Night Bloom : Voice

Cappello’s sense of poetry and pacing keeps this memoir breathing…there is truth here rarely expressed in the post-immigration literature of Italian Americans…Ultimately this memoir is the story of love’s possibilities and impossibilities, and the beauty and danger that lurk in the garden of our lives.

The voice of the parents probably operates in greater or lesser degree but always is working somehow in the work of a writer…I love refuse, I love debris: I gather it toward the making of after-images…I think Americans are much too preoccupied both with health and with healing rather than with caring…

Excerpts from an Interview with Clara Antonucci, Ph.D. candidate,
January 2006

*When did you start writing, or let’s say, when did you start to consider yourself deeply involved with writing?

I don’t mean to resist answering these wonderful questions–which I greatly admire, especially for the things that some of them are asking me to think about, but I hope it will be ok if some of my answers don’t seem like answers. For example, I have trouble answering the question of beginnings where writing is concerned. I know there are people whose careers take definite turns–a favorite experimental filmmaker, Marjorie Keller described her turn to filmmaking as a definite choice that emerged AFTER she tried her hand at writing poetry. And she had very definite reasons for turning to film and finding in filmmaking a form and possibility that she didn’t find possible in poetry, at the same time that she admitted, on some level, to finding poetry, for herself, particularly “hard.” I also, though, don’t want to answer the question with that old cliché: “I have always been a writer.” Because that really can’t be true or possible. If I consult report cards from my early days in Catholic grade school, I seem to have earned higher scores in math and science than in reading and writing. And who can say they were a writer when only a child? On the other hand, one of my friend’s children, a 12 year old girl named, Caeli Carr-Potter, recently shared with me two poems that she had written. She also shared with me several stories to have emerged from her pen. The writing–in its timing, tone, turns, images, single sentences–are breathtakingly wonderful and magical and weird too–even harsh. They suggest to me a girl who will “one day be a great writer.” If this is what she has in her at 12, we can only imagine what she will produce when she is 22 or 32. But is this really how it works with writing? When I look at Caeli’s work, I have to admit that nothing I wrote when I was her age can hold a candle to this writing. If I think back to what I wrote at that age, I recall an apocalyptic tale–the world destroyed by nuclear something or other; some lyrics, really bad, for a rock band I had started with two friends called “The Bottomless Pits”; and some essays in answer to the questions posed by my Catholic teachers–essays in which I argue against abortion (I guess I was, on some level, clearly, “brainwashed” at the time because as an adult I became a feminist, and an activist for women’s rights, the right to abortion among them). But to say that I “have always written” is what I want to say. A friend of mine and fellow writer said today at lunch that she would be happier if writing weren’t in her life. She’s experiencing a block, and said many things that I imagine she’ll take back sometime when she’s feeling better or back “in” the writing. It made me realize that I entertain the fantasy–because maybe it is just that–that there is no life without writing, and I cannot imagine another form of making for me. I do indulge in amateur collage-making. I find it very gratifying, and I think there is a relationship between this activity and writing, but I cannot see (or afford to see) an “end” to writing for me. And maybe that’s why I don’t want to claim a “beginning” either. I could tell you the kind of story that we find in so many biographies of writers: it begins with the first taste of recognition, the literary prize won at an early age, a youth spent doing nothing but reading. I guess I don’t want to chart a narrative along those lines. And maybe I think that everything one writes–no matter the genre–is a history of oneself as a writer.

*Who are the writers who inspired you?

