LINDA LAPPIN of CENTRO POKKOLI INTERVIEWS MIRIAM POLLI, author of IN A VERTIGO OF SILENCE
Linda: We first met when you came to Italy to participate in a workshop organized by the Pokkoli organization conducted by Peter Selgin. I know you are or were part of a writers group in New York City organized by Walter Cummins. How important has it been for you as a writer to be in contact with other writers?
MP: Too important. I’ve recently moved to Virginia to a farm my husband really wanted to have in his life. We’ll be splitting our time between Virginia and Key West. Since I’ve been here, I’ve been searching for a group. I attended one group twice but was discouraged by the low level of writing and felt it was more of a therapy session. When writers have never heard of Poets and Writers or The Writers Chronicle it’s time to go. Two-Bridges, Walter’s group, was extremely important to my growth. They were all previously published writers with very high standards. At times it was very intimidating to me, but I learned so much. Including that I was a better writer than I thought. At a workshop level where you respect the work of others, and constructive comments help you to discover your own work, where you must also learn to let some of the remarks go, I think you gain a sort of confidence in what you alone are trying to do. If nothing else, it makes your skin thicker.
Linda: Your first novel is a saga of Women’s lives in different eras and places. Is there one with which you identify most strongly? Or one which it was harder to write?
MP: Actually, and oddly enough, the protagonist, Emily was the most difficult for me. Having come from a large family with six siblings I had to struggle to put myself in a single-child family, and one without a father. I felt tremendous empathy for her situation and because of my own pain in life was able to relate to her. I loved all the characters in that book. Even the character of Paulina, whose actions were once described as immoral by another writer in a workshop. So I guess I’m immoral too, because I understood her pain and I tried my damnedest to show how and why she walked the road she did. Once you understand someone there is no room for judgment. The characters, when they truly breakout, they somehow manage to judge themselves. Marishka, the grandmother, was the easiest character to develop. I modeled her after the love I had for my own mother. Although my mother wasn’t magical, who’s mother really is, but I idealized her, put her in that high place I felt she belonged.
Linda: Did you run into any technical difficulties of craft while working on your novel and if so how did you solve them?
MP: Plot has always been a problem for me. At first I find myself following my characters around and forgetting to get to the story, but I’m getting much better at plot. And then there is always the problem of what voice will work. Should it be third or first person? I wrote most of Emily’s chapters in third person but then discovered I couldn’t reach her unless I wrote it in first person. I believe some of her chapters are now first-person, present tense. Past tense with all their “was” “had” drives me crazy. I love when the work has some kind of immediacy and I try to strive for that, but it’s not always right or simple, and I believe form and content should somehow fit together.
Linda: You have some richly detailed period settings. What resources did you draw on while writing to create them?
MP: Hmm…that’s a hard one. I went to the library. Yes, library, because at the beginnings of this novel I didn’t own a computer, and thought I’d never get one. I thought I couldn’t write without the use of a lead pencil and a yellow pad. In the library
I researched coalmines and read about what the coal miner’s lives were like back in the 1900’s. My mother had come through Ellis Island from Sicily and I remembered her words about sailing across the Atlantic and heard stories from her about how some people were sent back. Things really impress you as a child and one never knows what you will find once you start to unpack your memories. My first husband, when I was much too young, had a grandmother who was married to a coal miner who died in the mines. Something I had completely forgotten until I began to write the scenes which took place in the coal mining area of Pennsylvania. I also recall looking at tons of photographs in huge furniture books of the 1930’s 1940’s. Photos of dark, dingy jazz clubs, the desperation of WW II and the glamour and romance it seemed to bring to the United States at that time always intrigued me.
Linda: Your life moves back and forth from previously New York, now Virginia, and Key West, Florida, and a small Greek island. How have these places fed your writing or your imagination?
MP: I don’t want to disappoint you, but the answer is no, they have not fed my imagination, at least not on a conscious level. Writing in a small padded room, perhaps in a NYC building with no windows would be best for me. I need to be stripped of all distraction, and that unfortunately includes the beauty of landscape. Yet we write so much from our subconscious that I’m positive all our experiences have or do play a great part in writing. Traveling, seeing other cultures, observing the pain and joy or silliness and seriousness of others, all surface when we write. Such a mysterious art form. And if you’ve done your job right, it all balances in the end.
Linda: What do you read for inspiration? What are you working on now?
