John L. Stanizzi, Poet: “Teaching didn’t do anything for my soul. It gave me a soul.”
“A man who carries a cat by the tail learns something he can learn in no other way.”
~ Mark Twain
e is a teddy bear among men. The kind of man you expect to take up space when he enters a room. But not because of his physical stature. It’s the gentleness of John L. Stanizzi that captures you. His capacity for bearing witness to the wild, ferociousness of life. And yet not hurling the truth of this at you. Not even laying it at your feet. But handing it to you, with a flourish and a quiet bow.
night has fallen around you
and you remember the sea
as a nervous black space
upon which you tried to dance
~ from, Sleepwalking: Poems by John L. Stanizzi
INTERVIEW WITH JOHN L. STANIZZI
Coventry, Connecticut ~
Deanna Elaine Piowaty: What comment is being made through your poetry about what it means to be a man today, John?
John L. Stanizzi: My poetry has always been a means of survival, and I don’t mean that in any haughty, suffering-artist kind of way, though I admit that when I was a young man there may have been a bit of that. No. For me, my writing is every bit a part of me as the blinking of my eyes or my breathing. If I don’t exercise my body I begin to lose it – much more quickly these days, now that I’m older. And it’s the same with my poetry – if I don’t exercise it, I begin to lose it. I never really thought about it in terms of my gender.
grain moon light closes around sorrow
like the sea around the conch
~ from, Sleepwalking: Poems by John L. Stanizzi
Deanna Elaine Piowaty: Or do you regard poetry as a way to push beyond societal expectations and offer new ideals, initiate deeper explorations than what might feel otherwise possible had you not been a writer?
John L. Stanizzi: What a terrific question! That notion of societal expectations is very complicated, isn’t it? When I was a kid – middle school, high school – I kept my poetry an impenetrable secret. No one knew I wrote poems. I was a jock in those days, and everyone knew that baseball players didn’t write poems, football players didn’t create art. At least that’s how things were in my mind. And so I kept it a secret. It wasn’t until my junior year of high school, thanks to a wonderful teacher who somehow learned my secret and helped me along, did anyone know. Oh, what a weight was lifted! Finally, I was allowed to be who I was. And today, even though there have been a few situations along the way where I’ve felt that high school mentality about poets, I feel extremely blessed to have been given this overwhelming compulsion to write. For me, every single deeper exploration is guided by, driven by, my work. Without my poetry, myriad explorations would never, ever, have even occurred to me. Yes, it’s quite a blessing, indeed.
Deanna Elaine Piowaty: How have you used the medium of poetry to reconcile your need for self-understanding with that universal hunger to connect and engage with others in a language that resonates?
John L. Stanizzi: I am a terrible conversationalist, I think, though friends tell me that that’s not true. I experience palpable anxiety in most social settings. It’s funny: once in a while people will ask me if I’m nervous when I’m giving a reading or a lecture. My answer is always the same. No! I’m nervous right now, in this conversation, but when I reach the podium, my poems in tow, I am perfectly, absolutely comfortable, mostly because I will now, finally, be able to express my sense of “self-understanding,” and be able to connect, the best I can, with others, in what is the most natural language I can speak: through my poems.
Of course I steal peaches from Mrs. Lewis’ tree.
It bursts from among the tenements like a bouquet
rising out of the asphalt into sunshine, with peaches
as big as grapefruits, firm and yellow, with a smudge of red,
and covered with a fur that makes my tongue itch
when the sweet, warm juice spills from the split skin.
So, with Tina and Lena, Rosie and Mary
all fixed on my ascent, I climb the knobby tree,
while they point and yell
Get that one!
I have to cock my head
and squint through my Bat Man mask
to locate their perfect peach.
But I do.
And I stretch through long tubes of sunlight
toward the fruit which hangs
motionless and heavy and with light all around it.
I reach and feel it’s warmth with my fingertips.
I reach and close my hand around it.
I reach and step triumphantly
onto the corner of my Bat Man cape.
I don’t remember the fall ~
or hitting the ground
but I lie on my stomach,
arm twisted under me,
and open my eyes to an earth tilting
back and forth like a seesaw,
and the air has the blurred smear of a dream.
I spend all of Third Grade
with my arm in a cast.
People bring me gifts,
ask about me, do my work,
and hold my arm gently to sign the cast.
But when the school year ends
the doctor cuts away the plaster ~
a hardly noticeable slice
from the thumb up to the forearm.
He opens it like a big razor clam
and it saddens me
to see the thin, dark arm lying there
like a brown snake which has shed its skin.
I stash the cast in my desk drawer
and that whole summer,
until my arm puffs up enough
to make the cast too tight,
I slip it on occasionally
and tell everyone the arm is broken again,
the need for love swelling inside me
like peaces ripening in the sun.
