September 24, 2010 in Announcements, Readings & Events

Ten Questions, with Antony Di Nardo

Antony Di Nardo talks to Open Book about his experience teaching in Beirut, his writing process, his influences and his two new books, Alien, Correspondent (Brick Books) and Soul on Standby (Exile Editions).

Alien, Correspondent launches tonight, September 16th. See our Events Page for details.

Open Book:

Tell us about your book, Alien, Correspondent (Brick Books), which is launching this evening, September 16th.

Antony Di Nardo:

On the surface, one might say the poems in Alien, Correspondent record a conflict, document the sorts of battles that rage between peoples, between religions, between states. Many of these poems were written in Beirut where I lived and worked at a time when the city was undergoing severe sectarian strife. Conflict informed this environment. However, at the heart of the poetry you’ll find the witness of those events, more so than the events themselves, and I think you’ll see how the act of witnessing both changes the observer and becomes the instrument of an aesthetic response.

I am, as most poets I suppose, a vigilant observer, the witness on alert. I’m also very conscious of the bias that skews a poem. However, my bias is not a result of choosing sides in the politics of the region; rather it’s because I’ve allowed the imagination—with its sense of irony and play, with its western filters—to take precedence. These poems can be read as short, personal documentaries, framed by intention and imagination, and supported with what I consider to be an embedded “sound track” acknowledging that language is also music. I craft for sound, as much as I do for image. As poet-witness I’ve assumed the role of correspondent in this book and the poems deliver the news of one person’s observations and responses to the human drama.

OB:

You have a busy fall ahead of you with the launch of two new books. What can you tell us about your other new release, Soul on Standby (Exile Editions)?

ADN:

Soul on Standby is a very different book, both in voice and form. Its thrust is more narrative than Alien, Correspondent and it privileges the declarative sentence over image and sound as a unit of poetry. It uses the poem as a story-telling device, an opportunity to reveal the inner monologue. I play with the absurd. I explore what Lucian Freud meant when he asked, “What can be more surreal than a nose between two eyes?” The poem in which this line appears gives the book its title. If there’s any conflict in these poems, it’s the tension that exists between past and present, between memory and “living in the moment.” The commonplace is exalted—but not exhausted—and rendered not so common. The poems in this book are vignettes of experience, real and imagined—or rather, reality as imagined by the poem as story.

OB:

Describe your ideal writing environment.

ADN:

I don’t think I have one. I can write just about anywhere. Airport terminals can be very sterile and impersonal environments, yet I’ve drafted many poems in them. Airplanes, too—I write a lot when I’m up in the air. I need to be constantly engaged—I’m not good at being passive—so when I’m strapped to a seat for hours, I turn to writing. I spent a week with in-laws in Thunder Bay, recently, and though you would think the social demands of such a visit would be counterproductive to writing, I worked on at least a dozen new poems. I write in bed and I write sitting at a desk or kitchen table, indoors or outdoors. Of course, I’m talking about drafting the poem, getting the first words down on paper. Crafting a final version is a whole different story.

OB:

I’m envious of your flexibility! What is your writing process like?

ADN:

I draft ideas in a notebook, the stuff of pencil and paper, and I craft the poem on a laptop. Sometimes, what happens in the notebook gets transferred word for word to the screen, with very few changes. But that’s rare. Usually, the poem begins to take shape—its architecture and syntax—when I keyboard the original on the computer. Over time, I’ll read and re-read the poem and I’ll continue to make adjustments, revising for both sound and sense. Sounds and rhythms often direct the crafting, but I’m also attentive to image, absurdity and the beauty of a sentence. I make a copy of the original draft before I begin revising, but I seldom return to it. Ginsberg’s “first thought, best thought” haunts me still, even though I don’t agree with him, and that’s probably why I can never entirely let go of that first draft. I try to write everyday (or work on revisions) and I’ll usually wait until I have several poems brewing in the notebook before I turn to my laptop for the crafting to begin.

OB:

What inspired you to write poetry as opposed to any other form of writing?

ADN:

Actually, I started my writing career as a journalist. I was co-owner and editor of a small town weekly newspaper in northwestern Ontario for 5 years, reporting on everything from train wrecks to moose hunts, and writing editorials that sometimes turned to poetry for a more incisive perspective. I also continue to write for the educational markets, pieces of theme-based fiction and non-fiction intended for Language Arts anthologies.

But it’s with poetry that I’m at my creative best—it’s poetry that makes art for me. I think of poetry as creative play, as an act of language engaging both the imagination and experience. Poetry allows for necessary moral and aesthetic judgments. It both liberates and restrains where language can take us. I value that tension in poetry, that challenge to make something new with words or make something else with it. Language is organic, plastic, to borrow a term from the visual arts, and poetry satisfies that passion I have to make sense with and out of that clay. Words also sing to me with their own special music, and because I believe that deep down I’m a frustrated musician I’ve turned to poetry as my musical instrument of choice.

OB:

How does the Canadian cultural experience influence your writing?

ADN:

My eyes, my balding head, the way I eat pasta are a function of my parents and my family heritage. Likewise, I believe a Canadian context composed of its own set of cultural genes and memes is what inevitably informs my writing. Shaped by a Catholic education, the social realities of growing up on rue St. Denis in Montreal, surviving the bush and wilderness north of Thunder Bay, the burgeoning literature of Canada in the 70s and its small presses, reading early Atwood, Purdy, bp Nichol and Layton, among so many others, it’s to be expected that my writing should be influenced by Canadian culture. The poets I mentioned, their idioms, their experiments, the recurring themes of landscape and geography, constraints and desires, were very much a part of my early poetry and to this day vestiges remain in what I write.