So many writers are my inspiration, my interlocuters, there are too many to name. And sometimes it is not that I turn to a particular writer but to a particular line or paragraph to help me along. Music also inspires me, as does film, and I use both mediums to instruct me and compel me as a writer. Then, too, there may actually be a difference between writers who inspire me to write and writers who inspire me toward other things. Of course my mother’s being a writer and the writing of the poets who were part of her community in Philadelphia in the 1970s made a difference for me. And my mother often recited poetry at the dinner table; she lived a life in letters in many senses of that word. Early trips to the library were deeply sensuous, quiet, centering and adventuresome experiences for me–trips that I made with my mother and that I write about a little bit in Night Bloom. Each of my books is definitely inspired by different writers whom I am preoccupied with at the moment, and in some cases my work emerges out of a self-conscious attempt to be in conversation with a particular writer or writers. This was especially so for my second manuscript–Appearances: Scenes from a Queer Friendship. Formally, it was inspired by the work of Gertrude Stein and Lyn Hejinian, but also by queer portraitists that include David Plante, Hilton Als, and H.D. (Hilda Doolittle). And it was inspired by critical theory and philosophy–the work of Michel Foucault and Eve Kosofsky Sedgwick. It was inspired by musical forms, most especially Bach’s two-part inventions which I was trying to approximate in prose.

Among my favorite writers are the poets of the New York School, most especially James Schuyler, whose work I consider “visionary,” and the paintings of Joe Brainard who was very much a part of New York School poetic traditions though he is known better for his visual art.

More recently, since living in Russia and in Italy in 2001-2002, I have been greatly inspired by the work of Osip Mandelstam (whose prose style especially in The Egypitan Stamp [in the translation by Clarence Brown] I have sometimes consciously tried to imitate), and Natalia Ginzburg’s essays which I find to have a kind of purity and distillate quality that I would like to aspire to. I have also been greatly moved by the nonfiction of Leonarda Sciascia (Sicily as Metaphor) and Vittorini’s Conversations in Sicily,(especially when one learns that he had to say what he was saying there without saying it).

If I turn to the books that I always keep on my desk for immediate access they include those I’ve already mentioned but also Henry James’ The Sacred Fount, Toi Derricotte’s The Black Notebooks, R.D. Laing’s Knots, Freud’s Beyond the Pleasure Principle, John Ashbery’s poems, a guidebook to birds in Italian–Uccelli, the poems of C.D.Wright, Garden Flowers in Color, Sarah Kofman’s Rue Ordener, Rue Labat, William Carlos Williams’ Kora in Hell, The Quiet Eye (a Quaker book of images and inspirations), Chion’s The Voice in Cinema, and The Lives of the Saints. I am also greatly inspired by the writing and “boxes” of the American artist, Joseph Cornell.

Most recently I have an endless appetite for the work of Lydia Davis. I love and would love to write more about 19th century American writers Emily Dickinson and Charles Chesnutt. And if I keep before me James Baldwin’s nonfiction which I consider unsurpassed. Could I hope to write a Notes of a Native Son? James Baldwin inspires me to try.

*Who are your readers, what kind of reader do you have in mind as “significant other” when you write?

I hope my answer to this doesn’t sound too grandiose, but I really do think that I am writing for a reader that doesn’t yet exist. By which I mean a number of things: the writing that I most like to read is literature in search of a reader and sometimes literature that demands the creation of a reader–through reading–that, prior to the writing, does not yet exist. I like to say that I am trying to write the book that I haven’t read yet or the book I would like to read. But the “I” in that sentence doesn’t pre-exist the writing either. It’s an “I,” like a reader, in the making.

*How does your exploration of the relationship with the mother/father work in your writing process, apart from what you wrote in Night Bloom?