MP My reading runs very close to what I’m working on at the time. I always read fiction simply because I don’t have the time to read anything else, other than a newspaper. I read mostly literary fiction because that’s what I enjoy most. Introspective, emotionally intelligent fiction where the language holds you taut to the end. I’m actually working on historical fiction at the moment, so, I’ve been reading about social injustice, and immigration in the United States back in the twenties. Growing up with Italian immigrant parents in Brooklyn, my father continually voiced injustices towards the Italians when he first came to the United States. My father didn’t believe in government ruling your life, and sided with an anarchist view of the world. He read a lot of Tolstoy! Galilea was one of his heroes. He spoke a lot of Sacco and Vanzetti, who were executed in 1927, after a very long botched, prejudiced trial. This was around the same time my father came to America. A few years back I started to research the case of Sacco and Vanzetti, only to find that there were so many stories about them. Songs, plays, books, written about them. I wondered about Nicola Sacco’s wife, Rosina and who she was. Katherine Ann Porter described her as small timid woman in an article she had written when she attended the trial, but I saw someone else. There isn’t much information about Rosina Sacco out there, so in a way it’s good for me. I’ve been writing her story, writing her point of view, discovering how she became involved with this man who attracted the attention of the world, and who still does all these years later. I feel like I’m to a point where I really know her and am ready to tell her story. This is my first attempt at historical fiction and I’m very aware of the part research plays, and am struggling with getting the right balance. I’ve completed my first draft, well almost, except for the end. Everyone who knows the story, knows how it ends, so I’m still mulling that over.
Linda: Your new work sounds fascinating. Thanks for talking to us today here at Centro Pokkoli! We look forward to reading your new work.
Click here to read a review of In a Vertigo of Silence in Kirkus
Click here to read a review of In a Vertigo of Silence in ChantiReviews
LINDA LAPPIN of CENTRO POKKOLI INTERVIEWS JOHN DOMINI
John Domini sometimes stops by when he's in town. LL had the opportunity to interview him for RAIN TAXI
John Domini’s work has been featured in Paris Review, The New York Times, and numerous other outlets. He is a versatile, genre-crossing author, and has published several books of nonfiction, fiction, and poetry over the course of his prolific career. The organizations that have honored his work include the National Endowment for the Arts and the Iowa Arts Council, and he has been an artist-in-residence multiple times with Italy’s Festival delle Storie. He currently lives in Des Moines, Iowa.
Domini’s new collection of critical essays, The Sea-God’s Herb (Dzanc Books, $15.95), sets out to celebrate and define post-modernism in the novel from a fiction writer’s point of view. It fills a gap in contemporary criticism, as essays and reviews of experimental American fiction are rare. The Sea-God’s Herb is a vast book, touching on many issues, and I was delighted to have the opportunity to discuss a few of them with the author.
Linda Lappin: Among the distinguishing characteristics of experimental fiction you mention is the writer’s willingness to breaks molds in terms of prose and structure. Surely the 1970s were a great era for iconoclasm in many areas of our culture, from politics to fashion and much else. What has happened to our mindset and our reading habits? Why are we afraid of the new and different when once we used to thrive on it? Or is that changing?
John Domini: The question suggests a monster squid, its home hidden, its arms everywhere. I mean that as a compliment, but I doubt I’ll manage to grab but one or two tentacles. I can say for starters that responsiveness to literary experiment doesn’t break down usefully into decades, but is better understood as a challenge that too many American critics have failed to meet for a good half-century now. That’s my argument in Sea-God, expressed both in my selection and, especially, in the lead essay, “Against the ‘Impossible to Explain.’” Over that same half-century, success in all the arts has been measured more and more oppressively by money and numbers. The hammer of Big Capital has come down hard; just ask any young American trying to make their mark in music. In music, though, even a corporate party like the Grammys will have room for work as outré as Beck’s. In theater, even Broadway will celebrate a mooncalf like Angels in America. U.S. publishing, however, and with it the established venues of literary criticism, still tends to hold the unconventional at arm’s length. Such a situation interferes with a willing reader’s appreciation of the rich adjustments storytelling has made to the sharp turns and sudden crevices of our times. In effect, it robs story of its continuing purpose: to steer us through those turns, and to bridge those crevices.
LL: Where would you situate your own fiction in the “New Republic of Long Narrative,” as you call the contemporary literary landscape? I was intrigued by your suggestion that postmodern experiments often “reveal their own devising.” Could you comment on that with regards to one of your own fiction projects?
