The Burning Door
by Tony Leuzzi
(Tiger Bark Press, 2014)
Tony Leuzzi is something of a rarity in his generation of contemporary poets: a writer who has drawn inspiration from both Stanley Kunitz and Ron Silliman. Widely- and well-read and extremely knowledgeable on mainstream and experimental traditions, both in and beyond American poetry, he has infused his work with aesthetic rigor, formal play, and a serious, decisive lyricism, balancing imaginative range with consistent formal control. With the 2010 publication of Radiant Losses (New Sins Press), Leuzzi established himself as a writer who can bend and adapt to a number of styles. His new book, The Burning Door (Tiger Bark Press), further demonstrates the poet’s range and agility. And yet, despite his protean approach to poem making, Leuzzi’s voice remains consistently curious, the haunting and haunted embodiment of the searcher who, despite its endlessness, refuses to give up the search.
Tony Leuzzi is not just a poet, critic, and teacher but a consummate literary interviewer. In his 2012 book Passwords Primeval, Leuzzi engages in piercing conversations with 20 American poets, ranging from Gerald Stern to Patricia Smith, Jane Hirshfield to Martin Espada. Now Leuzzi himself is the subject of an interview, marking the publication of his new book of poems The Burning Door. We discussed journeys, secrets, dreams and memory; daytime TV game shows; Oulipo and the influence of certain European poets; why the form of some of his poems is defined by Pi; and, of course, the power of doors, both burning and otherwise.
David Groff (Rail): Your poem “Aubade” starts the book, the aubade being a song of lovers parting at dawn. Yet the poem’s first line seems anything but romantic. It infuses the menace and mystery that pervade even the book’s most mellow moments: “A cedar pram is dragged from water.” And the poem establishes your title with its final line, “Dawn unlocks its burning doors.” Quite a compelling start. The first poem in a poetry collection usually announces the poet’s agenda and aesthetic, opening a door into the entire book. So, with that in mind, if you the poet are a lover, what are you leaving behind at dawn, what does dawn offer its now-solitary singer?
Tony Leuzzi: Thank you for seeing this as a compelling start to the book. I suspect part of its compelling nature is its opacity. The clarity of dawn light emerges, but what is being left remains cloaked in obscurity. Some might consider this an evasive maneuver, but because the poem invites all to walk through the unlocked doors that come with light, what or who one leaves behind remains unstated as a gesture of inclusiveness: all stories are permitted. Those who welcome the invitation bring their own partings with them on the journey. In the case of this poem, the journey commences once an implied journey ends. That pram was dragged out of the water after sailing on the uncertain waters of night, the realm of the subconscious spurring our obsessions to emerge with daylight in whatever manifestations they will. It is a mysterious image. Is it menacing? I suppose that depends on the nature of your obsessions. Stanley Kunitz once said, “I don’t want poems that reveal secrets but are filled with them.” I couldn’t agree more.
Rail: The book’s title seems so apt—that an opening to understanding and richer life passes through the door that is dangerously full of heat, but also light, and also imminent destruction. Does the title work as a direct metaphor for you, or is it a different kind of point of entry for you and for the reader?
Leuzzi: Doors either herald opportunity or barricade entrance. In one sense, the door is a vertical bridge, a passageway from one realm to another, a point of departure or gate of return. In another sense, the door is an empty promise: some remain locked.
I used to love watching Monty Hall’s Let’s Make a Deal, where contestants had to choose between a known entity and the mystery behind some closed door. When a contestant lost a chance for a car and got a donkey chewing oats, I would laugh out loud. It was marvelous! The gags always seemed more original and valuable than the desired prizes. Could you imagine choosing door #2 and learning you lost a trip to Hawaii for a book of poems? I wonder if some would think that was worse than the donkey.
