TIME OF THE POET REPUBLIC

An Interview with Marc di Saverio, by Olga Stein. WordCity Monthly March 2021 Issue7

 

OStein: Marc, I’ve been attempting to do an interview with you for several months now. At first I thought we’d publish the interview in our November issue, which was themed around disability. Then I hoped to run an interview in the December issue, which highlighted religious holidays; I thought to myself—how appropriate, given the eponymous protagonist’s, Crito di Volta’s, profoundly religious sensibility, and what I think of as a messianic vision. Of course, a discussion of this epic poem would have worked well in both of those issues (or in any issue, for that matter), but then you hurt your hand badly, and we had to postpone the interview again. You posted on FB that you were distressed, and predicted that you’d be in a dark place for some time. Soon afterwards, however, we started seeing all kinds of work from you—love poems in particular. And again, I thought to myself, here is Marc, like Crito, pushing forward against all odds, or rather handicaps, and honing in on love. It reminded of the opening passages of the poem, where Crito messages Flavia that he’s out of the sanatorium on a weekend pass, and is rushing over—practically falling over—to see her.

From “I. A Letter to Flavia Vamorri”

Teetering on the street like a bull full of swords, the sunbeams

stabbed me while wishes to see you staggered me across

to the Diplomatico, where, calvaried in the laughter

of the patio, hunchbacked in misfitness, I saw your

sword-splitting eye-light boil my wounds into a

moment of balm….

Flavia, the amphetamine’s working!

… After the T.M.S and the E.C.T, after the Clozapine and

the exorcizing, after years of pitch darkness with an

autumn wasp, after the Sanatoriums and the psych

ward queens who snuffed themselves despite having

sworn on my soul they would never, and who did not

leave a note behind—I feel like a Romantic, again …(di Saverio 12)

There is so much pain in these passages, but also so much love and enthusiasm for life, as well as tremendous wit and humour. It’s pretty well typical of the work as a whole. What I want to know is how much of Marc Di Saverio is there in Crito Di Volta, a protagonist who struggles with a really serious handicap, and yet remains unstoppable, with a will to change the world?

MdS: Let me first express how tremendously honoured I am to be interviewed by you, Olga; I am truly blessed and grateful to have been invited to converse, here. I am sorry that my hand injury has prevented us from doing this sooner. Unfortunately, I can only type with my left hand and the index finger of my right hand. Luckily, my father met, by chance, the son of one of his ex-students (my father is a high school teacher of Languages), a young Bowen Therapist, named Justin D’Amico, whose Holistic Bowen and Fitness has not only changed my chances of restoring my hand, but even sectors my mind and soul. Justin has already restored about 75 percent of my hand, when other doctors wondered if true improvement was even possible. Justin D’Amico has been a godsend, and he believes my hand will be fully restored.

I think it is important to note that although manic-depression can be a disability, it can also be a super-ability, since medical researchers have concluded that there is a link between manic-depression and genius, when they discovered Neuregulin 1. At the same time, I cannot deny that my disability/super-ability, has been incapacitating. By the way, Not ALL people who are manic-depressives are geniuses. Still, manic-depressives, it has been proven, are more likely to possess a great creative gift—or genius—than people without manic-depression.

And thank you, Olga, for complimenting the wit and humour of my book. It’s important to know I can handle humour, since I struggled with writing humorously for a time. I am SO pleased you enjoyed that particular side of the book. Regarding your question: there is A LOT of yours truly in the protagonist, Crito di Volta. I modelled his character and much—but not all—of his experiences on my own, and I feel I have lived, and will continue to live this book in myriad ways.

OStein: We also get the following stanza in that same letter, with the formal wizardry of the whole wonderfully showcased in a truly updated, uptempo-ed version of a classic form.

From “I. A Letter to Flavia Vamorri”
Before our Santa Clara or Coup D’Amore,
before Overpoetry or Götterdämmerung,
before we become comrades and write
manifestoes and propaganda of light,
before the Kingdom is sparked by the swords’ clash
or bullet ricochet, before we have been sung,
before we smash and re-map and dash
and shoot out in the star white snow on the More-
shore of the bull’s-eye of peace, hit with a bullet …
let’s become lovers; let’s drive through Rome
then take a scenic road through my father’s home-
town in Abruzzo; let’s get
mangoes, Prosecco, Muratti’s, and speed;
let’s write love sonnets first, then the new age’s creed! (di Saverio, p. 13)

There is poetic mastery here, humour, but it also presages the main events—the violence to come. This light-headedness and unswerving determination at once—is it poetry, or a bit of madness, or poetry due to madness? I know this is a loaded question to some extent, but the question of sanity—what is sanity, and who is sane—is a large part of what drives this epic. The relationship between madness and art is addressed here, and I’m assuming this is something you’ve grappled with personally.

