Call Me Guido by Mike Fiorito. Ovunque Siamo Press, 2019, 183 p $10.95
Reviewed by Leslie Austin
Mike Fiorito’s excavation of old family tales in this short story collection, highlights larger than life characters and the folly of youth as he explores the legacy of his Italian American heritage. While portrayals of people like his great Uncle Virgilio, a master of all trades, and his father Frank, a six-foot one powerhouse, imbue the book with a vitality that seems to stretch throughout generations, it is the way that the author crafts his meditations on their past hardships that makes the reader feel close enough to call him Guido: a derogatory term, which his father reclaims in this familial nickname for the author the reaffirms the dignity inherent in their shared history. It is through recounting moments of adversity that the author emphasizes the resilience it takes to exist in several categories of difference from living in poverty and battling mental illness to being gay and Italian American. Through each of these short stories it is evident that the key to this strength is having pride in one’s culture.
The author illustrates this value not only in his family members narratives, but also ones that detail his own quest to rediscover the culture he shunned in his youth. The soundtrack to this process includes artists such as Tony Bennet, Frank Sinatra and Jimmy Roselli. Layered throughout the book, this music and its history provides a way for Fiorito to resurrect his father. This portrait gives the reader a look into multiple generations of father-son relationships that allows for introspection into the continuing legacies of prejudice and pain, but also love.
This whole collection with its clever use of history to chart the convergence between Italian and American cultures exemplifies the meaning of a labor of love. It not only educates the reader on the lasting impact of the Italian American’s influence on the United States, but also provides the reader with a satisfying depiction of a real family— a little crazy, but a lot of fun.
New Italian Migrations to the United States, Vol 2: Art and Culture since 1945, Edited by Laura E. Ruberto and Joseph Sciorra, 2017, University of Illinois Press, 225 p, $25
Reviewed by Matthew M. Cariello
We tend to think of the Italian immigration to the United States as happening long ago, counted in centuries rather than decades. My grandfather immigrated twice, once before and once after World War I. The rest of the family joined him in 1923. These times are reckoned as part of some distant, almost mythical past, one depicted in books and films and photos, sepia-soaked images of crowded ships and crowded streets and families gathered with no smiles for one last picture before leaving.
But other members of my extended family – particularly the people who married into my grandparents’ family – came in the years following World War II (by sometimes less-than-conventional means, but that’s another story). And in some ways, Italian migration to the United States has never stopped – the migration of people, yes, but also the migration of culture and ideas. New Italian Migrations to the United States: Vol 2: Art and Culture since 1945 offers seven essays on “the art and cultural expressions created by and about Italians arriving since 1945.” The editors dedicate the book
To all those fictional Italians who have been immigrating to the United States since 1945 – Carmine Fogliatella, Lucia Lombardo, the Vincente family, and even little Topo Gigio – and to the exciting new worlds they create, a reconfigured Italian imaginarium.
I confess to being unfamiliar with all the names cited above except for Top Gigio (Internet searches yield ambiguous results). But the goal of the book is clear: to identify and explore the range and repercussions of that “Italian imaginarium.”
The book is geared toward an academic audience, but for the most part will be accessible to the general reader, particularly the introduction, written by the editors, that explores what they call the continual “rebooting” of Italian America. What it means to be an Italian American (or, for that matter, to be Italian) is never static, always changing in reaction to economic, political and cultural pressures. But the premise of the book is clear: that the diasporic Italian (in both the social and individual sense) is always liminal, pursuing and struggling to name and know itself in relation to here and there, then and now and later.
Chapter 1, “Don’t Forget You Have Relatives Here,” by Joseph Sciorra, recounts “La Grande Famiglia,” a radio show broadcast by WOV in New York City from 1948 to 1961. WOV-AM broadcast almost exclusively in Italian, for the immigrant market, and called itself the “voice of Italian America.” Sciorra explains how WOV and “La Grande Famiglia” created a bridge between the Italian and American cultures, in part by acting as a conduit for communication. In the days before easy long-distance calling, WOV “would send a roving correspondent” to relatives of Italians Americans still living in Italy, “record their voices, and broadcast them on [American] radio.”