In 2006, I spent a month in Jerusalem. Every day, I walked around the Old City and took digital photograph after digital photograph of doors old and new: doors to synagogues, doors to cathedrals, doors with inscrutable phrases in Hebrew or Arabic scripted on or above them. I didn’t fully realize I was doing this. When I got home from that trip and viewed all the images together, I understood I had a kind of obsession. And as I respond to this question, I remember something I had forgotten: the first short story I ever read in public was called “Three Door Stories.” That was 20 years ago. I suppose it’s safe to say the metaphorical weight of the door has been with me for some time! It has certainly influenced which poems I turn to repeatedly. W. S. Merwin has a few poems called “The Door,” all of which I read again and again; W. H. Auden’s sonnet of that title is one of my favorite poems; I always loved Frank O’Hara’s “Poem” that begins “The eager note on my door said ‘Call me…’”; and then there is one the best poems of the 20th century—Stanley Kunitz’s “The Gates,” in which he declares: “Here at the monumental door, / Carved with the curious legend of my youth, / I brandish the great bone of my death, / Beat once therewith and beat no more.” I am left speechless before those lines.
The poems in my previous book, Radiant Losses, explore various departures and returns, so the interest is not new to me. In The Burning Door, all of the four sections—each of which was composed as a discreet entity—investigate and interrogate language in ways that attempt to open up linguistic possibilities in a poem and/or challenge a reader’s expectations for what a poem may do. Sometimes the door opens and a surprise awaits you—the ironic fulfillment of a wish (as in “Dear Diary”), a moment of lyric sincerity following ironic language play (as in “Writ Large”). You might reach the end of a poem and discover the door there leads to a hall of mirrors, as it does in “Impromptu,” where “an elf rises / from a hatch in the floor // to snicker, point / and explain nothing”; or, as in poems like “Demonstration” and “There,” you might step through the door and fall down a rabbit hole. Other times the poem is a false door that doesn’t open at all. Whichever scenario, I wanted poems that resist the tyranny of certain expectations, for example the assumption that a poem must have clear autobiographical overtones and lead to a neatly arrived epiphany, or, more generally, the poem will have some unambiguous payoff. I am fully aware that a number of poems in The Burning Door are head scratchers. Those who allow themselves to experience the porous, elliptical nature of these poems and savor their unusual juxtapositions may find something worthwhile in them. On the other hand, those who seek what they already know may be disappointed.
But “door” is not the only word in the title. There is “burning” too—and it’s just as important. I once asked Gerald Stern about the title of his book Everything is Burning, and he said, “[E]verything is being consumed on a literal level, everything is dying … But another name for burning is living. Everything is alive, everything is turning” (Passwords Primeval 153). I think a good poem will inhabit those contrary states of living and dying, because a poem is elegy and affirmation, a testament to having lived and being alive. Thus, no matter what idiom a poet works in, the language should catch fire. That fire might simmer quietly or crackle and flame. Or it might overwhelm those standing near it with its heat. Whatever the degree of its presence, it should be there. I believe the poems in The Burning Door have some fire in them.
Rail: The poems of the book’s entire first section, “Prelude to Elsewhere,” are written in couplets, except for the odd lone line that strikes like a stiletto: “a mule descends on a yellow thread”; “a horseman spears a nation of water.” And the poems’ statements and images have a sinewy and somehow uncompromising edge to them. What is it about the couplet that made you choose it as your main means of conveying us into the first act of The Burning Door?
Leuzzi: I wrote the poems in the first section rather quickly, in about two months, and they were the first poems made for the book. Radiant Losses had just been published and I was eager to explore a new context. With that in mind, I began homophonic translations of Georg Trakl poems, which, as homophonic suggests, were translated for sound rather than sense. The results led to wacky word salads and bizarre leaps in language. I imposed order upon all this strangeness, superimposed other textures—elements of memories and dreams for example—and then revised even further. The result is something like a double exposure photograph. If I were to show you the notebook where the original translations were written, you wouldn’t recognize the finished poems. Nonetheless, Trakl’s ghost still haunts them.
The formal order I imposed was insistent coupleteering. A few years before this, poet Jeanne Marie Beaumont explained to me that writing in couplets forces her to pay closer attention to phrasing and rhythm. “You can’t hide in a couplet,” she said. Arthur Sze told me he often takes poems he wrote in blocks of lines and parses them out as couplets when he revises. Sometimes he will keep the poems in couplets, other times he’ll put them back in blocks. I found the comments of these poets useful to my process.