By the way, I read the insightful piece about you and Crito that The Hamilton Spectator published last November. The title is great: “Hamilton poet’s ‘genius’ masterpiece inspired by time spent at West 5th hospital.” The writer, Jeff Mahoney, did a superlative job, and I want to reproduce a few of his statements here. He says this: “Which parts are the products of madness and which the fruit of true epiphany or genius?…Di Saverio’s portraits of patients in the institution are drawn with vivid powers of observation and compassion….The author knows this world intimately. Di Saverio, a brilliant mind (he’s written translations, with his father, of such writers as the French Symbolist Rimbaud), has been institutionalized more than once.”

MdS: I am very grateful for what you say about my sonnet—especially the “truly updated” part. Phew! It was a great struggle, at times, to truly update the epic and lyric forms, which appear in the book. Your question is loaded indeed, but I am happy to answer it, Olga. Firstly, yes, you assume correctly, in that, yes, I have personally grappled with the relationship between madness and art, all my life; however, fortunately, during the writing of Crito, I believe a higher power—that is, what I call, The Living God, The Creator, or the Almighty—was directing me, sometimes covertly and sometimes overtly. I wrote the entire epic between 2013 and 2019, and this Force, in my opinion, enabled me to FINALLY balance, ever so carefully, the madness and the art of this book.

Before I wrote this book, I could not have told you what parts of the work were products of madness, and which of epiphany, or both synthesized. Yet now, I can tell you, even much of Crito that was partially written during my two-month stay in a Sanatorium for manic-psychosis, during the fall of 2015, was, I believe, somehow miraculously guided by the Almighty’s light. So I was able to continue this aforementioned balance. I truly felt guided while writing this book. I had never felt that way before, but I have felt so since. Realizing this gave me a degree of security and confidence in my writing—particularly of Crito—I had never experienced.

I agree that Jeff Mahoney did a superlative job; in fact, his article works just as well as a true blue literary review, in my eyes. In answer to his and your question, even if parts of the book were written in states of so called madness, I truly believe my hand was still guided by the hand of God, and so I consider it all epiphany. I know that must sound strange, perhaps even repulsive to some readers—we live in a godless time—but I have to express this, since I believe it to be fully true, that the Most High helped and directed me.

OStein: Marc, your answer brings to mind the Beatles’ song, “The Fool on the Hill”—for a number of reasons, really. First, because the song is about the great divide between most people and those who may, in fact, be visionaries. We have a hard time parsing truths when they don’t come in a quantifiable form. Crito di Volta is a visionary, as already mentioned. His “Mortaristas” are a kind of manifesto. They may be forged out of profound anger and frustration, but they are well intended. They are an attempt to yank all of humanity out of its current perilous condition. They are meant to assist everyone, and not just those who are institutionalized—the people whose rights are violated because they see and experience the world differently, or those who suffer without getting the empathy they deserve. Crito di Volta is definitely on the side of humanity, no matter how misdirected we understand his plan of action to be. Of course, this is where we can also see Crito’s initial hubris: in his plan of action. If I’m not mistaken, this is also where you, Marc, show readers that you and your protagonist are not meant to be confused. Am I right?

MdS: I am listening to the “Fool on the Hill” right now, and I agree with what you say. You have really nailed it, here; I am being enlightened by your questions, for which I am very grateful! Indeed, Crito is a lot like me, or like me at particular times in my past and future lives. Besides some of the events portrayed in the book, which actually happened in my life—Canto 7, for instance, reflects what really happened on April 6, 2006, at McMaster University—the book also includes lines that flowed from my guided hand, or lines that are still mysterious to me. I think of them as prophecy, or as loose, creative—poetically-licensed—adaptations of true events.

I cannot stress how mysterious this book is to me STILL, and will continue to be.  In short, I can not give you a perfectly straight answer about the extent to which Crito is actually yours truly, especially since so much of the book is, I feel, a prophecy of my own life to come. Crito the character is, in a way, a time traveller who has come back to tell me what is ahead of me, since he has already—in ways I do not understand—lived it. There is no way to completely answer your question, unfortunately, dear Olga. I wish I could. Maybe one day I will know more, and, if so, I will share my new light with you at that time.