The voice of the parents probably operates in greater or lesser degree but always is working somehow in the work of a writer. So, I guess I am answering this question with recourse to “voice.” I think of the way that my parents take up residence in my writing process to happen at the level of voice and maybe this is especially so for me because of the practically obverse relationship to language that they performed, in both cases extreme (not necessarily in a bad sense of that word), but differently so. My mother’s was a voice of passion, lyricism, force and persuasion, intellection and articulation, of song (she sings a lot), of conversation (my mother is a deeply oral person and can talk to you or with you for hours). My father’s voice is loud and brash, inarticulate and desperate, mean and plaintive, gruff and violent, weepy and, in his prose, fascinating and weird. Both of my parents are writers. My mother is a poet, well-known in Philadelphia, and editor of a poetry journal called Philadelphia Poets (I’m sorry I didn’t send you a copy when I sent you some of my materials. If you give me your address in Italy, I can send you some there). She is also an inveterate movie reviewer, and maybe in a different life would have ended up writing books about her relations to the cinema. My father writes stories–sometimes just fanciful, other times based on his life, more along the lines of nonfiction. My father didn’t graduate from high school, and doesn’t have a fully grammatical command of the language, but I believe he has a writerly drive and ability (I write about one of his stories in my awkwardness book). He simply didn’t live or didn’t choose to live a life that would have enabled the cultivation of his writing. Night Bloom, as you know, really dealt more with my mother’s and grandfather’s voices, but in the awkwardness book, I’m dealing more with my relationship with my father. Maybe once one has gotten the parents out of one’s head, one can go on to make really great literature? I will attach “Heir to Ambiguity” because I can’t remember if I’d already sent you that. In that essay, I’m dealing somewhat with a bequeathing of a particularly odd and comic relationship to language that I believe I’ve received from my father and which I wish to mine rather than deny or ignore.

If we’re lucky, we have people other than, or in addition to, or as counter-narrative to, etc. our parents to make up the vocal range of our art. If I think just now about other people’s voices or lives that are immanent in my creative process, I must include my great Uncle Tony Polidori. He was the husband of my mother’s mother’s sister, Ann Arcaro. His family was from a town on the Adriatic. I didn’t even see him frequently as a child, but when I did see him, I felt almost something like a light moving from him to me. He was a life force, a force of creativity. (I wrote about him briefly in Night Bloom–he’s the one whose only son died when he was 19, and, tragically, on “Father’s Day.”) I wrote at length about his films in “Shadows in the Garden.” Anyway, recently I was visiting my father’s house (where my brother Joe still lives with his two children and my father), and it was Christmas time, and I noticed some ornaments on the tree that went back to childhood, so I asked my brother if I could take one or two of these, and he took me down into the basement to see what other old ornaments were stowed away that he could offer to me. Among these were ornaments that my Uncle Tony made that I find to be exquisite and greatly moving. He would take a walnut shell, and somehow break it open without breaking the shell. Then paint or decorate the shell, and fill it with tiny figurines–usually figurines relative to the Nativity. Then he would loop a piece of copper wire through the pin hole that one finds at the top of all walnut shells it seems. There was also, in this bag of ornaments, another type that he produced by taking a seedpod that grew on a bush that he grew in his garden called the Unicorn Plant, turning the seedpod upside down, and making it into a bird. These items are simple, crude–primitivist? One of the things I love about them is that my uncle was quite macho, and these productions are so delicate. Recently I found a collage of black and white photos, some of which are formally stunning, that he took when he visited his hometown in Italy in 1950, long after he had immigrated to the United States. I want to write about this photo collage, though I’m not sure what I want to write. But I know I will do something with it. He appears in a suit–all dapper, the immigrant dressed to the nines in his American duds, maybe even garishly so, as Sciascia would suggest–surrounded by the remaining family who appear as “peasants.” There are a number of photos of women riding bicycles while simultaneously carrying buckets on their heads. I would love to use one of these for the cover of my awkwardness book, but I can’t disrupt my uncle’s collage.

This will seem strange to mention, but I’m trying to bring personal, not simply intellectual material to bear on my answers to your inquiry, so I will tell you that I recently had a very visceral dream in which figurines emerge out of my nose. The figurines are encased in something liquid and like a filmstrip, and I find myself studying them and enjoying them. Then there are figurines I’ve made of wood and I notice that most of them are stooping (my father currently stoops as a result of Parkinson’s disease), but then, in the dream, I notice that I have also made figurines whose faces are turned upward, whose arms are raised upward, who look toward the sky. I really think this dream has to do with my trying to understand where my own creative impulses and psychic health might lie–somewhere between my uncle’s and father’s influences, and burden. This dream is followed by one in which I have shit into my partner’s sister’s toilet but can’t get the toilet to flush. When I try to use a plunger, not only does my own shit overflow, but suddenly the toilet bowl is filled with the shit of shitters past! The shit of everyone else before me now comes streaming out of unknown portals into the toilet which has greatly expanded in size to accommodate all of the shit. You ask me about memory and identity in the next question–I really think this dream, too, is about creativity (the classic creativity/shit connection), but also about an unconscious fear that if I release my own repressions, I’ll also have to deal with everyone else’s released repressions. The shit of the past.