When I began writing in couplets I was hyper aware of how phrases and sentences moved across the lines. This awareness did not paralyze me. Writing unrhymed couplets helped me create syntactic grace. Additionally, the result promoted a tendency towars concise, pithy, occasionally semi-surreal statements. Asserting anything that resembles aphorism in poems is a risky business, but once I created a good deal of formal space on the page such moments were realized instinctively. I didn’t set out to write poems that occasionally sound like something torn from a page of Rumi, it just happened. Aphoristic poems tend to be seen as striking a sort of Zen pose. I know very little about Zen, but I know when language is leading me someplace. It led me there.
Using couplets in the “Prelude to Elsewhere” poems, I could also exploit startling juxtapositions. In “Songs,” I write: “A narrow riverbed shines like a needle. / Mothers sew themselves in their daughters.” I surprised myself there, and I don’t think this pairing of assertions would have entered my mind were I not working primarily with the two-line form.
Rail: The strategies of The Burning Door, as Jane Hirshfield says in her blurb, have “a highly elliptical bent”—though the book becomes more sustained in its phrasing and connections as it goes along, even offering us some real moments of narrative later on. Clearly you have carefully thought through ideas about the nature of poetry and perceived, poetic experience, as evidenced in lines like “The story of the raft is more raft-like than the raft.” For readers of poetry who might not be poets themselves, what would you offer as a blueprint that would take us through The Burning Door?
Leuzzi: Blueprints are useful, yet so few of us have them when we encounter any book of poems. I didn’t have one when I read Emily Dickinson’s Collected Poems for the first time, but I kept going back to those wonderfully strange, untitled poems, rereading them and paying attention to the charge of her language, which was felt even when I couldn’t understand what precisely was going on. Now, I know I am not a typical reader. But who reading poetry these days is? I imagine my audience is intelligent and, more importantly, possesses the kind of sensibility that allows them to feel the poetry. Still, a blueprint is helpful. What I suggest is simple: let go of certain assumptions regarding what a poem can or should do and simply enjoy the sounds, rhythms, and movement of the language; then re-read the poems repeatedly and something will reveal itself to you. I’d be delusional if I thought most people were going to read let alone re-read my work, but I do think anyone can encounter these poems and take away something from them.
The first book of poems I ever read was Rae Armantrout’s Extremities. I found it in a dying bookstore when I was 16. The book was already 10 years old by then and Armantrout was neither then nor now a household name. But I liked the cover and the title, so I forked over a few bucks. I had no idea there was such a thing as Language poetry and was completely baffled when I started in on the book. Baffled but not deterred. Though I understood little of what I was reading, I was in awe of her razor sharp phrasing, so arrow-like in its articulation. There was an angularity, a compelling dissonance that reminded me of many of the musical phrases in Messiaen’s piano transcriptions of birds’ songs. I couldn’t get enough.
Regarding the line you quote from “Adrift”—“The story of the raft is more raft-like than the raft.” One of my poet friends says it echoes Wallace Stevens’s retort to Williams’s dictum “No ideas but in things”: “The first things were ideas.” I need both of those poets but ultimately side with Stevens. The “No ideas but in things” approach led to a lot of boring thing poems.
Rail: No poet wants to repeat himself or herself from volume to volume. The Burning Door seems very different from your previous book Radiant Losses: the new book feels even more bold, more assured of its command as it takes bigger risks with its lines, its images, and its diffuse but often direct declarations and associations. What made this new book feel new for you? Were you consciously trying to push your poems into riskier territory, or was this frontier a place you discovered without realizing you were entering it?
Leuzzi: Yes, I was. Radiant Losses is made up of poems that embrace either traditional procedures or adhere to an Oulipian composition strategy. With regards to the former, I was writing poems that were originally composed in blank verse and then edited to loosen the rhythms a bit; in the latter case, I wanted to make a dramatic departure from blank verse by adopting the Fibonacci number sequence as a syllabic pattern, thus forcing me away from an iambic line. The result is a transitional grouping of poems that sits somewhere between the vastly different aesthetics of Andrew Hudgins and Ron Silliman! I was glad to do some formal innovating there, but I wanted the next book to be more complicated, more metaphorically dense—and more unified in my attempt to break from mainstream idioms. Although The Burning Door is sectioned into four parts, and although each of these sections began life as an independent chapbook, I do see all the parts working together. There is, for example, a persistent hermetic quality to the poems that was very much an extension of my reading. At various times during the writing of the book, I was under the spells of Robert Desnos, Yvan Goll, and Yannis Ritsos respectively. As much as I was attempting to synthesize my exposure to various source materials, I was also guided by certain formal constraints I put in place for myself (couplets, which I mention above, and others I will discuss below). Nothing surprises the language more than working within such constraints. You never know what kind of response will emerge: even if you plan a certain direction, a surprised language will insist on its own path.
