An Interview with Poet John L. Stanizzi
by Lisa C. Taylor
LCT: How does your involvement with Poetry Out Loud, Fresh Voices at the Hillstead, and other youth poetry events impact your own writing?
JS: Any involvement with young people keepss me fresh and young. It is important to stay connect to youth. Occasionally a poem I write will be inspired by a student. The groups I’ve worked with are very diverse—students coming from Columbia, Africa, Eucador, Puerto Rico, and Russia. I wrote a poem that used the lyrical beauty of their last names as a way to celebrate the diversity.
LCT: What gave you the idea for a using reggae music as a backdrop to your book Halleujah Time? What impact has music had on your writing?
JS: My connection to Reggae and Rastafari has to do with the poitics and the music. Over the years, I embraced the political and spiritual aspect. In my book, I wanted to find out the specific scripture verses Bob Marley used and how he paraphrased them. In “Get Up, Stand Up” he writes about standing up to oppression. I wrote a poem with the same title that addresses young people, encouraging them to stand up and question authority. A lot of what Bob Marley was confronting in his songs were things I also faced. When my son Jonathan was twelve, someone called the police because he was shooting a BB gun. The police stomped on his head and put him in jail. The song Burnin’ and Lootin’ resonated for me. Music continues to be an important part of my life—it defines me. Reggae and jazz fill my soul. I spent twenty-five years as an announcer on WHCN, hosting Jazz Brunch. When I taught high school. I taught a jazz and poetry class. I liked to shock the students, playing Coltrain’s Live in Seattle.
LCT: How do your own activities reflect your view on writers’ involvement in the broader community as a form of activism?
JS: I have taught a Bob Marley workshop three times. I give the students the lyrics to “Burnin’ and Lootin'” and “Small Acts” and a list of about two hundred ways society tells us to sit down and shut up. We talk about social injustice and oppression. I play the songs (loudly). Then the students freewrite about social justice and oppression and how it has impacted them in their lives. This gives them an opportunity to use their writing voice to speak out against injustice.
LCT: What are you currently reading? Is there a writer you are excited about?
JS: I am currently reading Elizabeth Thomas’ memoir about being a caregiver, Joan Didion’s memoir, Blue Nights and Roxanne Gay’s memoir Hunger: A Memoir of My Body. I am working on a memoir so I’m interested in reading more memoirs. I’m also excited about James Baldwin, a writer I overlooked for years. I’m making my way through all of his work. It was Kenyon Adames from Yale, the director of Grace Farms in New Canaan who told me I needed to read James Baldwin. A writer I think deserves more attention is Laura Kaminski. Her poems read like prayers and she deserves a much wider readership. She suffered a devastating stroke and she is only in her forties. She was raised in Nigeria and her Nigerian name is Halima Ayubu. Her work is extraordinary. She runs Praxis Magazine. The writer, Kwame Dawes was looking for recommendations of African writers and I recommended Romeo Oriogun. It turned out he had already won the prestigious Brunel Prize. I wrote the forward for his chapbook, Burnt Men.
LCT: Your large family figures strongly in your work. Do you see the stories of an immigrant family and the ties of future generations as relevent to current times? How?
JS: If what is going on today was happening seventy or eighty years ago, my family would have been questioned and possibly deported. I have four biracial grandchildren and one biracial great-grandchild. I am blessed to be in the position to teach them kindness, acceptance, and the concept of one love. I’ve been in the position of helping them to deal with racism. For Christmas, my granddaughter gave me a photo of herself with Angela Davis and also bought me her book. It was a proud moment.
LCT: Anything else you’d like to talk about…
JS: We live in challenging times. I secondguess myself out of a feeling of pure futility because our current leader is such a menace and a pariah. Sometimes I feel like I’m living on an alien plant. On the other hand, there has been an odd change in me. I want to fight racism, xenophobia, homophobia and all these other acts of discrimination and hate with demonstrations of love toward people I know and people I don’t know. I don’t force myself to write about it although I’ve written pieces just for the cartharsis of it. I think I’ve made a conscious decision not to write about it until I’m able to do it in a way that will resonate.
John L. Stanizzi is author of six full-length collections – Ecstasy Among Ghosts, Sleepwalking Dance Against the Wall, After the Bell, Hallelujah Time!, High Tide – Ebb Tide. His new book, Chants, will be published in 2018 by Cervena Barva Press. His poems have appeared in Prairie Schooner, American Life in Poetry, Connecticut River Review, The New York Quarterly, Tar River Poetry, Passages North, The Cortland Review, and many others. His poems been translated into Italian and appeared in El Ghibli, in the Journal of Italian Translations Bonafinni, Poetarium Silva, and Mosaici: Learned Online Journal of Italian Poetry. His translator is Angela D’Ambra. John has read at many venues all over New England, including the Sunken Garden Poetry Festival and The Mystic Arts Café. He formerly taught at Bacon Academy in Colchester, CT, where he also directed the theater program. He teaches literature at Manchester Community College in Manchester, CT and he lives with his wife, Carol, in Coventry.
Two poems by John L. Stanizzi
for Tahreem, in friendship.
Your downstairs neighbor said
You make too much noise.
But I live alone you said
how can I make too much noise?
She said You just make too much noise.
And why do you wear that thing on your head?
You the Taliban or Al-Qaeda?
And you make too much noise
watering your plants
and your water drips down
from your balcony to mine.
You said But I don’t have any plants.
and your downstairs neighbor said
Good. That’s one less thing for you to kill.
GHAZAL OF CHIBUIHE LIGHT
…we’re still busy searching for god in each
the mouth of the four rivers in eden
hidden in our breastpockets…
-Chibuihe Light Obi
Is it possible for poets to dismiss peace?
Leap from their rooftops away from the bliss of peace?
They rained invectives on him for his love and hate.
Hatred, a kangaroo court, an abyss of peace.
They hacked his account when he exposed Africa.
Friends made it worse when they’d reminisce about peace.
Chibuihe Light, light the candles of love and love.
Light the thousand tapers, their flames the kiss of peace.
Your multicolored kite has gone behind the clouds.
Your country is aflame, your kite persists with peace.
You say they want to kill the flowerboys, burn them.
The butterflies teach of the kinesis of peace.
The birds echo life back into the bombed market.
There is rubble, and weeping, and the risk of peace.
There’s nothing I can do from here or anywhere.
Songs of light and hope shimmer on the criss of peace.
Wars and wars and wars and wars of myriad kinds.
John, pray these songs never sung in the midst of peace.