*I think that in the Night Bloom prologue, the story of Roy-G-biv, and the indigo color is a beautiful metaphor of the American identity which historically grew up on the basis of an aggression and annihilation. Can you talk to me about your relationship with memory and identity in terms of your political and artistic project?

I will have to think about this more because “American identity” encompasses many different vectors for me–as a woman; a queer; as an Italo-American; as a Sicilian American; as an intellectual in an anti-intellectual culture; as a middle class person with working class roots who denies the depth of her bourgeois investments; as a lapsed Catholic. But maybe the class element looms largest for me in my contemporary life because the people I am surrounded by, by and large, do not share anything even vaguely resembling the working class experience that is so much a part of who I am. Not nostalgically so; simply “so.” I’m fascinated by how that past can so easily disappear when one enters certain contexts–academe, for example, the place where I’ve lived for the past 20 years. How sequestered Americans are from other Americans, the numerous “other worlds” that make up the nation.

I know it’s a cliché, but I think it’s accurate to say that the United States and “Americans” imagine themselves as living at the center of the universe, and we live in the moment–most direly, as the invasion of Iraq attests, in an eternal present that we believe is without consequences, with no sense of an ethical imperative except when “crisis” occurs. Then we like to tell stories about how neighborly and caring of each other we are.

Night Bloom was largely about revaluing aspects of immigrant and Italian identity that would have been considered forgettable or worthless by American standards. What is worth saving? Re-membering? Re-making? I love refuse, I love debris: I gather it toward the making of after-images. But not in a fetishizing or static way. In my second manuscript I really was trying to do something very different with memory: to write a living history of two Italian/American queer “subjects”: to write the limits and possibilities of friendship between a man and woman who shared a politics and a working class past. Much of my work is dialogically driven–in search of a conversation, hoping to produce a conversation, emerging out of a conversation, or in some cases out of a concentrated listening to other people’s stories (over and against the isolationist imperative of American identity).

*One of the most strong images that I found in Night Bloom is when you talk of walking hand in hand, that is what you wished your family had done. I wrote in my analysis that your writing is like a road, a path that you open to unblock an impasse–or it is better to say more than one: a new path for your mother to walk on in your memory and beyond, a path for John Petracca, a path for your brother. I think that you lay down bridges, take off stones, trace little paths. I have the feeling that your writing as a way of healing is…

I very much appreciate your account of the writing as the making of paths, otherwise blocked. I would say, paths also otherwise interrupted. Maybe this is why I so enjoy minimalist achievements in poetry, purity of line, and image, because silence and quiet is requisite to paths opening, and to exploration. I really want to have the occasion to wander when I write. One of my favorite paraphrases of Gertrude Stein is the sense that she says, “I do not write in order to be right.”

I would add that I don’t like to subscribe to the “writing-as-healing” idea. I don’t write to heal myself or others, and I think Americans are much too preoccupied both with health and with healing rather than with caring. I find “healing,” in an American lexicon, to be an impoverished concept and an arrogant preoccupation. (I was already against the writing as healing notion before living in Russia, but in Russia, I became aware of how much Americans are made to think about their “health.”) I have an aversion to the word that would require a conversation to clarify.

*Your writing is full of highly suggestive images. What is your relationship with cinema and photography, I mean, in which way (if any) does it influence your poetics together with the highly symbolizing power of poetry to which your writing often points?