My paternal grandmother (who was for 35 years technically an illegal immigrant – but another story) would spend long hours in the kitchen cooking, playing solitaire and listening to Italian radio in Union City, N.J. She never learned to read or write any language, so for her, and for perhaps thousands more people in the era before instant communication, stations like WOV and programs like “La Grande Familglia” connected the past, present and future in important ways.
Chapter 2 explores depictions of Italians and Italian Americans in post-war film. Chapter 3 is a fascinating exploration of the art of Silvio Barile, a self-taught sculptor-in-concrete based near Detroit, Michigan. His energetic and idiosyncratic works blend Italian and American impulses in religion, culture and politics. Chapter 4 considers the way stage artist Alessandro Belloni’s work with Italian dance traditions creates a “transnational dialogue between Italy and the United States.” In Chapter 5, Simone Cinotto studies not only the history of Italian cookbooks in America, but also their discourse – the way they represent food and culture. The final chapter pushes the “arts and culture” label just a bit. Teresa Fiore’s “Migration Italian Style” in part examines the “new Italians,” who immigrated since 1990, and how they integrate with the “intrinsic Italian fabric” of life in the United States.
In the 1950s (before I was born) into the 60s and 70s, the center of my Italian family’s life was the same apartment where my father was raised, a railroad flat that once slept nine but eventually had only three occupants, my grandparents and the daughter (my aunt) who cared for them. We’d all make the Sunday migrations for food, and on holidays too. Then my grandparents’ children moved to the suburbs, and then across the state, out of state, across the country. We left that apartment. My grandparents died, their children died, their grandchildren moved and had children who had children. What’s left is the name, or several names, a lifeline back through the diaspora.
The End of Aphrodite . Laurette Folk, Bordighera Press, 2020, 214p, $18
Reviewed by Jessica Derr
“She slipped a winter coat over her nightgown and went walking under the sky of spilled stars. Here, engulfed in darkness, her internal darkness retreated; her mood lifted with the raw beauty of night. At the beach, the ocean was an invisible thing and treacherous without the moon but audible in its tumbling surf. The lobster boats droned offshore; it was comforting to know there were others out there. Elise sat in the cool sand and smoked, waiting for the harbinger of day, that blurred eye of God to rise tentatively in the East.”
Like the ocean it so frequently circles back to as seen in the excerpt above, there is a timelessness, a rich mythic antiquity that flows forth from Laurette Folk’s second novel, The End of Aphrodite. In the same way, like waves cresting and crashing, nothing is permanent and the cast of characters are in a constant state of flux and re-invention. There is certainly no one way to be a woman, but in this way, we get the feeling of a pervasive feminine experience carried throughout the entire piece.
Capturing lives in snapshots, the novel spans years and alternates perspectives between different interconnected characters as they experience love, loss, and carving out their identity within the world. When doing the latter, the female leads turn towards art to deal with the expectations of a patriarchal society. They attempt to subvert being an object of the gaze, to reclaim autonomy through the making of art, reshaping themselves in their own image, telling their own stories as seen through their own eyes. As Samantha reflects in one point during the course of the novel, it is not just about the delight gleaned from creation, but “a strong sense of purpose.”
From this we learn The End of Aphrodite is no story of flashy, quick-paced action and plot moments. Rather, the journey and development is imperative, with little every day, in-between musings and meditations holding far more weight than any final destination. It is here where Folk’s writing truly shines. The environments themselves seem to breathe, taking on a character of their own, meticulously furnished with sensual, invocative prose. In this way, there is a sort of magic to be found into the mundane, and descriptions of things one would expect to skim over such as that of an old bedroom are a treat to read, cementing the notion that these characters are both product and creator of their environments, whether they like it or not.
Immersive, intimate, and full to the brim with feeling, The End of Aphrodite reminds us that in this world all we have are the connections we forge and the memories we make. It begs the question of what mythology will follow your name after you are gone, borne back into an endless sea. And for that alone, it is a worthy read indeed.
INTERVIEW: Jessica Derr talks with Laurette Folk.
JD: Can you tell us about The End of Aphrodite?