JD: Ah, what writer doesn’t love this question? “Enough about those other guys; let’s talk about you!” I’ll try for restraint. For starters I’ll note that a lot of my own fiction isn’t so experimental as that of many folks I investigate in Sea-God. To mention just one, Carole Maso; her Aureole presents more of a challenge to conventional story and language than any of my novels and all but one or two of my shorter pieces. Okay, my Talking Heads: 77 includes the recurring “layout & pasteup,” pretty out there; the Naples novels too, Earthquake I.D. and A Tomb On the Periphery, occasionally poke up into a rarified atmosphere. Nonetheless, my fiction derives essential nutrients from social awareness; it generates drama from the history, the demographics, the economics. Nothing wrong with that; nothing you won’t find done better in, say, DeLillo’s The Names—and to point out such real-world concerns in DeLillo or Maso takes us back to the main argument of Sea-God, namely, that so-called experimental fiction isn’t in fact divorced from this trying experiment we call daily life. That said, I should add that just now, I’m po-mo in utero—in 2016, Dzanc will bring out my wildest yet, a story sequence titled Movieola!
LL: I loved your definition of your younger ’70s self as “Beat-besotted, Dylan-dreaming, Kafka-cantankerous, and Melville-megalomaniacal.” You were publishing reviews and other work back then in very prestigious places. What dreams did you have about the writer’s life, the writer’s role in community/society/academia or elsewhere—and how has it all panned out?
JD: I figured I’d be Vladimir Nabokov by now! Okay, joke, but isn’t that a fitting response to our fledgling dreams? As for how it’s panned out—it’s a letdown, inevitably, though my ups and downs are pretty typical: economic and romantic crises, editors and others who sometimes lent a hand and sometimes slapped me down. I guess what I find most interesting about your question is the hybrid construction “community/society/academia.” I did have such a thing in mind when I was starting out, and I did conceive of criticism as a way I could help raise a roof-beam or put down a decent road for all of us sensitive to fiction’s changing shapes. I perceived such a program for myself, and I’ve stuck with it since. So there’s that.
LL: I was a bit taken back by a comment you make about fiction by American women writers: “Fiction about a woman’s place in the world has tended to omit the spiritual, the Unknowable.” That’s an interesting perception, which I don’t personally share; it suggests that women writers tend to see the novel as springing from social rather than spiritual concerns. In your view, why is this so?
JD: Ow. Can I claim context, here? That line is in a long essay about a woman writer, Jaimy Gordon—an essay trying, among other things, to win her a wider readership. Around the statement there are other factors in play, like Gordon’s age and generation, plus of course the argument of my book as a whole. And while I’m getting all blustery and defensive, I’ll add that the editors and I made changes in order to include more women; we didn’t want a Boys Club. Okay. But I appreciate the question; it means my Sea-God has initiated a conversation, even if the give and take pains me a bit. It means I’ve contributed a bit to that community etc. I just mentioned, by raising such questions. As for your more provocative notion re: women’s fiction “springing from social rather than spiritual concerns,” I suppose that could be taken as an implication in the Gordon essay. I’d be leery of such a sweeping pronunciamento, myself, but maybe my book isn’t. In any case the argument seems to call for—yes!—another essay. Someone ought to raise the banner of, say, Sylvia Plath, and under it lead the Anti-Dominians out to battle. I only hope I live to see it.
LL: Not very many women writers are mentioned in your book, and in fact, there just aren’t that many contemporary experimental women writers that have achieved national recognition. There could be very many different reasons for that. One thing that came to my mind, with regards to my initial question, is that many innovative women writers privilege one or the other (Arundhati Roy, for example, or Anais Nin), structure or prose, but not both at the same time, which would place them outside the camp as you define it. Do women writers tend to be more conservative? Is it harder for a woman to affirm herself as an experimental writer? Do publishers tend to take more seriously male experimental writers than female?
JD: My previous answer touched on this subject. The editors and I cared about including women, though of course we were limited to what I’d published. I didn’t have anything on Aimee Bender, for instance, and her fabulism would’ve felt at home. What’s more, since the book appeared, I’ve written on iconoclastic texts by women like Jenny Erpenbeck, books that would address your concern. Still, this question brings up a larger issue, namely, how commercial publishers tend to view outside-the-box stories and novels from women—which is askance at best. Again, we can all think of exceptions, but insofar as Sea-God calls mainstream American editors and reviewers to task for their aversion to risk-taking, the complaint also applies to how they’ve treated women writers. Not long ago I heard Carole Maso open up, with admirable frankness, about the difficulty she still has getting published. What does that tell you?
LL: You conclude with an essay on Dante and the archetypal storytelling patterns we find buried in narratives. Could you say something about your own relationship to Italian classics and how they have influenced your own fiction?