I am glad you asked this question because the poems I am writing for my next book are dramatically different than the poems from either of my previous books. They are chatty, expansive, less formally intricate, though borne out of greater risk as I disclose aspects of my life I’ve never previously subjected to public viewing. Were you to place some of these alongside poems in either The Burning Door or Radiant Losses, you probably wouldn’t assume they were the work of the same writer. I see this as a good thing.
Rail: Much of today’s poetry is written in the first person, yet the “I” in your book insinuates itself slowly, over many poems, without a lot of presumed bardic authority. Yet the “I” plays a role interacting with nature and the book’s various mysteries, and becomes engaged with some more personal material, including some surprising, seemingly autobiographical details of being a bullied gay kid, mostly in your prose poem sequence “Autumn Leaves.” How did you approach the presence of the “I, the poet’s apparent stand-in? What’s the difference between the poet’s eye and the poet’s “I”?
Leuzzi: You are correct in saying much of today’s poems are written in the first person. This convention implies a contract between reader and writer: “Let me tell you a story.” There’s an immediate intimacy in that gesture that I love, but I wanted to find another way to create intimacy in my poems. I wanted to challenge readers to find their own way into them without some ever-present first-person presence holding a lit torch through the darkness.
In the “Preface to Elsewhere” section, several poems employ a first person voice, but the voice itself is protean. “Before the Curse” at first seems autobiographical, but the known entity of its folk material establishes this as my presentation of a persona. Some of the more intense poems from that section are in the third person. Others, like “Suburban Primitive,” take on a collective voice. The majority of them, however, feel like moments of intimate reportage, even an occasional instance of confession that has been paired down to its terse essence.
In the second section, “Interchanges,” I decided to eliminate, with one exception, the first person voice altogether. These poems are very much imitations of and homages to Yannis Ristos, a major Greek poet of the 20th century, and perhaps one of the greatest poets of that century in any language. I have studied Ritsos’s maneuvers so closely over the years—his brief, blocky poems with a third person voice; his tendency to hint at meaning rather than state it outright; his startling juxtapositions, wild turns, and often menacing undertones—that I wanted to try them for myself. Ritsos wrote under the constant threat of government oppression. He endured house arrest at least twice and was jailed two times across a few decades. He could not write freely about his political dissension and communist sympathies, so he exploited subtext and indirection. As a result, his poems read like riddles, and they are, in fact, all the more frightening and powerful because of what they do not openly state. The persistent absence of the first person voice makes them feel like a god’s-eye view into the lives of countless men and women referred to in the third person. I do not suffer personally from the kind of political turmoil that informed Ritsos’s life, so the homages in “Interchanges” are not sly or deceptive political allegories. However, I do sense an ever-present threat of violence and hostility in this country, brought about by gross intolerance and a systemic lack of empathy. That is why these poems, while among the most musical in the book, often hint at some menace or threat. I wanted this tension between the mellifluous and the cacophonous.
I deliberately placed the “Autumn Leaves” prose mosaic after “Interchanges” as a way to introduce a significant shift from seeming detachment to personal story. Those prose poems read as micro-moments of autobiography, even when they aren’t always so: having two brothers at my side, I wasn’t really bullied or bothered in school, but I felt the constant threat of being found out, exposed. That fear manifests itself as actual bullying in some of the poems. “Autumn Leaves” was not originally part of the manuscript. I asked Steven Huff to add it because its declarative tone and narrative intimacy provide some warmth in an otherwise uncompromising, even ruthless gathering of verse poems. Aesthetically, The Burning Door would have been more formally perfect without it, but I wanted the book to have some air.