~ from Ecstasy Among Ghosts: Poems by John L Stanizzi, Antrim House, Simsbury Connecticut
Deanna Elaine Piowaty: What has being a teacher meant to you, John? And a high school teacher at that. What do you feel it has done for your soul?
John L. Stanizzi: I came to teaching late. I didn’t begin teaching high school until I was 40. And the revelation that this is what I was meant to do with my life was the single most profound experience of my life. Prior to entering teaching, I floundered around in a series of dull, unfulfilling, unchallenging, irrelevant jobs. I had gotten my teaching certificate many years before, in my twenties, but I was never called to the profession. The idea of it intimidated me. I simply was not ready for it. However, ultimately, being a teacher came to mean everything to me. I am a teacher. That means that students, thousands of them, have depended upon me – still depend on me – for patience, guidance, friendship, understanding, and love. And being with high school kids for so many years has filled me with the spirit of youthfulness and the poignancy and preciousness of innocence. I have been blessed to be in a position to be able to offer some profoundly valuable things. I’m there for them to confide in. I console them. We laugh together. I help guide them in their aspirations and share their joy when they’re successful, and their sorrow when they’re not. I learned volumes about humility and the critical necessity of valuing their experiences. There are volumes to say about this question, but simply put:
Deanna Elaine Piowaty: John, whether you’re describing how a curtain moves in the breeze evoking the presence of a woman, or walking us through a tally of student deaths you’ve had to live through as a high school teacher, there is one over-arcing theme that floats up in your writing: Gratitude for the ungraspable nature of life. Can you tell me where this comes from for you?
John L. Stanizzi: Well, the older I get, the more I realize how little I know about everything. And yet, for me anyway, that has not been a disappointment. On the contrary, that ongoing epiphany has translated into a burgeoning sense of wonder and fascination with all the things I cannot ever know.
John L. Stanizzi: The fact that so much is ungraspable, and that all of us are working against the clock for some little measure of comprehension, are what make it so fascinating to me. And I think that’s where the gratitude emerges; I am so thankful for great mysteries. Through the darkness, the melancholy, the grief, the joy, the wonder, and the foolishness, comes a continuous flow of appreciation for the power of love as a healer and a clarifier.
Deanna Elaine Piowaty: Throughout your works, there is definite respect given for the underdog. The anti-hero. Have you yourself ever felt marginalized?
The first test they give him
is to see if he can spell
which he can, easily ~
such demeaning, useless exercises
Mecca of miracles
where she is sure
they’ll give him a pill one day
to reverse it all
and bring him back.
But for now
no matter the day of the week,
his birth date,
the one thing he knows for sure
is that the world is backwards,
and it will be that way from now on.
~ from Dance Against the Wall: Poems by John L Stanizzi, Antrim House, Simsbury Connecticut
John L. Stanizzi: Oh yes! Absolutely. And it’s a hell of a long story. But I was the kid your mom told you not to hang around with.
John L. Stanizzi: I was in and out of school, no focus, horrible grades – actually NO grades would be more accurate. An only child, my parents shuffled me back and forth between my aunt’s house and my grandmother’s house so they could have more time to themselves, unburdened by the responsibilities of parenthood. Through middle school and high school I did absolutely nothing. I took up space and caused all sorts of trouble. After high school I was utterly lost; all the people I knew were either on their way to college or on their way to Viet Nam. I was spending all my energy trying to stay out of Nam and hold down a third-shift job at a typewriter factory. I’ll spare the details here, but I do write about my Viet Nam experience in my poem, “Confession,” from Dance Against the Wall.
It was very sad, he thought. The things men carried inside. The things men did or felt they had to do.
~ The Things They Carried, Tim O’Brien.
Fear overwhelmed me,
though it was cryptic,
weight covering the skin….
…I’d play solitaire on my bed deep into night.
The rules were simple:
Win, don’t die in Nam.
I’d play over and over until I won.
Then I’d change the rules.
You have to win two in a row not to die…
…My penance had been to carry that boy
with me always,
carry that boy whose fodder got moved,
that boy whose name I never knew,
carry him and keep him alive
for as long as I live.
John L. Stanizzi: I never went to Viet Nam, and that is the story I tell in that poem. No one was untouched by that war. No one. I got married at 20, had four kids, was uneducated, unemployed, and very adept at drinking and drugging. Yes. I have absolutely lived my life in the margins. But as I said, it’s a very long story. Perhaps someday I’ll tell the whole thing.
Deanna Elaine Piowaty: In your poem, “Home Repairs,” you explore what foundations are necessary for healthy new beginnings. The letting go that must occur. You’ve recently gone through a major transition yourself. What did you find to be the hardest about this? Were there any pleasant surprises?