JD: First, I ought to point out that one critic has already claimed the Dante essay feels shoehorned in. It just won’t fit, says he, and the God—or Goddess—of lit-crit may agree. If so, all this mere mortal can do is reiterate the point made in the preface, namely that the essay belongs both for its unearthing a less than obvious narrative in the poem, and for how it connects that strange narrative to our ordinary cares and joys. Like all the other pieces in Sea-God, it argues for the humanity of challenging literature. Now, in my mind’s eye and ear, that very claim sounds Italian. Even at its most baroque, so highly wrought as to seem solely about itself, Italian work has always conveyed something of the street, garden, kitchen, and, of course, the bedroom. Even the infinitely brainy Da Vinci reveals, in his Madonnas and saints, that he knows suffering and passions, and asserts their centrality in his art. I could work up a whole new essay, one that explained, also, how I’m holding off on the Naples trilogy of Elena Ferrante, until I can take a good long run at her work in Italian. Still, once more I’ll rein myself in, and mention just one figure who’s lately meant a lot to me: Eduardo De Filippo, the masterful Neapolitan playwright (and more, of course). Every time I’m in southern Italy, it seems, I’m bowled over by yet another of his plays. The one Americans might’ve heard of is These Ghosts (1946), which John Turturro brought to Broadway. No one who sees it can go on believing that the Latin Americans invented magical realism—or that something groundbreaking formally can’t also prove heartbreaking.
Read LL's review of Domini's A Tomb on the Periphery here in Gently Read Literature
An Interview with A.E. Stallings of the Athens Poetry Centre
Linda Lappin talks with A.E.Stallings about her life in Greece and the workshop she teaches for the Athens Poetry Centre.
Poet and workshop leader Alicia Stallings, author of The Archaic Smile (University of Evansville Press, 1999, winner Richard Wilbur prize) and Hapax (Northwestern University Press, 2006), talks about the Muses’ Workshop and its focus on myth.
Lappin: There’s an emphasis on myth and mythology in your workshop, which is indeed dedicated to The Muses. Why?
Stallings: Because we are in Greece, I wanted to use what was around us. Mythology pervades Greek life. My children are named Jason and Atalanta, and their friends on the playground are named Electra, Achilles, Andromeda. It’s also a way to enter into contact with modern and contemporary Greek poetry: poets like Cavafy and Seferis make use of mythology. And it’s a key to understanding modern life in Greece. It brings together many elements in the classroom. Many of my students have been writing confessional poetry. For them, using myth in different sorts of ways and seeing different examples of myth-based poems introduces a new dimension, and can help open them up to new subject matter.
Lappin: Some people may remember studying the Greek myths or the Odyssey at elementary school, with antiquated Victorian translations, high flown language, or modern bland prose versions. In class, you were saying how important it is to approach this material with fresh eyes and a spirit of innovation.
Stallings: In working with myth, you have to feel free to make variations. You don’t have to approach the material in a fusty way, or feel reverent and respectful. Ancient writers didn’t feel that way. They experimented and could be both playful and raunchy. You can take the standard story and give yourself permission to play with it. The Greek myths are very contemporary. Consider the story of Phaeton and the chariot of the sun. It’s the story of a teenager who has been given the keys to his dad’s Porsche and doesn’t know how to control it. Or take The Odyssey—among other things, it’s the first western.
Lappin You say that Greek myths still pervade contemporary Greek consciousness and Greek life. In the current economic and political crisis, do you see any myths operating?
Stallings I’d have to think about this.
Lappin: I was thinking the other day about the sacrifice of the young Athenians to the Minotaur…
Stallings : Actually, that might make a bit of sense… There is a resonance of events. You need to read the current crisis against a larger backdrop of modern Greek history: the founding of the Greek republic, a sort of colonialism that took place. Some people wondered if Greece was ready for democracy. Loans were made on calamitous terms. In any case, it is a gerontocratic society. Young people have no power, no say, an insecure future. Like Kronos, Greece eats her young.
Lappin: In your own work, are there myths that have shaped your life or your vision of your art?
Stallings: I have written a lot about the underworld. Hades and Persephone. Orpheus and Eurydice. I am fascinated by the Underworld. The classical, pagan view of the afterlife seems much less abstract to me, more real than our Christian heaven and hell.
Lappin: I share your fascination. I find your images of the Underworld extremely striking, particularly in the poems “Hades Welcomes His Bride” and “Persephone Writes a Letter to Her Mother “ in Archaic Smile, or “Dogdom of the Dead,” and “An Ancient Dog Grave Unearthed During the Construction of the Athens Metro.” Especially in the first two poems, you give Hades such vivid physical reality, it’s the world of roots and snakes and burrowing right under our feet. In a forum I found on the Internet, you mention that for a while you lived in a basement flat, and that this subterranean environment might have unconsciously influenced you. I’d be interested in hearing more about your fascination for the underworld and its meanings for you.
