I am not entirely convinced that Roxane Gay is a single entity. I intend to find out at the Tennessee Williams Literary Festival, where she will sit for panels and interviews on both Saturday and Sunday, March 22 and 23
What follows is a series of short letters written back and forth with Dante Di Stefano, whose poetry collection, Love Is a Stone Endlessly in Flight, was released in 2016 by Brighthorse Books. Dante and I met at Binghamton University, where we studied poetry together. Dante, Nicole Santalucia, and I used to swap poems until Daylight Donuts closed its doors; Nicole moved to Pennsylvania and I moved to Washington. Now the poems fly through email. I was lucky to see some of the poems in this collection as drafts. —Abby E. Murray
Thanks for talking poetry and sharing pieces from your book Love Is a Stone Endlessly in Flight. If I still lived down the street from you in snowy upstate, I’d probably leave these correspondences on your porch, handwritten. But here we are, most of America between us. Just so you know, I’m imagining this whole interview in a big batch of envelopes.
You mentioned in your interview with Nin Andrews over at Best American Poetry that you’re collecting works for an anthology in response to the events following November 8th. Any developments there? Can you tell me about some of the poets you approached and why?
November 8th, 2016 reminds me of the moment in The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn when the Duke and the Dauphin board the raft and take over. We now have a cadre of transparently low greedy mountebank narcissists with tyrannical impulses steering the ship of state. All pretense to civility and virtue has been dropped. Maybe that’s a good thing. Maybe now we can begin to address the violent contradictions that are so much a part of our national mythos. As Tamika Mallory put it at the Women’s March on Washington: “This country has been hostile to its people for a long time. For some of you it is new. For some of you it is not so new.”
The anthology I’m working on, Misrepresented People: Poetic Responses to Trump’s America, is about the persistent underlying issues of inequity and injustice that have led to the current political moment. Poets have been addressing these issues for years. Although his name is in the subtitle, this isn’t about Donald Trump. This is about the reactionary tributaries of American cultural, political, and private life that he represents. I’ve been able to collect poems from, among others, Kaveh Akbar, Nin Andrews, Jim Daniels, Martín Espada, Andrew Hudgins, Timothy Liu, Rajiv Mohabir, Kamilah Aisha Moon, Gregory Pardlo, Kevin Prufer, Dean Rader, Maggie Smith, Patricia Smith, Jane Wong, and Javier Zamora. I asked for poems I’d seen in journals, online, and in collections. Most of the poets I contacted did not know me, but they have been overwhelmingly supportive and enthusiastic about the project. My intention is to curate a collection that will be more than mere kneejerk response to the dismal political present; I want an ice-axe for the American spirit.
I’d also like to mention another anthology that will be coming out soon: Resist Much/Obey Little: Inaugural Poems to the Resistance. This collection, featuring 320 poets from all corners of the poetry world, will be available February 28th from Spuyten Duyvil Press. Half of the proceeds from the book will go to charity. I hope to do this with my anthology as well.
I look forward to reading the ice-axe that is Misrepresented People, and thanks for the heads-up about Resist Much / Obey Little. There has been a powerful burst of resistance in literary circles that’s crucial to the changing writer-reader relationship.
I wonder if Mark Twain had any of this in mind as he wrote the Duke and Dauphin onto the raft. I can feel the country sagging and pitching under the weight of this new regime.
Huck Finn reminds me of high school, which reminds me of the time I visited one of your classes and watched you interact with your students. How have you moved forward as a teacher and poet, post-November 8th? How are you seeing social change (for better or worse) in developing writing, and in the poems to come in the next few years? I ask partly for the sake of this interview and partly for selfish reasons. I keep wondering—how do I address each meeting with students, each poem, each day, while so much suffering is inflicted and planned for tomorrow?
Maybe you have advice for writers—young ones, and those who teach.
My favorite word in the English language is “endure.” My second favorite is “holy.” My third favorite is “broken.” This linguistic trinity is all I know of life, really.