Discounting nothing ~ the kitchen trivia, boredom,
The dreams of escape that make it a home…
I will not repair the broken window
which let in moonlight shaped like stars
nor will I replace the unhinged door
It is the mouth of the cave opening to sunlight
I will not tighten the dripping faucet
which is the spring that flows to the river
And the ceiling must remain cracked
It is the lifeline of the house
the map to the sea
I must allow the wallpaper to peel slowly
The way the snake sheds its skin
And I cannot gather the dirty clothes
They are the empty silent crowd
I want to leave behind
to walk from the house with splitting paint
like emerging new
from the frail white
shell of an egg
~ from Ecstasy Among Ghosts: Poems by John L Stanizzi, Antrim House, Simsbury Connecticut
John L. Stanizzi: That’s a poem about divorce, of course, and all the pain and difficulty that goes with it, from the mega-considerations right down to the smallest things, and yet what I hope happens with that poem ~ with all my poems ~ is that included among the feelings of sadness and grief are feelings of joy and hope, engendered both by what happens specifically in the poem, and also by the language. That certainly happens to me when I’m writing: working through an experience through the incredible satisfaction of writing.
John L. Stanizzi: And the major transition you’re talking about is my retirement from full-time teaching. There have been some surprises, for sure. I’ve actually found that the most difficult part of retiring was all that trepidation leading up to it, all the worry about whether or not I would feel fulfilled, how badly I’d miss the kids, those kinds of things. But once the school year ended and summer came, all of those concerns seemed rather small against that lovely backdrop of free time and the complete independence to create out of that time whatever I chose and at whatever pace suited me. I guess what I’d say to people facing down retirement is this: my guess is that you’ll adjust just fine to its “difficulties.”
John L. Stanizzi: Another pleasant surprise had to do with the way I approach my poems now. I had always felt the need to write when the free time to do so presented itself. I felt as if I were writing against the clock, and so the bursts of writing had to involve stanzas or entire poems. What I have discovered now, though, is that I’m able to focus on just one or two lines, and I can give those one or two lines several days, or however long it takes for me to feel as though I’ve gotten it somewhat right. I don’t know if that makes sense. When there wasn’t a huge amount of time available for me to write, I had to tackle larger chunks of a poem at one time. Now I don’t feel that pressure.
Deanna Elaine Piowaty: If you could give any bit of advice for teenagers deep in their own transition, anxious about what lies ahead and at the same time feeling sorrow for what is being left behind? Advice you wish you yourself had been given?
John L. Stanizzi: I always tried to reassure my students that they didn’t absolutely have to feel the need to fold to the pressures of their high school guidance counselors, teachers, parents when it came to this philosophy that at seventeen or eighteen years old they must know what they want to do with the rest of their lives and immediately attend college in pursuit of that goal. That path is simply not the best path for every kid, and yet too often those kids who are unsure or who just aren’t ready for college are made to feel bad about their feelings, stressed about not knowing what they want to do, and pressured to do something (which costs thousands of dollars) that they just don’t want. I could never see the point of that. I wasn’t always very popular with administrators and some parents, although I will say, there were also lots of parents who agreed with me. What’s the big hurry? I think people would be fairly shocked by how much pressure high school kids feel on all sorts of fronts. Let’s love them, support them, and gently guide them. But let’s also be sure that they have some say in their futures. My advice would be to try not to stress too much about those initial, tentative first steps after high school, and trust your own intuition, your own hearts.
Deanna Elaine Piowaty: What affect would you like your poetry to have on your readers?
John L. Stanizzi: My hope is that my readers will feel a kinship with me, that they will recognize in me a familiarity that makes them comfortable, that welcomes them in through a bond of common experience which becomes a kind of friendship. That’s my ideal.
Deanna Elaine Piowaty: Favorite word?
John L. Stanizzi: Well, as with books or films or poems, it’s always changing. Right this minute: “Rasta!“
Deanna Elaine Piowaty: What new emotional landscapes do you hope to travel as a writer?
John L. Stanizzi: Well, I want to keep working toward becoming a better, clearer, more honest poet. I want to work toward larger and more important issues in my work. I’d like to incorporate more history, perhaps look through the eyes of some of the great revolutionaries for peace. For example, my new book – I’m about half way there – focuses on the music of Bob Marley and, at least in part, on the terrible, violent history of Trench Town. This book has kept me busy for the better part of two years. Two years to go and Hallelujah Time! will be published.
|Published poet John L. Stanizzi taught high school English at Bacon Academy in Colchester, Connecticut from 1992 up until he retired this past June. Stanizzi now serves as Adjunct English Professor at Manchester Community College.
Visit Amazon.com to see the latest books available for John Stanizzi.
Also please enjoy Stanizzi’s piece written especially for Combustus: Censorship in the High School: Missing the Point About What We Deem Offensive
Jennifer C. McCarthy is a self-taught El Paso, Texas artist who has been developing her craft for going on 30 years.
To learn more about her process, please enjoy her interview in Combustus.
And to see more of McCarty’s work, please visit her website