Stallings: I think if I fully understood my fascination with it, it would subside somewhat. Part of it may be how the dead continue to exist, but as shadows of themselves, like dim but stubborn memories. I like the realness of its geography, how it is a place to be travelled to but not (usually) returned from. I sometimes think, looking back at early poems of mine about the underworld that they are as much about depression as death. But that’s an idea that has only come to me lately. And I think writing about the underworld is fun, too, as well as frightening.
Lappin: You’re a classics scholar and a great admirer of the Odyssey, which you use in your writing classes at the Muses Workshop. I was wondering how you relate to one of its main themes: exile or dislocation. What’s the hardest thing you have had to deal with as an expat writer?
Stallings: Losing track of American vernacular and being out of touch with popular culture. You’re not watching the same television shows, keeping up with the same trends.
Lappin: That might not be bad for an artist.
Stallings: Of course, yet sometimes I find myself re-reading a line I have written and will ask myself, “would someone really say that?” You have to keep in touch with the language. As an expat and also as a mother you are isolated.
Lappin: Elsewhere you have described yourself as a “Mommy poet.”
Stallings: I am. With small children it’s a struggle to find time and quiet in which to work.
Lappin: Do you feel part of the American writing community, the poetry community?
Stallings: With social media, internet, Facebook, Skype, it’s easy to be included in the conversation and to keep in touch. But it’s also good to be independent of it all.
Lappin: Do you teach elsewhere in Athens or Greece?
Stallings: I run this workshop (normally 3 weeks in summer) and teach at some workshops/ residencies in the US. I do a lot of literary translation, and also some of what I call “hack work” –reviews, articles, essays. I am a professional writer. If someone says, write me a 500 word blog on Greek food and pays me, I’ll do it. After all, I have to pay my Bulgarian baby sitter who looks after my children when I am teaching or when I need time to write! But both writing and translation take time and energy away from my main work.
Lappin: In this very intense week of the Muses Workshop, we’ve worked a lot with rhyme and form: sonnets, sestinas, pantoums, and villanelles. Would you elaborate a bit about your emphasis on form in your writing classes?
Stallings: I run a poetry boot camp! Many people misunderstand the use of form and think it entails submitting to restrictions. But instead it means giving up control. Not submitting to restrictions, but to destiny or chance that helps choose the next word. Rhyme is also an engine of syntax. And it helps make lines memorable.
Lappin: What writers do you read for inspiration?
Stallings: Among many others, Philip Larkin, Sylvia Plath, Elizabeth Bishop, Richard Wilbur, Don Paterson, Seamus Heaney. And ancient writers. My favorite poet is A.E. Housman.
Lappin: You have translated both texts of classical antiquity as well as modern Greek poetry, and have received a grant for your translation work. In class you said that translating was a form of very close reading, and a way to know another writer’s work intimately. Aside from Cavafy or other early modernists, are there any contemporary Greek poets whom you have translated whose work you find especially inspiring?
Stallings: I suppose you could include Angelos Sikelianos in the early modernists? There are many wonderful contemporary Greek poets. Interestingly, two of the most prominent are women: Katerina Anghelaki-Rooke and Kiki Dimoula. I have not, however, attempted to translate any living writers. (Indeed, Anghelaki-Rooke translates herself!) I suppose one advantage of working with a living writer is you could pose queries to them. But the disadvantage is you might not like the answers.
Lappin: In class, we looked at the many hand written and typed drafts of Elizabeth Bishop’s famous villanelle, The Art of Losing, which I believe went through eleven drafts. Do you think word processing has made the labor of writing poetry easier—not having to retype every fresh revision? Do you work with a word processor or write long hand?
Stallings: Some people have a fetishistic approach—they have to use a certain pen, etc. I am not like that. People need different things. I write long hand and then on the computer. I actually have some theories about using computers to write poetry. I think that looking at a back-illuminated screen ties up your visual attention in a way that looking at a page doesn’t. I always print out and revise on the printed page. Sometimes in revision, you can lose a certain freshness, and if you’ve just deleted blocks of text, it’s hard to go back and find your earlier versions. I tell my students to always keep a copy of their earlier versions.
Lappin: You’ll be bringing out a new book soon…
Stallings: Yes, it’s called OLIVES—which can also be O LIVES.
It is forthcoming with Northwestern University Press, and should be out early in 2012.
Lappin: A word of advice to writers?
Stallings: You have to give yourself permission to write bad poetry. Clean the brown water out of the pipes. It’s often in revision that a poem goes from bad to good or from good to great.