Interview with poet Joey Nicoletti
1. How did poetry enter your life?
All of my poetic roads lead to Langston Hughes. I discovered his poem “Theme for English B” in the 5th grade, and it was love at first read. Then I went on a field trip to the Walt Whitman House, where I heard someone read “I Hear America Singing” and “When I Heard the Learn’d Astronomer.” I wrote my first poem about a week later, which felt as if I had found a new galaxy. To this day, Langston and Walt are my on-the-page/tech and spiritual support system: my go to poets and my first poetry mentors.
2. Along with writing poetry, you also teach it. How do you make time for your own work with all the demands of teaching?
One of the greatest demands of teaching is reading and responding to student work, which is also one of its greatest joys. For me, to engage in student work is to delve into the idea of audience: in the writing classes I teach, the students and I are in a community, where in addition to sharing poems, we are sharing space and time so that we all learn what is working in a poem and why, and how our own work might be better made, so that others outside of our community, as well as ourselves might connect with the ideas that they are presenting for others’ consideration with cogency and resonance. Thus, by being paid to respond to student work, I am writing, and the comments I write inform my own work, not only because am I reading, but also, like Frasier Crane, I’m listening. By working diligently to hear to what someone is attempting or seems to be telling me, I practice my reading skills, which is to say that I am also enhancing the ability to listen to my own work; my own ideas more objectively, which helps me in my own work, as well as the students who I am beyond fortunate to work with. Thus, making time to write is not a problem, as I am reading before I write student comments, which often comes before my own work. If I have learned or hope to impress anything to the people I work with, it is that there is no writing well without reading extremely well, eclectically, every day, and much more often than one writes. As Walt Whitman posited, “To have great poets, there must be great audiences.” I am part of the audience more frequently than I am someone who is presenting to an audience or courting their attention. To paraphrase Anne Sexton, reading poetry is my hands, face, mind, and heart.
3. Favorite quote(s) regarding poets and poetry?
I have many, but my favorite comes from Samuel Taylor Coleridge: “Poetry: the best words in the best order.” This is the DNA of all that I endeavor to do in shaping and presenting my ideas for an audience of poetry aficionados or those who would be.
4. Who are some of your favorite poets?
Wow. That’s like asking me my favorite musician/musical group, meal, wine, New York Yankees or Seattle Seahawks player. Nevertheless, since 12 is my lucky number, here is a list of 10 more of my favorite poets, in addition to Langston Hughes and Walt Whitman, in no particular order: Claudia Emerson, Thomas Lux, Linda Hogan, Tomas Transtromer, Lucille Clifton, Naomi Shihab Nye, Louise Gluck, Stanley Kunitz, Gwendolyn Brooks, and Philip Levine.
5. Along with being a fan of poetry, you are also a big fan of sports. Is this evident in your work?
The short answer is, yes. The longer answer is, absolutely, hells to the yeah! I was raised on a steady diet of pasta and Yankee baseball. MLB baseball and NFL/American football are second and third languages of sorts that I am fluent in, not only because of my own interest, but also because watching these sports was the primary means in which my family and I communicated, especially in my formative years. The poems and essays of both, Cannoli Gangster and Reverse Graffiti reflect this, as sports figures gave my family and I ways of seeing people—especially those of Italian descent something to root for; that America was, as I say in an essay about Joe DiMaggio in Reverse Graffiti. To them, as it is for many immigrants from other countries, America was place where my siblings and I had a chance to make the most of our talents in ways that my parents couldn’t. Like Walt, they also heard America singing, never more sonorously than when members of the Yankees—especially those with Italian bloodlines—excelled: a montage of an Italian American Dream realized. Pro sports have and continue to inform and inspire my life in ways that surprise me, which is the paragon of reasons why I blog about it weekly. balldurham.tumblr.com .
7. A lot of poets could use advice. What is your best?
Never stop reading, and be consistently and equally persistent in perfecting your poetry as you would be in publishing it. Stephen King posits, “If you don’t have time to read, you don’t have time to write.” The chances of magazine editors rejecting work is always present, especially (and most often) when starting to submit work for publication. Don’t let rejection dampen your passion or halt your efforts. Be persistent. Read, read, read, read and read some more. And then write and revise. Persist.
5. Favorite literary movie(s), if any?
I have three. Although my first movie is not a literary one in the sense of being about poetry with a capital P, I would be remiss not to mention Apocalypse Now. It’s an adaptation of Joseph Conrad’s novella Heart of Darkness, and Francis Ford Coppola’s direction—his singular knack for combining imagery and music is a poetic feast for me, which begins with using The Doors’ classic song “The End” as helicopters are bombing a village—and that’s before the audience hears any dialogue! The rest of the film has memorable one-liners (I.E., “I love the smell of napalm in the morning.”), speeches, narration, and images that accrue with all of the pleasures and technical virtuosity that is characteristic of a considerable amount of my favorite poems, and I am grateful for all of the people that brought the movie into the world. A close second is The Wizard of Oz, which is also an adaptation, and similarly amalgamates music, dialogue, and imagery effectively. The third is Dead Poet’s Society. I miss Robin Williams for this reason alone, but my unofficial middle names are Carpe Diem: his performance inspired me to consider teaching as way to make a life, at least much as making a living, if not more so.