Photography doesn’t influence my work so much as cinema and other visual media, painting in particular. I have always felt illiterate as a reader of photographs (even though I do love studying, especially “home” photographs and writing about them). I am a “film lover,” and the films whose aesthetic I would like to emulate are wide-ranging–from the Hollywood musicals of Minnelli to a film like Omi’s I Fidanzati, whose opening and closing sequences are among the most beautiful I know, from the avant-garde work of Maya Deren and Joseph Cornell to the visually sumptuous and profoundly demanding work of Russian filmmaker, Paradjhanov. Sometimes I am influenced by a film’s narrative assemblage, and I may try to transcribe it and imitate it (I remember this was the case with the film translated as “Steam” by the contemporary Italian/Turkish director whose name I am currently forgetting). Or I will try to intuit its visual aesthetic, its palette, tones and timing, and try to be influenced by that. I also have been influenced by painting, especially the work of Charles Demuth and Horace Pippin.

I’m also interested in creating a music with my prose, and my next book project will be devoted to the relationship between sound and mood. That’s another story.

*You talked to me about the project you recently carried out in collaboration with Paola Ferrario. Can you tell me how you intend to carry it on?

For my own part, the interest is in working with the numerous stories that we were entrusted with. I learned so much from doing this work–I developed a course out of some of my research entitled “Immigrant Subjectivity and Documentary Discourse.”

One of the major things that I discovered while working with Paola on the immigrants-to-Italy project was that Italy was not the Italy of a remaindered Italian/American consciousness–the nostalgic left-over, the romantic homeland, the ur-place to which one can never return, etc., etc. Rather I learned about one manifestation of a contemporary Italy, and particularly the cultural complexities that foster an Italian racism or ethnocentrism at the same time that the culture, even at the level of legislation, is flexible, bendable, and open. I also got to glimpse the various “new Italies” that are emerging, that are anticipated and resisted by the change in demographics, community and culture that the influx of immigrants from all over the world will produce.

There is much more that I can say about all of this.

*You mentioned your project of creating a writers community in Maine. Would you like to talk about it, tell me something about the potentiality that can blossom in a community context?

This is in very, very, very initial stages. I will only say here that as much as one likes to believe the myth that writing can happen anywhere, by anyone, no matter the material conditions of one’s life, I don’t believe it. Virginia Woolf’s oft-quoted sentence about the necessity for a room of one’s own and an independent income rings true! I wouldn’t write without the community of writers whom I write, in some sense, “with” (these include my writing partner, Karen Carr, my friend, fellow writer, Jim Morrison (not the rockstar, the film specialist and memoirist/novelist), and my partner, Jean Walton). Jean and I have founded numerous kinds of community groups here in Rhode Island–for example, an artists’ group that met monthly for a year in which we shared and discussed work together (there were painters, filmmakers, writers and activists in the group). We founded a Gay and Lesbian symposium on our campus that has been alive for at least 10 years, kept alive by different organizers each year. We started an Experimental Film discussion group another year. Now we have been able to purchase a cabin in a part of Maine that convinces you that you are in another world. The cabin next to the one we’ve purchased is also for sale, so the “dream” is for another writer or writers to purchase it and make possible a summer retreat for writers and artists. Please note that at this stage this is merely a fantasy. But we’ve been lucky: a lot of our fantasies have come true.

Of course Jean and I feed each other’s work continuously–Jean is a consummate literary theorist (see her book Fair Sex, Savage Dreams on race and psychoanalysis), and has also more recently turned to creative nonfiction, and fiction. Two people a community does not make, and we have also in the past initiated with friends writing/travel ventures: we travel together to a carefully chosen place and part of the travel entails all of us writing in the midst of the travel and sharing what we write. Then, upon returning, making he writing into something else. She wrote a story about Alistair Crowley and Cefalu after our last trip to Sicily, and the section of the awkwardness book addressed to my father, the section that is organized around the words “dimmi” and “senti” were the fruits of my writing there.