LF:The End of Aphrodite is a story about five women and one man of various ages and identities whose lives collide in family, friendship, lust, love, art, murder, and myth. But this is a pretty crappy definition. I think Carla Panciera did a phenomenal job in nailing down the novel in her blurb on the back cover.
JD: How did you come up with the idea for The End of Aphrodite? Did you have any notable inspirations?
LF:To think back to the starting point of a novel that took me fifteen years to write takes a considerable amount of thought. Originally, one of the main characters, Etta, was based on my aunt Lauretta who died of cancer when I was a junior in college. It’s fair to say that my aunt was one of my favorite people, and her death affected me tremendously. She was funny and fun-loving, but she had a side to her that was perpetually in emotional pain from relationships that were not fulfilling to her. And when I say relationships, I mean relationships with men. She sort of closed in or herself because of this, and as I got older and had my own failed relationships, I understood why. Back then, in an Italian-American family, you were supposed to marry to save yourself from the difficulties of life, and my aunt did that, but the marriage failed. It was an unspeakable thing, talked about behind her back. The character Etta, as I was writing her started out as Lauretta, but something changed along the way. I abandoned the victim idea and wrote her with more power, due primarily to her sexuality and beauty. I got this idea from Cher (my aunt and I were big Cher fans). When I saw the movie Mermaids and then later read the book by Patty Dann, the Cher-mother character fascinated me, because she was unlike any of the women in my family. She was irreverent and beautiful and outrageous. I liked the contrast of the outrageous Cher-mother character with the pious Winona-daughter character (Winona Ryder played her nun-like daughter in the movie). Etta became Aphrodite and her niece, Samantha, the main narrator in the novel, a timid, virtuous, God-fearing girl who wants to come of age in only the right ways, but with Etta as her aunt, doesn’t get that chance.
The Joan-Elise story has its genesis in several people in my life. We had a neighbor named Joan when I was growing up who was somewhat eccentric: her house was like a museum with all of its relics. Her children were free spirits and creative, again, unlike anyone I had known in my Italian-American family. I remember neighbor Joan showing me a poem her daughter scratched into a piece of bark from a birch tree, and I thought that was the coolest thing. I never met any of Joan’s children, they were long out of the house by the time we moved in next door, but I imagined them, and I guess those imaginings brought me to Nathan and Elise.
If Etta is Aphrodite, Joan and Elise are Demeter and Persephone. Joan is a wise crone character with knowledge of the natural world, and her daughter Elise is the abducted Persephone. Elise, through whom all of the characters are connected, is the poet-ghost who appears at her mother’s bedside in the early spring. This idea of a ghost character comes directly from my grandmother, who used to claim she saw Lauretta’s ghost in the early morning light after she died. I embarked upon this particular story line when I was single and childless, but now that I have my own daughter and son, the pain of losing a child was something I had no clue of back then and took for granted. I tried to be as empathetic with Joan as I possibly could be, after I had kids, but I found that I was protecting myself. The pain is just too great. This is why the mind makes up myths and stories to come up with answers it can live with. This is what happened with my grandmother and what happened to Joan.
I have always been fascinated by mythology and when I read and watched the PBS series “The Power of the Myth” with Bill Moyers and Joseph Campbell, something in me clicked into place. Myths are stories that model the tension between inner emotions and passions with external experiences. They model certain life scenarios, and my characters live these myths as a way of defining who they are. In the case of Michaelis, it’s a means of assuaging guilt, but I don’t want to say too much about him, because he is supposed to be a surprise character. I especially love myths that have been modernized. The movie Oh Brother Where Art Thou does a great job with this.
JD:What was your process like in writing the novel?
LF:I started writing the novel up at Vermont College, when I was studying for my MFA. Most of the work I did there was just scaffolding and has since been tossed, but I did establish all of the women characters there and set up the relationships. As the years went on, I picked up the novel, put it down, picked it up again. I wrote two other novels and had one of them published. Had kids. It was after my kids went to school that I seriously started working on it again. I read specifically to stock my imagination and found inspiration in other novels like Mrs. Dalloway by Virginia Woolf as well as shorter works by her, Interpreter of Maladies and Unaccustomed Earth by Jhumpa Lahiri, The Electric Kool-Aid Acid Test by Tom Wolfe, Dharma Bums by Jack Kerouac, short stories by Kate Chopin. I focused on getting chapters published; that told me that I was on the write track with the writing.
