do so.
The smell that summer frisks from a row of trimmed hedges resumes
an old despair: the whiff of an ex-wife’s shampooed hair, that midnight call
from a bar in Brooklyn you’ve always wanted back, early reversals
that gather a narrative of what was said and done
into facets of the self not wholly available to reason.
What urgency hasn’t become the mediocre
comedy of a dream that welcomes you, at last,
into its opposing possibility?
And so it is that you’ve wound up
in this rented house on an island you drove a day to find,
unaccompanied and sure
the agreements that led you here required only
a new weather to revoke, that this terrain’s alternative
geometry, these houses crouching
on stilts that dignify the sea,
might locate the minor mercy you followed here
and leave you wondering how
you ever overlooked the grace of this world.
Though sheets of blown sand quilt the only road
out of town in the rain
and arrange a new catastrophe for which you have only yourself
to blame, still this wind through Cedar Island pine
stencils the hour in shadows
that wave away the day, then grow
to finish the dark that allows what you came to leave behind
its closed and unlit room.
Now a wave that reaches for the window forever
withdraws for just as long,
and again you’re surprised
to recall the oysters that knobbed the posts of a dock
as vividly as the lover whose breasts you kissed in the sun
where it stood, guiding the risen tide to its practiced measures.
When I listened to the engines whisper still
as the plane began to plunge, the cabin erupting
with the unintelligible minutiae of prayer,
the man beside me grasped my hand
to assure me we would not die because he knew that
now was not our time, calmed by the way
human imagination assigns individual mercies,
as when I stumbled from the wagon my mother pulled me in
one day and scraped a bare knee bloody against the road,
and my mother, tutored in the futility of reasoning with a boy
determined to dramatize every abrasion
into catastrophe, informed me instead of the rose
that snapped from the bush I’d tumbled into,
how each of its crimson offices contained a world
where children went whenever they felt pain,
that if I closed my eyes for long enough and kept
completely silent, the rose—
which seemed to resemble a wound
somehow—would take me
to a place where nothing could
ever hurt me. How thoroughly she managed
to persuade me of my invulnerability then,
how tempted I was to try it again
as memory assisted me
with a reminder of the day fantasy ensured
my protection, now that circumstance had turned
my folded hands to paper, an aidlessness
I almost could bear,
closing my eyes to capture
whatever it is a boy envisions
when he thinks the rooms of the rose will move him
beyond the reach of pain.
The sun, livid and unappeasable,
broils a flash of rain
out of the ground as quickly as it falls.
Fugitive twirls of steam that vanish from
drying streets permit the summer its passing
eternity, my life’s hurried minute
swallowed in this laughter
of two bathing crows, shaking
the rain like a skin.
I watch the lake stretch
the stunned mouths of its ripples
so wide they disappear. The water’s
rainbowed halos of car oil gather
into a face I’ve observed so long I think
I can look through its eyes—
trees wave and sweep
the precincts of their silence,
breaking free of their bodies
in the gathering dark, dragging me
to the heights of their secrecies
where I vanish, at last,
into this incommunicable joy.
Soon the gutted payphones outside 7-Eleven will resume
their stunned expressions, bikini’d cardboard standups
between the scratch-off tickets and Ho-Hos will freeze their smiles
for you, love. Nylon daffodils stiffen in cellophane sleeves,
and the chemical dawn adorns you in its necklace of gasoline.
See the halogen blaze over U.S. 1 arrange its phony constellations,
the fake stars we load with our wishes
as the real ones beyond bare even their poorest pearls.
If, years from here, our names won’t scar the curb we never scratched
them into, and the strangers who’ll never read them there might know
as much of us as we’ll remember of one another,
these 18-wheelers will bugle down the turnpike just the same.
I may even know them now and then
as the music we made this memory in.
An EKG’s ambiguous horoscope,
an unintended swerving in the dark.
The day I glimpsed a bruise
on my grandmother’s hand, a smudge the size of a cent
that purpled her paper skin.
How she cautioned me not to speak a word of it
to my father, as if to age is to commit some unmentionable offense.
How sure she was that human frailty’s better endured
than acknowledged, that the body documents its circumstance and leaves us
to make of it what we will.
The aureole of mist I’d blow on the back-seat window of
my mother’s car in winter, blowing harder the second it disappeared
as if I’d make it last forever,
as if in the instant each puff of fog took to bloom
and vanish I’d discovered an initial unease
with the momentary, with things that will pass despite me,
the world missiling by on Interstate 10
as the car radio augured a likelihood of snow,
the havoc it might mean
in the morning, the cold.