Alien, Correspondent may have the Middle East as a regional backdrop and theme, but it’s the Canadian part of me that makes me the “alien” in that context. I have no doubts that as an innocent bystander in Beirut (or in Toronto, for that matter), my witnessing of events and my documenting of experience are coloured by a national perspective. See, I even spell “colour” with a “u,” a “relatively neglected vowel” as the great American poet, John Ashbery, notes in a poem. And you can also see that as a good Canuck, I’m not above being influenced by the American cultural experience. I read and admire many American poets and I suppose their voices also influence my work.

OB:

You taught in Beirut for the last three years. How did that experience colour your book?

ADN:

Actually, it was four years, and as I’ve said, Beirut is a backdrop as much as a seminal character in the book. I think I experienced the whole spectrum of human emotions in my time there. Frustration, anger, despair, and a sense of helplessness were dominant. Anarchy ruled—there was something of life on the frontier there, a kind of wild, wild East. Tolerance and forbearance became important virtues. I was overcome by a strange adrenalin rush of fear and excitement when stormed by bullets and grenades during the Hezbollah siege of West Beirut, the perplexing thrill of it. My response to that took the form of irony and bad jokes. Life seemed to be lived on the edge there, routines easily and quickly disrupted. When it was calm, it felt like the calm before the storm, and that also had a way of creeping into my writing. And even my constantly shifting understanding of Arab culture is in that book. Then there’s also the fact of the Mediterranean Sea and its abundant landscape, those blue, blue skies. Its sunshine also made its way into the poetry and so did ripe lemons and birdsongs and jacaranda trees and the heat of the sun. I hope you can feel some of that heat when you read the book.

OB:

What are you reading right now?

ADN:

Poetry—as I often do. I think I’m losing my attention span for the novel. I read somewhere that the Polish poet, Czeslaw Milosz, once said that he didn’t believe in the novel. Sometimes I think I’m beginning to feel that way, as well—too many words in a novel. Poetry is so well compressed. Though, if John Banville comes out with another novel, I’ll surely put my hands on a copy.

I usually read several books at a time. Right now, I’m enjoying John Ashbery’s latest collection, Planisphere. As difficult and as cryptic as he is, I’ve always found him spellbinding and I love his syntax, his worship of the sentence. I’m almost through Steven Heighton’s Patient Frame. He’s good with sounds and rhythms and I like his linguistic gymnastics. His translations in the last section are his best work and I’ve re-read them several times already. I’ve just started reading David Zieroth’s The Fly in Autumn—my first time with his work—and I sense something of a perfectionist in the way his poems are crafted and so fluidly formalized. Finally, I’m reading an essay by Lucian Freud, the British portrait artist, called “Some Thoughts on Painting.” I’ve followed his career for some time now and I was fortunate to see a retrospective of his work this summer. Beautiful and arresting.

OB:

What advice do you have for aspiring writers?

ADN:

Read your contemporaries. And read to understand the craft, what makes the poem tick and talk. Subscribe to the little journals and find out what you like and don’t like. And why. But be open-minded. Therein you’ll find the range and wealth of contemporary writing—it’s one of the best workshops you can attend.

Don’t be afraid to take risks. Let the first line you write lead you to the next. Don’t ask permission, just do it. And damn the rules or what’s currently popular. So many poets sound the same. That gets boring. Don’t be boring.

OB:

Do you have any upcoming projects in mind?

ADN:

I’ve only been back in Canada for a month or so now and my publishers, Brick Books and Exile Editions, have plans for book tours and readings that will keep me fairly busy through the fall. The launch for Alien, Correspondent is Thursday, September 16, from 6-8 p.m. at Ben McNally’s Bookstore in Toronto. Soul on Standby launches on November 2 at the Dora Keogh pub on the Danforth.

I left Beirut with a manuscript in progress, at the core of which is a suite of poems addressing the perils of nuclear reactors and, in particular, the Chernobyl accident of 1986. I’m in touch with a Ukrainian writer who survived the blast and was a witness to the event—her stories are very moving and her abandonment is especially tragic. It seems necessary to bring attention to that event and her story when considering the aging reactors outside of Toronto. Once I’m satisfied with this manuscript—tentatively named “Darlington and Winter”—I have a clutch of recent poems that will need to be organized and revised to potentially make their way into another manuscript.

But really, every new poem seems to be an upcoming project.

 

  Antony Di Nardo was born in Montreal and has lived in northwestern Ontario, Toronto, Germany and Beirut. His poetry appears widely in journals across Canada and internationally. Both writer and teacher, he was the editor of a weekly newspaper, contributed book reviews to Books in Canada and writes fiction and non-fiction content for educational texts. He is the author of two collections of poetry, both released in 2010: Alien, Correspondent (Brick Books) and Soul on Standby (Exile Editions). He divides his time between Oshawa, Ontario and Sutton, Quebec.

For more information about Alien, Correspondent, please visit the Brick Books website.

For more information about Soul on Standby, please visit the Exile Editions website.

http://www.openbooktoronto.com/news/ten_questions_with_antony_di_nardo

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