OStein: Marc, I’m completely open to the idea that the inspiration for great art is, in part, truly mysterious. You know, the second reason the Beatles’ song springs to mind is the line that describes the fool on the hill as “the man of a thousand voices.” On my desk I have Kay Redfield Jamison’s book, Touched with Fire: Manic-Depressive Illness and the Artistic Temperament. Jamison’s doctorate was in psychiatry, and her book is fascinating for its study of hypomania. But more interesting still are its descriptions of poets and other artists we venerate, and who we now recognize as having been touched with this kind of “fire.” For example, Jamison writes of Coleridge that “[His] wide-ranging, not to say cosmic, interests, tied together by seemingly infinite associative strands, formed the essence of his imaginative style.” Jamison follows this up with the following: “[G]randiosity and a related cosmic sense often combine with acute observational powers to make otherwise unimaginable emotional and intellectual leaps. The effects of such visionary and expansive states can be discerned not only in the work of Coleridge, but in the writings of Poe, Smart, Blake, Melville, Ruskin, and many others as well” (p. 110).

Of course I’m not asking you to diagnose your own writing or methods (there’s clearly method to the madness). I’d just like to point out that the book is brimming with “associative strands”—the kind that are a product of inspiration, however you wish to account for it Marc, and also wide-ranging knowledge and skill. There are allusions to other great works—of literature, music, film. There are allusions inside allusions, or very subtle or compounded intertextualities in the narrative, and in the forms and the language itself. I can’t resist quoting Josie Sciascio-Andrews, who captured the poetic dexterity of Crito in her review: “Crito di Volta defies tradition, all the while encompassing it….The language ricochets from the time of Socrates to the present, to Dante then back again to conversations and email correspondences with friends and fellow patients in the psych ward, on the street or in the gymnasium with Jesus and Leonard Cohen….Whether Crito of Alopece dialoguing with Socrates or Marc Di Saverio reasoning with Crito di Volta, the outcome is the same….This is a poem which artfully resonates with the betrayal of Jesus by Judas; of the illusory reality of Plato’s cave; of Tarantino’s movie Reservoir Dogs; of Socrates’ execution; of William Butler Yeats’ ‘The Second Coming.’”

Sciascio-Andrews does a wonderful job of conveying the depth and breadth of the references. In general, she tells us that Crito is truly an accomplished work. I certainly agree. It is a serious work that delves into serious, painful and tragic matters, and quite deliberately draws on a multiplicity of sources. This is the craftsman side of you. Can you say something about this? When did you start thinking of yourself as a serious poet, and do you stay true to your vision given everything you see wrong with today’s poets?

MdS: I am SO happy to see you including Kay Jamison and her book Touched With Fire, which I read when I was 19. How serendipitous it is that you have brought up the very force which transformed me into a “serious poet”, as you say! Touched With Fire humanized me at a time when I felt subhuman due to the throes and stigmas of madness. Touched With Fire made me feel like a person worthy of life at a time when I was considering ending my life. Jamison’s indisputable data regarding the connection between creative genius and “the fire”/the madness, helped me accept my manic-depression, and as a result of this book, I began to take writing seriously, and became a serious poet, with a serious sense of responsibility toward the world. She made me realize that living a “mad poet’s life” was integral to fostering and directing the very humankind I love so much.

Touched With Fire made me realize my own psycho-spiritual arsenal, and how to accept that although I’m disabled much of the time, much of the time I’m also super-abled, and the super-abilities that come with my condition have made it so much easier to accept the dis-abilities that come with my condition. Jamison’s Touched With Fire, along with the Bible, and The Divine Comedy, is one of the most essential and important books to my life—when I was 19 and to this day.

Besides the revelations I credit to Jamison’s great book, it was the realization that I would never live the “normal” life I had always wanted. I wanted a family. The void of the realization that I would never have a family was filled with poetry and my wish to employ poetry as a means of positive transformation for my readers. With Crito, I seem to have done that, since many readers tell me they feel positively transformed and enlightened after reading the book. I have reached my peak, and I feel relieved and at peace about that. I used to fear that after hitting my peak as a writer, I would be unhappy. I was wrong.

OStein: Marc, you were wrong, clearly, since you have continued to write, and in fact, you are busy at work on your next project. Maybe you can tell us a bit about it. But first, what I want to do is include other bits from the book, just to give readers a sense of your versatility with form. This is Crito himself considering the path to mankind’s salvation:

From III. “Il Mortarista: Orphomusocracy”

There is no better way to quiet the voice of God and his

          true prophets than to create an apartheid between the society of

            the “sane,” and the society of the “insane.”…

 

                        There was a time when poets lazily reflected society,

            like a relaxing pond reflecting the sky. But now that humanity

            and Nature are on the brink of extinction, and in need of

            evolutionary redirection, and spiritual resurrection, the poet can

            no longer stiffly reflect; but must rather boldly direct, the

            world—with wisdom, with spirit, with mercy….