JD:What was the most difficult part in the process? How did you manage to get past this issue?
LF:Rejection by agents. I had several interested agents, but the push-pull of finding an agent was really affecting me negatively. I had spent years and years trying to find an agent with this book and others, and actually had one at one point, but the relationship wasn’t sustainable. My mental health started to be affected. I had to let it go. And then I found Bordighera. I am really happy with the way things have gone so far.
JD:Much of your novel focuses on women creating art as a way to both remember others and reinvent themselves. How does this apply to your own life?
I have to create to be mentally healthy. I found out the hard way that creating is more important to me than making money. Whether I am painting or writing or doing small collage work, I need my fix.
JD:What would you say makes this novel a piece of Italian-American fiction?
LF:It has Italian-American themes. Catholicism. The tribe. Submission to men and male ideas. I wanted to create a woman character strong enough to leave the tribe. What would be her thoughts? How would she do it? I needed to contrast her with the women characters who remained in the tribe. How would they get along?
JD:How did you first get involved in the Italian American fiction community? How has your experience been?
Well, honestly, it’s been a godsend. I’ve spent years and years writing in a room in my house alone, and then one day I met Jennifer Martelli through a mutual friend. And I was like, wait, she’s Italian and she writes? Are you kidding me? I stalked her until she became my friend. And then Olivia Kate Cerrone wanted me to do a panel with her at IASA in Washington. She got my name through that same mutual friend, Jennifer Jean, a poet. I couldn’t go, but Jennifer Martelli went in my place, and then we all started meeting and the conversation began. We called ourselves “the unicorns” because we believed, at the time, that we were very rare. And then IAM books opened up in the North End, and Jennifer Martelli, and I attended our first IAWA reading and quickly became members. Then we discovered Bordighera, because Olivia’s book was published by them. And then Jenn’s book was published by Bordighera. Now we all meet at IAM once a month for readings and dinner. Between Bordighera, IAM books, IAWA, and Ovunque Siamo, It’s like I’ve discovered my own IA writing family, which I never would have believed existed.
JD: What haven’t I asked you about that you would like to share?
LF:Only that independent presses put out some amazing books. I used to think that wasn’t the case, that only the bigger presses publish quality work. Now I know for sure, having read and reviewed many indie books, that that is simply not the case. Also, IAM books in the North End of Boston is a phenomenal cultural hub and people should check it out.
JD: Thank you Laurette! We wish you the best of luck with your book!
Flowersonnets, Angelo Colavita, Empty Set Press, 2018, 32p, $12
Reviewed by Danielle Maggiore
The best time to read Flowersonnets would be in the early morning when the sun has just begun to rise and no one else is awake yet. There is a beautiful softness to these poems that calls to that time of day when you know you need to get going and start your day but you aren’t ready to break the tender silence just yet. The stillness in the air just begs for something to be released into it, and the raw emotion portrayed in these poems would be perfect for that.
There are two types of poems in this collection: those that portray a sense of loss and longing, and those that have an underlying feeling of calm anger and regret. Both types are well written not just through exquisite word choice but through the placement of the words on the pages. It’s almost as if the words dance across them, or flow like a stream from one end of the page to the other. By tracing this movement, the reader is brought along on the emotional journey of these poems.
The first type of poem, those that deal with loss and longing, really shine when it comes to the way they are placed on the page. One poem that starts “you were left / to the wolves / you were broken” is placed in such a way that a gash splits diagonally down the poem showing that break visually before the reader ever gets to reading the poem. The gaps between the words in other poems show the theme of loss in a hauntingly beautiful way, leaving some words separated from the others as if the words themselves are experiencing the isolation that the speaker talks about.
The second type of poem, those that have an underlying feeling of calm anger and regret, rely much more heavily on the word choice than the movement across the page, although visually they are just as stunningly jarring to see for the first time as the other poems. The two poems that face each other in the center of this collection are great examples of how anger does not have to be explosive to be heard and understood. With lines like “remember / when you / left my funeral / to go out dancing?” and “if it has to be done / do it so it is / beautiful don’t end / anything / on a sour note”, how could the reader not feel the gentle rage of the speaker when things don’t turn out the way he wants them to?