Rail: You've always been engaged with poetic meters and forms, and in The Burning Door you employ a relatively new form, the cadae, in the book’s concluding 32-page segment, “A Thing or Two.” The cadae uses the first digits of pi, 3.1415, to establish the stanzas of the poem—the first stanza being three lines, the second just one line, the third stanza four lines, and so on, for five stanzas. Jane Hirshfield in her blurb calls the cadae, in your hands, “a truly usable engine of meaning and feeling.” I agree with her. The poems are delicate, direct, and demanding, and there’s something about that infinite ratio that fits their imperative. But how does that ratio work as a poetic form for your meaning and feeling? Why pi?
Leuzzi: I was asked to blog about this subject a year-and-a-half ago in a wonderful online poetry site called The Bakery. I borrow bits from that to answer your question here, with some important revisions:
I am drawn to that strange yet supremely logical marriage of math and poetry, which I first explored in the Fibonacci sequences that comprised the center section of Radiant Losses. I knew as I built poems for another book, I wanted to try a different kind of syllabics, but one that continued to give the math-language relationship prominence. Math-based forms intrigue me because the numbers associated with the syllabic schemes they present have a logic and reality that pre-exist my experimentations. Any such poem I might write has at least some point of interest beyond being simply a poem I’ve written. So, after puttering around with a number of possibilities, I settled on a pre-existing form called “cadae.”
As you note, cadae is the alphabetical equivalent to the first five digits of the transcendental number pi (3.1415…). Pi, often represented as π, is a mathematical constant that is the ratio of a circle’s circumference to its diameter approximately equal to the number 3.14 or, to fourteen places, 3.1415926535897. In poetry, these numbers have been applied to line and stanza lengths, resulting in a cross between haiku and sonnet. Here’s an example:
A starving man eats
maggots, dies. When two days later he
new maggots have begun
hatching in his mouth.
will you take to bed
like a lover for the first time
touching and turning it all through night?
Which will be there when you wake?
The challenges I faced in working with this syllabic form lay largely in the first four lines. The repetition of one-syllable lines can be difficult to pull off. If you’re a purist, then the sound of those lines will be phrase heavy, very stop-and-start. The first four lines of the poem above demonstrate that. But I felt a relaxation of consistent pausing after certain lines was necessary. Consider the next example:
seven feet tall
the foot of my bed
reading a poem about a man
his yellow handkerchief
in a red meadow.
It’s not one
of his better ones
but it’s not all that bad either.
Do you like my tiny fingers? Yes.
Then I’ll read you another.
While the first three lines can be read with traditional pauses at the end of each line, the fourth line would sound awkward if one took a long pause after “at.” The syntax here insists upon a wrap around to the next line. As is evident in both examples, I chose not to title these poems. Titles are hierarchical: they frame the language of a poem in a way that conforms to one’s associations with the word(s) of that title. By eliminating the title, I am encouraging readers to start with no preconceptions. I’m also suggesting that all of these poems are interconnected as one poem, separate fragments of a larger whole, rather than a number of independent pieces forced under one umbrella. A poem without a title cannot put on airs. It must accept it’s own modesty. In writing these brief, 14-line poems, I was deliberately working on a minor scale. The pleasures of these are subtle and understated.
In both cadae above, a noticeable turn occurs in or immediately after the ninth line, as it often does in the Italian sonnet. This was less of a willed decision than an outcome of the form. In my final example, you’ll see that, the form can also accommodate lyric remembrance:
as he so often
seemed when I stole side glances and dreamed
kiss in the back of his
rusty blue pick up
but as he
once he dropped school to begin work
with his father gutting old houses—
dusty, quiet, thoughtful, drunk.
As you can see, cadae can incorporate a range of subjects. But the poems almost always suggest more than explain, hint more than howl. Whereas the Fibonacci poems lend themselves to an occasionally essayistic quality, the cadae resist linearity and embrace association and ellipsis.