                        Now mockingbirds sing strongly on the fig-bough

                        and O their tweets do burrow through my mind

                        like autumn wasps might burrow through a fruit

                        whose quaver in the wind might rouse them all

                        to sting the flesh, and core; and more than once….(pp. 60-62)

 

OStein: There is knowledge and skill in such passages. In a sense you the writer/poet are being the “Overpoet” with Crito. And you’re doing it by showing where poetry can go. You also can’t seem to resist taking digs at MFA writing programs. How very Nietzsch-ean of you. Were you totally serious about this? I ask because you yourself are mentoring now.

MdS: I do mean most of what Crito says about MFA programming, but I am always open to new truths that may contradict me. I am not against mentoring or even schooling, but I am against the forces that have created a system wherein, too often, I have seen young people entering MFA programs as poets, and graduating as anti-poets. Regarding new projects, I am relieved to share that I have completed my fourth book, The Songs of My Surrenders, which I submitted to McGill Queen’s University Press. They take interest in my work. This is a book that will allow the reader to see JUST how much I resemble Crito Di Volta.  Here is the tentative cover of the book, which I designed:

 

Do you like the cover idea, Olga? I hope so! Anyways, the book is 90 pages long and consists of short lyric poems, with the exception of a few longer poems. Here is an example of a sonnet from the Songs of my Surrenders:

A Sonnet for My Father

(for Carlo Di Saverio)

It is raining birds in Italy!
Stiff starlings bestrew the streets like black
roses on those graves of her cities! A funereal
waltz wails through the Colosseo. Crack-
smoke wafts through ancient olive groves. Verily,
the Roman Forum is now bric-a-brac
standing ’round like extras on a film-set,
considering The End, my father; and, yet,
pentameters re-pace my heart, which beats –
adrenalised by memories – for your home,
where once the Beast-barons had no drums nor fleets –
(our days turned to weeks like water to foam) –
where once we dreamed, back-to-back, in the bed where you
were born – where once each sight was one’s best view.

 

 

OStein: First of all, since you asked whether I like the cover—yes, I very much do. It has something of impressionism and symbolism in it. But I realize that it’s also very much your own style. As for the poem, I consider it superb on a number of levels. But let’s allow readers to explore the merits of the new book on their own. I’d like to get back to the subject of mentoring. I know full well that you’re not against it. And in fact, the work of a poet you’re mentoring appears in this issue. Maybe you can say something about your relationship with Christopher Galano, and the kind of guidance you’ve provided.

 

MdS: Christopher Galano is from Hamilton. He studied psychology, neuroscience, and behaviour at McMaster University before completing a Masters in Global Health, also at McMaster. He currently works as a software developer in Toronto. He has been studying poetry for the past two years under your truly. The Word is his debut poetry collection. His poem of the same name, some of which appears thankfully in this very issue, is, in my estimation, the greatest lyric poem in English since Eliot’s Wasteland, and I state that without bias. In 2015 or so, Canadian Notes and Queries called my debut, Sanatorium Songs, “the greatest poetry debut from the past 25 years.” I’d say this is no longer true because Galano’s book, which he has submitted to Guernica Editions, is the best debut in the last 50 years. His debut is crushing mine.

            We stand at a critical junction in history when governments and corporations insist on technologies that invade our very bodies, ostensibly for the sake of safety and connection. The Word proposes a richer connection: a divine marriage between individuals reflecting the marriage of the heavens and the earth. “We wreathe the world with golden-glimmering ribbons, ribbons endless as our wedding rings” (The Word, p. 12). We prepare for the new days, when we’ll practice a new way of living in the world.

Now, let me backtrack to your question about the mentor-mentee relationship Galano and I share (since, now, he is mentoring me!). I’ve known Christopher since he was an infant because of the close family ties between the Di Saverios and the Galanos. In 2018, Christopher decided to take up the pen and become a poet, something he was meant to be, as you will see when you read his work in this issue. I was approached about working with the young man, and we began a teacher-student relationship. To make this story short, he went from being an amateur poet in late 2018, to being, in my estimation, the best living lyric poet in English in 2021. In the process, we have also developed a wonderful friendship, and now it is Christopher who’s teaching me!