6. Where did you grow up and how do you think that affected your writing?
I was born in Astoria, Queens, New York City, “the city,” and raised on Long Island. My father worked as a NYC Bus Driver for 40 years, which was wonderful, because he had routes all of over the city: Sugar Hill, Greenwich Village, Chelsea, Midtown and Boogie Down, among other neighborhoods. I used to go into work with him whenever possible. It was not unusual for him to have 70 hour work-weeks, so not only did going to work with him give us the chance to hang, I got to see and learn the city in a unique way. I liken seeing the East Village from the windows of my father’s bus to Dorothy opening her bedroom door and seeing Emerald City in vibrant color in The Wizard of Oz. I suppose this is one reason why my father is in many of my poems, as well as the city itself. If children learn what they live, as the saying goes, then New York was a faculty of skyscrapers, shadows, and streets, where I formed my first impressions of the world, and poetry was all around me in a singularly dynamic and adroit way. This informs many of the poems of Reverse Graffiti, so it would be fair to say that it is a book that is rife with New York.
7. How did you choose the titles for the two volumes of poetry that are published?
I think that it’s more accurate to say that they chose themselves. In the case of Cannoli Gangster, it was a phrase that popped out in a conversation that I had with my spouse about a poem that I was working on, and we both nodded. In the case of Reverse Graffiti, I saw a peace sign thumbed into the grime of the back window of a parked car. It was a typical mid-November day in Buffalo, overcast, with the smell and promise of new snow in the air. The image struck me as a metaphor for the poems of the book: to make art, to find beauty in the grime of the world around me, as well as my mind, heart, soul’s and windows of my family’s and my personal history: Reverse Graffiti. http://bit.ly/reverseg
8. Do you think social network websites are more of a distraction from creating or rather a good way to market yourself?
This is another great question. I think they are terrific, because as long as a poet has access to a phone, laptop, tablet, and the like, social network sites give writers a chance to reach a wide or specific audience type in ways that poets could have only dreamed of. Imagining poets as ubiquitous and prolific as Walt Whitman or Langston Hughes tweeting today makes me smile from ear to ear, because they understood that to connect with human beings was the essence of all audience-oriented writing genres, and especially poetry, where efficiency with language is a unique characteristic and challenge of the genre. As Samuel Taylor Coleridge said: “best words, best order,” whether it’s 140 characters or less in the Twitterverse or likes on Facebook, The Gram, Tumblr, or any other public-access area of cyberspace.
9. Okay, you’re going to be on an island alone for a lengthy amount of time. Besides writing tools and necessities such as food, what three items are you bringing with you?
First, in the (perhaps absurd) hopes that there will be power outlets, I will bring my laptop with me, so that I can keep up with my loved ones, watch films, videos, read poems, stories, essays, reviews, articles and be apprised of the latest developments with my Yankees and Seahawks. Second, I will bring a bag that is filled with Duracell batteries of books, including The Collected Poems of Langston Hughes, Marissa Acocella Marchetto’s Graphic Memoir Cancer Vixen, Maxine Hong Kingston’s The Woman Warrior, issue 8 of the first volume of The Avengers, and Carl Sagan’s Cosmos. Third, a flashlight, so that I can read them at night.
10. Outside of poetry and being a sports fan, what other activities do you enjoy?
I love, love, comic books, books about comics, graphic novels, and most things super-hero: reading them, collecting them, you name it. Comics are one of the major entries in my book of passions. Listening to music also is a joy, as is seeing live shows/concerts, and there is nothing like hanging with my family and/or friends with succulent food and marvelous spirits, either at my family’s digs or at someone else’s. I am also passionate about animals and traveling. I enjoy going to places I have never been before and getting new perspectives on the world, almost as much as I love my dogs and cat.
11. The muse seems to have vanished. A blank page has become intimidating. What do you do to conjure the muse in such difficult times or do you just take a break?
Read, love, sleep, eat, drink, laugh, read, and persist. I find that this also works well for many non-writing situations.
12. Aside from the textbook(s) you use to teach your students, any books you’d recommend that deal with writing poetry?
Although I have yet to use them exclusively in a classroom, I recommend Richard Hugo’s The Triggering Town along and Kenneth Koch’s Making Your Own Dreams. These books are as opulent with joy as they are with sagacity and intrigue, which appeals to both, the novice or established poet. To put it another way, these are two wonderful books by two unique and essential contemporary American poets who were also gifted teachers of verse.
13. Do you have any favorite creative websites you frequent? If so, please share.
I adore www.poets.org. Not only is the site rife with poems and stories of the poets who have written them, there are some terrific resources for teaching poetry, which I found especially useful when I started out as a student, as well as an instructor of poetry writing.
14. If you could change one thing about the world of poetry as it is today, what would it be?
One of my greatest hopes for today’s poetry world is the same as those that I have for the future: let more independent presses come into the world and propagate. The more of them we have, the greater the opportunities will be for all of the wonderful poets who have yet to publish a book, which will encourage creativity and learning, which I submit is always, always a worthwhile endeavor, not to mention a great way to spend a day or evening, just as it has been in doing this interview with you. Salute!
*A huge thanks to Joey Nicoletti for agreeing and taking the time to do this interview. Please check out his work and collections of poetry.