THINGS WE’RE DYING TO KNOW…
Let’s start with the book’s title and your cover image. How did you choose each? And, if I asked you to describe or sum up your book, what three words immediately come to mind?
I love birds. I always have. I like their very essence. In this collection I used the bird or flocks of birds to represent those who leave their country for greener pastures, specifically Sicilian immigrants. The birds are a metaphor, and for me, at least, worked quite well.
I really had a difficult time conceptualizing the image I wanted. It took me a relatively long time. I’d been concentrating on birds, exclusively, and not looking at the collection holistically: religion, devotion, deviance from that devotion and Sicily as the “motherland.” I found this image online and tracked down the artist, a very talented guy working out of Texas. The title of the image is the Galveston Blessed Mother and it's a mural in the city of Galveston. It resonated with me so much---it stopped me in my tracks. When I told him what it was for, he agreed. He didn’t charge me anything but only asked for attribution, which of course I gave him. I sent him a check to further the art that he does to beautify his city.
What were you trying to achieve with your book? Tell us about the world you were trying to create, and who lives in it.
These poems were a long, long time in the making--in my head that is. They’d been in process long before I ever set a single word to the page. The world I live and write in is an interesting one--to me , that is, so that means I follow whatever it is that makes me happy, that preoccupies me. My paternal grandfather was a Sicilian immigrant, who came to the United States, rather, shall we say, “unwillingly.” He loved his country, was a supporter of Mussolini (yeah, I know, but we must tell the truth about these things) and hated to leave. He was unhappy in his new country and lived uneasily, fearing vendetta for things he did in Sicily. There are mysteries in our family, secrets that my grandfather hid--and that I, the assiduous librarian and all around curious person, found out. His children, my father, uncles and my aunt, are the loves of my life. They told me so many stories, often at the expense of their own painful and conflicted feelings. But they were always honest and for my whole life I will be grateful to them. While my grandfather was not capable of love, his children are. They are all in their 70s and 80s and love family to a fault in that very characteristic Italian way, that is stereotypical, perhaps, but very, very real.
I wrote the poems as an homage of sorts to family, to truth-telling, to the scope of what lives can become so far from home, how our landscape shapes and forms us and how a new landscape, a new place can be our undoing. I imagine my grandfather from his birth onward. It's supposed to be kaleidoscopic in nature. It's difficult to distill a life, which made writing the poems extremely difficult, but I persisted. It gave me a joy that I have never experienced before. If I wrote for the rest of my life about my father’s family, I'd never finish. I continue to peel off layers. Birds of Sicily gives a glimpse into what one reviewer called a “dark aviary.” I felt that it was an apt description!
Can you describe your writing practice or process for this collection? Do you have a favorite revision strategy?
Like my idol Maria Popova of Brain Pickings, I have no personal , professional or poetic boundaries in my life. That means that if I am not writing, I mean the physical act of writing, I am writing in my head. Everything is poetry to me.
Before I began the process of writing these poems, I met with my father and his siblings for breakfast at my cousin’s house one Sunday morning. My father and his siblings were nervous. They knew that for my entire life I was attempting to pry open all of the shut doors and discover things they’d buried inside. I knew I was taking a risk. I will never forget the things they told me that day. The trust they had in me. I was stunned by their courage despite great, great pain for lives they lived with their father. At one point, my Aunt Theresa, a petite and extremely pretty woman, my father’s only sister, noted that I was not writing anything down. This was poignant to me: she wanted me to record things, to get the details right. I went home that day and wrote the first poem, “Vendetta.” It's not the first poem in the collection, but a few things that were told to me that day formed images in my head I could not get rid of.
I write every single day, without fail. I write in a little study I have in my house, on the front porch when the weather is beautiful and just about anywhere else. I revise constantly. I will rarely write a whole collection and go back and revise. The poems are always in constant revision. I read the poems out loud to hear rhythm, tone and assonance. I no longer workshop my poems. I recently received my MFA and had an incredible cohort who I trusted immensely. I still lean on them, but I have learned to trust my own voice.
How did you order the poems in the collection? Do you have a specific method for arranging your poems or is it sort of haphazard, like you lay the pages out on the floor and see what order you pick them back up in?