Mark Twain’s fears about authoritarian personalities (such as Tom Sawyer and Pudd’nhead Wilson) are as relevant today as ever. I’m always amazed by the depths of someone like Twain, his ability to see America in such nuance and to live in those oftentimes ugly contradictions (see “The United States of Lyncherdom” and “The War Prayer”).
As a teacher and a writer, nothing has changed for me post-election. I’ve always been interested in interrogating notions of national belonging through my work in the classroom and on the page. I’ve always been interested in using literature as a means to enter into the empathetic heart of life. If you look at the poems in Love as a Stone Endlessly in Flight, at least half of them have to do with issues being contested in the current political moment. I feel that what I’m saying about my own work is true for all poet’s whose work I know well. It’s certainly true for your own work.
Nothing has changed as far as what I teach and what I write about, but there is a negative emotional charge that I feel when confronted, for example, by a student wearing a red “Make America Great Again” hat. Many of my students in the high school and at the university are Trump supporters. Many of my colleagues at the high school voted for Donald Trump. I eat lunch with five teachers who voted for Trump. These are my friends. These are people who, I fear, will find themselves on the wrong side of history. The challenge becomes, for me at least, not to give in to anger. Not to cut myself off from those who support an administration that I believe is evil. To be vocal in my dissent, but also to be generous in my embrace of others. I side with Pope Francis. I’m for bridges, not for walls. I also have to remember that when it comes to national and international politics, I am not an expert. I’m not afraid to give my opinions in any forum, but in an era of “alternate facts” the left is as guilty as the right in sounding off without proper deliberation. The work of a teacher and the work of a poet, it seems to me, both begin with the deliberate, the patient, the considered approach to a truth. We end in wisdom. We begin in delight. Regardless of whom is in the White House.
In the run up to the inauguration, I taught Malcolm X’s speech, “The Ballot or the Bullet” to twelfth graders. I use the speech in my classroom every year, but this year I felt his words more intensely. The main messages of that speech are very timely. Don’t be apathetic. The power of the ballot overrides the power of the bullet in America; realize that power. Remember that the political elites of both parties rarely have the best interests of the marginalized in mind, even when it seems like they do. These truths are as resonant today as they were in 1964.
I guess the good thing about Donald Trump being elected president is that his personality and his policies are so egregious that many people have been knocked into a political consciousness. I hope that this widespread political consciousness will translate into sustained resistance. I do not know if a sustained resistance will result in change, but at least it will generate hope.
The world has always been an open wound. So much suffering has always been inflicted today and planned for tomorrow. The miracle is that we carry on despite the burdens of time and the miseries we inflict on one another. My favorite word in the English language is “endure.” My second favorite is “holy.” My third favorite is “broken.” This linguistic trinity is all I know of life, really.
In all my reading since November, I hadn’t returned to Twain. (Brecht was the first to fly from the shelf, then Enzensberger.) “The War Prayer” has a new chill in it.
I’m glad you connect this to Love Is a Stone Endlessly in Flight. My favorite poem in this collection is “The New Pope Talks about the Contents of His Briefcase:”
Asked what was in the black briefcase
that he carried onto the plane by himself
en route to Brazil, Francis said he had
a razor, a breviary, a book about St. Teresa,
a razor because favelas rise like stubble
all over the world, a razor because turning
the other cheek often exposes five o’clock
shadow, a razor because the meek
shall inherit the cutting instruments,
a razor because the meek shall inherit
the sting no styptic can staunch, a razor
because the sharp edge recalls Gethsemane
and Gethsemane is the world right now,
a breviary because prayer requires prompting
even among the holy, a simple breviary
because a flock forgets the shepherd’s staff,
an ornate breviary because the basilica
of orchard, the basilica of forest and field,
obliges its priests to chant down the Babylon
of Rome, a breviary because the liturgy
always takes place in the dirtiest street,
a book about Saint Theresa of Avila
because recollection leads to devotion
and devotion leads to ecstasy, a book
about Saint Theresa because the prayer
of quiet culls a blessing from tears,
a book about Saint Theresa because if you
have God you will want for nothing,
a book about Theresa because the church
canonizes a new saint every minute
as if desperate to bludgeon us into heaven,
a razor, a breviary, a book about a saint,
because Christ has no body now on earth
but yours, and you have no baggage
now on earth save what nicks, what abridges,
what records, what beatifies what sorrow.