OStein: What a story, Marc. As a teacher, I happen to take nurturing—whatever form it may take—very seriously. So I totally grasp how proud you must be of what Christopher has accomplished. I’m also fascinated by mentor-mentee relationships in general, since the person being mentored is always striving to outdo the mentor. Your attitude is wonderful, of course, but it’s not always the case that such relationships are healthy in the end. I wrote a piece of fiction that touches on this subject. Perhaps this is also why I’m curious about the function of Ezra Pound in Crito. Can you tell us something about your/Crito’s relationship with Pound

MdS: In the 20th Century, literary critic, Harold Bloom, coined the term “the anxiety of influence.” I suffered from this until I began writing Crito. Ezra Pound was the “influence” that I was anxious to eclipse with my own originality, which I feel I managed to do with Crito di Volta. Ezra Pound’s presence in my book is meant to express my/Crito’s conquering of the problem identified by Bloom—“the anxiety of influence.” You’ll notice that Pound first appears in CANTO III, and then again later, when he is repudiated. Toward the end of the book, and despite Crito’s betraying him, Pound helps Crito by guiding him to Dante. Crito meets Dante in a forest, and subsequently discovers salvation.

So Pound is at first championed by Crito, and then rebuked and rejected. This actually happened in my own life. As a youth, I had a vague understanding of his life compared to the clear understanding of his great oeuvre. I exalted my master Ezra for a period in my youth—NOT his actions, but his best verses. Yet after reading in-depth biographies of Pound, I came to realize that he was a great mentor, but also that I had to both eclipse him, and come to terms with his true character, which was nothing like the one I had imagined. So after realizing the extent of his flaws, I wrote this, which is also attributed to Crito, who plays off Ezra Pound’s famous poem “A Pact”. For me the connection to Pound was obvious. Here is his poem.

A Pact

            by Ezra Pound (1885-1972)

I make a pact with you, Walt Whitman—
I have detested you long enough.
I come to you as a grown child
Who has had a pig-headed father;
I am old enough now to make friends.
It was you that broke the new wood,
Now is a time for carving.
We have one sap and one root—
Let there be commerce between us.

And here is my rebuke of Pound after the fashion of his own “Pact” poem above:

CANTO XV:

I break a pact with you, Ezra Pound—
I have protected you long enough.
It’s time for me to make new friends.
Like lightning from a snow-cloud
you shocked the Lost then lit their way,
and struck all sorts of mortmain;
sublimely impossible, you realized
everyone’s dream, yet, were your errors all
extensions of magnanimity?
I break a pact with you, Ezra Pound.
You know I never cared for the occult;
you know I never cared for your hate.
We share some blood but not one soul—
let there be difference between us.

OStein: Very interesting variation on the master-student relationship, and how apt your break from Pound is in the light of the convictions he expressed. Thank you for including the original above. Marc, thank you for doing this interview! I have just one more question to ask you, and this concerns your commitment to music as an essential source of man’s salvation, which we glimpse in the lines below:

… And what if we created a Musocracy, a society ruled

            by Muses/Inspiration (I have already invented an Inspiration

            Generator!); or an Orphocracy, a society ruled by Music. Or how

             about a synthesis of the two: an Orphomuscocracy, a society ruled

            by Inspiration and Music, which would transition humanity

            toward its possible—if not spiritual—physical salvation! (p. 71)

Given the themes of salvation, the role of music in that, and the references to the kinds of relationships—mentor-mentee, but also father-son—referred to above, and the book’s orientation toward Messianism, I keep remembering another very moving song. This one is Joan Osborne’s “What if God Was One of Us.” I’m wondering whether you’ve given this song any thought yourself. I mean, if Jesus really was one of us, would he be angry with mankind or would he be doing a lot of singing himself? I’m smiling here a little.

 

MdS: You know, Olga, this is turning out to be the best interview I’ve been a part of. Thank you for your supremely thoughtful questions! Truly, I have not heard that song you mention by Osborne since high school, but as I listen to it now—and as I consider your question—I must respond with all irony, love, and wonder: no comment.

The End

Marc di Saverio hails from Hamilton, Canada. His poems and translations have appeared internationally. In Issue 92 of Canadian Notes and Queries Magazine, di Saverio’s Sanatorium Songs (2013) was hailed as “the greatest poetry debut from the past 25 years.” In 2016 he received the City of Hamilton Arts Award for Best Emerging Writer. In 2017, his work was broadcasted on BBC Radio 3. His debut became a bestseller in both Canada and the United States, and he published his first book of translations, Ship of Gold: The Essential Poems of Emile Nelligan (Vehicule Press). On May 1, 2020, Guernica Editions published Crito Di Volta to great critical acclaim. Di Saverio studied English and History at McMaster University, but never took a degree, due to illness. He is the son of Carlo Di Saverio, the scholar and teacher who studied Linguistics and Languages at University of Toronto (MA, 1981). Di Saverio’s Weekend was adapted into the movie Candy, directed by Cassandra Cronenberg, and starring the author himself, which was selected to the Toronto International Film Festival in 2013.

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