I think all poets lay the pages on the floor! That is exactly what I did. I was interested in telling a story, so it was important to me that there was an arc with some tension. Hopefully, I succeeded.
What do you love to find in a poem you read, or love to craft into a poem you’re writing?
I love to be touched deeply. I'm not a cynical person and sarcasm, in poems, as in life, offends me. So I look for something that is going to touch bedrock of truth within me.
Can you share an excerpt from your book? And tell us why you chose this poem for us to read – did it galvanize the writing of the rest of the collection? Is it your book’s heart? Is it the first or last poem you wrote for the book?
Mussolini a Cavallo (Mussolini on a Horse)
Revolutions can be sparked by insults. Can you tell the difference between the vulture and the buzzard? The imperial eagle and the peregrine falcon? Tell a man that he needs no more protection than the one man standing in front of him and it would be prudent to prepare yourself for what might happen next. Keep in line ragazzi! March with the upturned chin. They will say, with pride, that you could be Il Duce’s very own son. That jaw years hence would be said to be your only admirable feature until it, too, would fall. Your revolver lay in a drawer wrapped in your mother’s satin bridal apron, just in case.
I would say that one of the things I have always thought about was my grandfather’s love of Mussolini. He died when I was in my 30s so I knew him a long time and this is one of the things he told me long ago. It stayed with me.
If you had to convince someone walking by you in the park to read your book right then and there, what would you say?
I would say that each individual life is a story, that humans are essentially unknowable, but sometimes we can scratch the surface. I would say, “read my poems and understand one man’s life.” Salman Rushdie said, “To understand just one life, you have to swallow the world.” How true that is. We can only attempt to understand. People interested me endlessly.
For you, what is it to be a poet? What scares you most about being a writer? Gives you the most pleasure?
Nothing, not a single thing scares me about being a writer. It is who I am. It is pretty much who I have been my whole life and it has saved my life many times. I am an assiduous and inveterate notebook keeper, since I was very, very young. The ability to be able to write and create is just a feeling I can’t even describe. To be a poet is to be a miniaturist, a distiller of language. It is not easy, but very worth it.
I’ve heard poets say that they’re writing the same story over and over in their poems. Is that true for you?
To an extent. I have themes: sadness, alienation, family history. We write who we are I suppose. I am not merely a brain putting words on the page, I am responding to my environment, to the clash between my inner and outer worlds . I have an ideology, a view of life, and that comes out in my poems. Hopefully thing things I write don’t all sound the same!
Do you think poets have a responsibility as artists to respond to what’s happening in the world, and put that message out there? Does your work address social issues?
I do, but I do not think that the writing has to be so blatant or specific. We can respond to things going on in the world, for instance war, by writing about fear and alienation. We can, but we don’t have to name countries, demagogues. People who live in the world will know.
Are there other types of writing (dictionaries, romance novels, comics, science textbooks, etc.) that help you to write poetry?
Everything is input. EVERYTHING. I can’t put too fine a point on that.
What are you working on now?
I just finished a cycle of poems on Marie Curie, which was really different for me. Right now I am compiling all of the research poems that I've written and published in academic journals about the refugees that I work with in Sicily. I've had so many published but the audience is academic. I would like the people I wrote them about to have access to them. But I am having trouble ordering the collection to form an arc, but it will happen.
I am also working on a new collection of poems about the Italian immigrants in the town in which I grew up.
What book are you reading that we should also be reading?
I have been reading a lot of Melissa Kwasny lately. I am squeamish about this question because I read so voraciously and so widely, it is hard to pin anything down.
Without stopping to think, write a list of five poets whose work you'd tattoo on your body, or at least write in permanent marker on your clothing, to take with you at all times.
That is not a typo.
What’s a question you wish I asked? (And how would you answer it?)
You asked the most amazing questions, and I am so grateful!
Purchase Birds of Sicily.
Michelle Reale is an Associate Professor at Arcadia University. She is the author of several books of poetry and prose poems. A proud Italian-American, her work often explicates her culture. She conducts ethnography among African refugees in Sicily and blogs about her experiences at www.sempresicilia.wordpress.com. You can also visit her online at www.michellemessinareale.com.