Rail: In her blurb for The Burning Door, Elizabeth Robinson called your book “part fairy tale, part fable,” which I saw most directly in the tense, short blocks of poems in the book’s second section, “Interchanges.” There certainly are a lot of disconcerting moments and surreal or unnervingly juxtaposed images and instances, which suggest elements of the fairy tale. And there is throughout a kind of grimness found in the original Grimms’ tales. How do you see The Burning Door intersecting with the fantastical?
Leuzzi: When Jane Hirshfield graciously consented to endorse The Burning Door, she also urged me to consider beginning the book with “Folktale” (the third poem in the second section of the book). Her reasoning was so many of the poems appear to be abstractions of old folktales. I considered her suggestion seriously and would have followed it if I didn’t feel the poems in “Interchanges” needed to be grouped independently of the poems in “Prelude to Elsewhere.” Nonetheless, there is a strong overlap between the two sections. One of the overwhelming commonalities in them is my frequent allusion to folktales and/or my own narratives suggested through folklore elements. When I read Elizabeth Robinson’s endorsement of the book, I realized this texture was even more evident than I supposed.
I have consumed the entire collection of the Grimms folk and fairy tales many, many times. Writing poems in my teens, I tried to incorporate some of those stories into my work. The idea was not new then and it certainly isn’t new now. I was a big fan of Anne Sexton’s Transformations, for example. If only my early attempts were as fruitful as hers! For years, I couldn’t seem to synthesize such influences in my work—until I stopped trying.
Most of the myth and folktale elements you discern in The Burning Door happened rather effortlessly—and in often terse, compressed ways. This texture is the result of years and years of reading and getting world myth and folklore under my skin. What draws me to such literatures is obvious: fantastic imagery, compelling narratives, the timelessness of the conflicts explored throughout them. I think folklore is essential reading for any serious poet. A good folktale is not dissimilar to a fine contemporary poem where meanings will often be suggested rather than stated; the compression of language will furnish surprising moments of perception; and the elusive, mysterious energy therein will be inexhaustible, even after several readings. It’s certain that some of my favorite contemporary American poets—Dara Wier, Charles Simic, W. S. Merwin, Mary Ruefle, and Robert Bly—have been influenced by folklore. I could only aspire to use such influences as well as they.
To answer your question, however, I’d say the poems in The Burning Door intersect so often with elements of the fantastic because these poems are, in part, an expression of dream and desire. Growing up gay in a place and time that was hostile to any hint of homosexual behavior, particularly among men, I learned to live in two worlds at once: the world where my family and friends moved with comparative freedom and the world in my head. As a result, I learned to hold tight to what I secretly wished for while allowing people to see only a fraction of myself. I was, in a sense, like Rapunzel in a tower I built to protect me from revealing myself to others. My only recourse was imagination, which, steeped as it is in visual and word languages, unfurls like hair from a window to let whatever needs to come in, come in—sound ridiculous? I suppose living in two worlds means embracing a bit of the absurd. Like the creatures, characters, and terrain of folklore, I learned early on to wear several masks, to move in and out of certain realities and adjust to whatever various situations and environments required of me. I got so good at doing this for a while there I didn’t know who I was. But I grew up, extricated myself from as many oppressive environments and people as I could, and began to understand myself a bit more.
Interestingly enough, I see the theme of imagination as refuge in the poems I am writing now. These new poems do not wear the masks of folklore—or maybe those masks are so indelibly connected to my skin that attempting to separate them now would seem pointless, so I’ve learned to speak more clearly and directly through them.
Rail: Elizabeth Robinson also connects your fairytale with “a sort of Buddhist pause,” and an attention to presence and perception that characterizes the entire collection. But that pause never seems as place or rest of resolution, as it does in Jane Hirshfield’s or Chase Twichell’s poems. Instead it feels tentative, teetering, barely balanced on the knife’s edge of uncertainty and abrupt alteration. The poems turn back on themselves, taking away what they give us and giving it back again, to create intense, problematic, almost koan-like complication. It’s as if they find their nutrition as they turn to taste their own tails. How do presence, perception, and Buddhist influences operate for you in these poems?