Tell me a little about how this poem was written. Your work is so layered—in music and texture—and the pieces that use repetition have always resonated most with me. Must be the same chord in my ear that thrums for minuets, the long, waltzing lines that shift and stay the same all at once.
Look forward to hearing from you.
“The New Pope…” began after I read an article in The NY Times about the pope’s trip to Brazil. The title of this poem comes from the article. I often begin with the title of the poem and work from there. The poem gave me an opportunity to think about Saint Theresa of Avila, whose mystic text, The Interior Castle, held a deep fascination for me in my young adulthood. As you might remember, I thought seriously, for many years, about becoming a Catholic priest, and although I did not become one, the best parts of Catholic culture deeply inform my work. I have always been attracted to the eccentric and visionary elements of Church history.
I hope this poem is a meditation on the revolutionary and prophetic strands that form the double-helix of true Christianity.
P.S. Also—not in the poem—but it’s funny to think of the pope carrying a briefcase. Does anyone carry a briefcase anymore?
If anyone still carries a briefcase, it would have to be Pope Francis.
It sounds like the mysteries of Catholicism sort of parallel the mysteries of poetry. Or maybe that’s how I view it—the mystery is what keeps me bound to its promise. It’s never-ending. I can see this in your poems that touch religion.
Parallel to that, I also see sexual energy in other poems, where the speaker wholly embraces the power of romantic love and desire. I’m thinking of the poem “Your Freckles Compared to a Muddy Waters Song” but there are a couple others. Your poems that touch religion seem fueled by readings that inspired you. Are there writers or readings that inspire your more sexually driven poems? I ask this knowing full well that some of these poems seem inspired by everything from the blues to a woman’s body.
I don’t really think I have any sexually driven poems, although I suppose all poetry is infused with an erotic energy at every turn. I wouldn’t know where to start with a list of erotically charged poems (although Dickinson, Whitman, and Hopkins come to mind as being electrically sensual in their use of language). I was listening to a podcast with some of Carolyn Kizer’s erotic poetry yesterday. I also think immediately of Sharon Olds and Adrienne Rich. My old friend, Robert Frost, has some surprisingly sexual poems (“Putting in the Seed” and “The Subverted Flower” are shocking and sexy in the way that other more explicit poems could never be).
I also admire Galway Kinnell’s “After Making Love We Hear Footsteps,” a poem whose poignancy increases when read against the whole body of work (especially when read against the poems written after his wife had died). This is a poem that is more in line with the way sex figures in my own work. Relatively speaking, however, there is hardly any sex in my poetry.
I write love poems. All of my poems are love poems to my wife. If I had to think of an audience, my audience is Christina. My audience is myself. If you read my book, you are overhearing a conversation I am having with myself and with my wife, part of the endless nocturnal conversation of a marriage. If a nipple pokes through the cashmere of one of my poems, it’s only to privilege the amative, adhesive, and intimate over the historical and the broadly social. It’s only to say to my darling bride, we are human and our bodies will betray us, but they are also our glory in the ever unfolding present of this poem we find ourselves in right now called matrimony.
If a nipple pokes through the cashmere of one of my poems, it’s only to privilege the amative, adhesive, and intimate over the historical and the broadly social.
Thanks for writing back and forth. I’ve enjoyed getting to talk about your poems. If I were there, I’d buy you a donut.
I’ve thought about the body and its role in your poems since the last letter, and, actually, since sitting in mass this morning. The body and its clothing were up for discussion—the way we worry about how we wrap ourselves. Matthew says we should “Learn from the way the wild flowers grow. They do not work or spin.” They are glorious and cared for even though they wilt, contract diseases, die, nurture others after taking another form we can’t picture.
It made me wonder where the body ends when the way we steer them is so shaped by what surrounds us. Sometimes, poems remind me how the body must have begun: fragile and filled and ready to be sheltered.
Your poem “A Morning Prayer While Pumping Gas at the Gulf Station” draws the reader upward from a world that claws at us. I want to share it here, as a way to draw our interview to a close:
Morning Prayer While Pumping Gas at the Gulf Station
O my God, I offer you this small moment of attention
as I stare blankly at the KFC and the coin laundry
across the parkway, past the sign that says: “Life…
one mile at a time.” I offer you the debit card swipe,
the numbers punched into the keypad, the nozzle lifted,
the gas cap twisted off, the lever flipped up, the clutch
of my hand on the pump, the rush of gallons through
the hose, and the flippant dance of dollars and cents
on the digital screen. I offer you what I don’t heed:
this minute and a half when I am most myself
without care or desire as the cars rush by like a caravan
on the road to Damascus. I offer you the cement truck
that grunts up the hill, the teenager who blares Jay-Z
out the rolled down windows of his rusty Corolla.
I offer you the deserted parking lot across four lanes
of traffic and the new pizza place next door.
I offer you the bank sign that says “Horizons”.
I offer you the smile of a little boy who waves to me
from the back seat of the Escalade about to pull away.
I offer you the quietness of moments like this,
the lull of the carwash, the lazy comfort of 6:40 A.M.
after I’ve pushed snooze on the alarm, before
it goes off again. I offer you the wind on my face
when I ride my bicycle downhill on a steep side street.
I offer you all the hours I don’t check my cell phone.
I offer you all the minutes without Wi-Fi. I offer you
the wish for a world without Facebook, Twitter,
Guantanamo Bay, Enhanced Interrogation Techniques,
the war on terror, the drug war, the war on poverty.
I offer you the wish for a world without the one percent,
Occupy Wall Street, the Tea Party, the DNC, Fox News,
CNN, Netflix, waterboarding, Waco, Abu Ghraib.
I offer you the wish for a world without climate change,
global warming, Wiki-leaks, gentrification, Starbucks,
Walmart, Target, and the prison industrial complex.
O my dear Jesus, I offer you that old Zen phrase,
“If you meet the Buddha, kill the Buddha”
and without irony I offer you all of the moments
where life rolls out one mile at a time like the road
to Emmaus, where I am a stranger to myself,
where your incorruptible body lies broken and risen,
where I am unaware and graced by this unknowing,
where I am broken and can’t help but rise closer to you.
Thank you for this poem and its gust of an ending. If you don’t mind, one more question: aside from the anthology we discussed, what else can readers look for from you, soon?
Thank you for interviewing me. I enjoyed these exchanges as well!
A few months ago I finished the manuscript for my second poetry collection, ill angels. Hopefully, that book will be picked up by a publisher soon. I write monthly reviews of contemporary poetry books at The Best American Poetry Blog and Arcadia. I also do a monthly interview series at The Best American Poetry Blog, focusing on poetry presses and their editors. I hope readers of this interview will check out some of the great books and presses I’ve been championing, and will continue to champion, through those venues. In the coming months, I’ll be publishing interviews with editors and staff from Graywolf Press, Copper Canyon Press, Lithic Press, and Bull City Press. I also have forthcoming reviews on collections by Kaveh Akbar, Chen Chen, Jen Levitt, Martha Rhodes, Susan Lewis, Ruth Ellen Kocher, and Lo Kwa Mei-en. This is such a vibrant era for American poetry; there is so much paradise to gather from the poets writing in our nation today.
Dante Di Stefano is the author of Love is a Stone Endlessly in Flight (Brighthorse Books, 2016). His poetry, essays, and reviews have appeared in Brilliant Corners, The Los Angeles Review, Shenandoah, Prairie Schooner, The Writer’s Chronicle and elsewhere. He is the poetry editor for DIALOGIST, the poetry book review editor for Arcadia, and a correspondent for The Best American Poetry Blog.
Abby E. Murray has an MFA from Pacific University and a PhD from Binghamton University. She’s the editor in chief at Collateral and teaches creative writing at the University of Washington Tacoma, where she writes often about military issues and teaches workshops for veterans and military families. Recent poems have appeared in Rise Up Review, Rattle, Stone Canoe, and other journals.3