Leuzzi: I know so little about Buddhism proper that I cannot answer this question intelligently. I can tell you that whatever I doknow about it comes from my reading of the Hindu epics and Rumi’s Sufi writings, both of which incorporate Buddhism into separate traditions. I also read a bit of Joseph Campbell in college, where he compared the traditions of Buddha with Christ, matched the stories up and articulated striking parallels. But my knowledge of Buddhism ends here—at best a second or third-hand experience via other pathways of knowledge. The reason my “pause”—be it Buddhist or otherwise—“never seems as place or rest of resolution” is because I see searching and wandering as extensions of meditative states, fields of concentration. My own eclecticism—as evinced in my reading habits and in the aesthetically varied temperament of my books—suggests an unsettled, restless spirit, though not a doomed or tortured one. I am enlivened by such searching and love embarking on new flights of fancy, even if, by all outward appearances, I seem pretty rooted to the earth.
Rail: As we conclude, let's close the book and return to its front cover. You are also, as you say your biographical note, “a painter and assemblage artist.” Initially I wondered if you had done the cover art for The Burning Door, with its portrait of a figure bound or beset by scratches that could almost be letters—or chain links. But the art is by Kathleen Farrell. Can you talk about how you came to that cover? And how do you see the book’s cover as a conduit to its contents? More generally, how does your visual art affect your poetry?
Leuzzi: I didn’t have to find the artist for the book. Kathleen Farrell is one of my longest, closest friends. A kindred spirit, she has provided the cover art for all of my books. I know plenty of visual artists and could seek out others, but I always go gleefully to Kathleen because she instinctively knows what I want. When Steven Huff at Tiger Bark Press accepted my manuscript, she was the first person I called. I asked her to draw a boy’s face in profile that had—and I quote myself verbatim here—“all sorts of crazy things are coming out of the head.” A few months later she asked me to come to her place and see what she had done. She placed about 40 pieces before me, all of them amazing. When the second-to-last image in the pile introduced itself to me, I knew it was the one. She had read my mind. Steve Huff saw the image and was thrilled. Once the cover was designed, I posted an advance image of it on Facebook and got all sorts of great comments. The book’s cover excites people before they open it.
I didn’t want to use one of my own images because I love the collaborative experience between editor, artist, designer, and poet. Still, creating visual art is important to me. I had a 17 piece show last summer where I took old landscape paintings reproduced poorly on board and painted over them with oil pastels, oil sticks, spray paint, and satin house paint, allowing certain areas of the original painting to show through. Essentially, I collaborated with these awful reproductions of famous paintings, reframed their original images, introduced typography onto some of them, massive, thick paint textures in others. As a writer and an artist, I am a reactor. I love to work with what is given to me, what is found. Sometimes that is an image or piece of language I discover in an unlikely place—a road sign or a student’s doodle in a left-behind notebook. This approach to my art and poetry is related to what Jed Rasula calls “wreathing” which, as quoted in Brian Teare’s most recent book of poems, Companion Grasses, is essentially “nosing into the compost library.” My poems are very different from Teare’s, but like him I often react to already-given bits of language, wherever they come from.
In one of my chapbooks, “Fake Book,” I wrote prose poems that riff on certain tropes and motifs one finds in popular songs of the ’30s and ’40s—what we call standards. I also layered into these riffs syntactic translations of prose passages from William Carlos Williams’s Spring and All. With a syntactic translation, you keep the grammar of a passage but eliminate all of the words, replacing them with your own. I would translate two or three sentences from Williams as such and then improvise on that, shooting into other directions. It’s safe to say, I view those prose poems as a collaborative process not dissimilar to my visual art.
In The Burning Door, I again started with already-existing texts to spark my imagination. As I mentioned earlier, the “Prelude to Elsewhere” poems are homophonic translations Georg Trakl. I used the approach in four of the poems from “Interchanges” as well, reacting to the lovely poems of Miguel Hernandez. I love to dance with ghosts.
David Groff’s Clay won the Louise Bogan Award, chosen by Michael Waters, and was published in 2013 by Trio House Press. His book Theory of Devolution (2002)was selected by Mark Doty for the National Poetry Series. The coeditor of Persistent Voices: Poetry by Writers Lost to AIDS (2009) and Who’s Yer Daddy? Gay Writers Celebrate Their Mentors and Forerunners (2013), he teaches in the M.F.A. in Creative Writing Program at The City College of New York.