At the end of the day, this is a collection driven by emotion, though it is not overly emotional. Colavita does a wonderful job with evoking a variety of emotions and making the reader feel them with him without overdoing any of it. To get just the right amount of emotional connection without piling it onto the reader nor undercutting it is nothing short of poetic brilliance.
INTERVIEW: Danielle Maggiore talks with Angelo Colavita
What is your writing process like?
My process is different for each project, and sometimes even for each poem, depending on the project and the poem. I’ll say they usually start off pretty rough — just strings of thoughts or images, wordplay, assembled phrases and clips of found expression, idioms, whatever — and I just try to write until I get to a place where the work starts to look like something. Maybe it tells me what to do or maybe I see something in it all that I’d like to refine or explore deeper. Sooner or later, they feel finished. It’s a lot of experimentation, to be honest. What works for one thing might not work for another, so I’m forced to reconsider it and revise it, or maybe even abandon my intention altogether in order to allow the piece to be what it needs to be. I will often, but not always, outline concepts with the understanding that as I write I may have to tweak the outline. It’s all about listening to the piece as I’m writing it. I spend a lot of time sitting with a poem in process, at times not even writing at all. And sometimes I get so caught up in it, that I have to step away from it altogether for a few days or a few weeks before I come back to it. Give it room to breathe. The process, for me, is a constant negotiation with the poem. Sometimes they’ll cooperate and other times they require serious litigation.
DM:What was your main inspiration for Flowersonnets?
AC:Flowersonnets was one of those projects that came about accidentally. I wrote it mostly during the semester, so my poetry time was kind of limited to right before bed, or early in the morning, or on the bus, or between classes. Really, whenever I had a few minutes. I’d take little notes and try to expand them into longer poems. My grandparents died within a few months of each other. So there’s one that was originally a proper sonnet for my grandmother, which I wrote the night before she passed. I had that poem, which reminded me of another poem I wrote that had images of love and death. Both poems are in the collection. They were softer, more fragile and tender poems than any I had written before, so I decided to roll with that and see how many more I could do in the same vain. I kept writing sonnets, but they were just too much, so I treated my own poems like erasures and cut out anything that was unnecessary. I kept only what mattered linguistically or imagery-wise. The shapes really came about out of that redaction. Some words just fell in ways that were aesthetically pleasing in relation to each other, so I just cleaned up the alignments and sooner or later, there were these abstract shapes on the page. But the real “inspiration” was probably my grandmother’s death. That’s the one that sparked the collection. They also probably have a bit of influence from the Romantics. I was reading a lot of Keats and Percy Shelly at the time, so there’s this Victorian vibe throughout the book. Besides that, though, I’ve always had an interest in death.
DM:What poem from this collection are you most proud of and why?
AC:Well none of the poems are titled, but there’s one close to the end that is not only my favorite visually, but also the most abstract conceptually. Turns out you can watch time-lapse footage of decomposing animals on youtube, which I did for probably a few hours longer than was necessary. I wanted to really feel the movement of decay and capture that movement in a poem. I feel like I did that successfully with that particular piece. I went with a more metonymic method than I was used to. After reading Zukofsky’s “80 Flowers,” it really left an impression on me. So I wanted to challenge myself to write something like that. I always try to challenge myself technically in my writing. That poem upped my game for a lot of my work after Flowersonnets.
DM:What interests or hobbies do you have that you find fuel your creativity?
AC:I don’t have many hobbies outside of writing, to be honest. But I’d say the interests that most directly fuel and inform my work are probably magic and the occult. I always tend to draw heavily from that well, and sometimes it’s more deliberate than others. It’s just such a significant part of who I am at this point, it’d be impossible to avoid such influence.
DM:What other writers/poets do you love to read?
AC:I absolutely love Federico Garcia-Lorca and Samuel Beckett. Cummings and Emily Dickinson were probably my earliest poetry loves. Recently I’ve been heavily invested in ancient, classical, and medieval poetry — for instance, Ovid, the Shahnameh, Beowulf… I’m very interested in the earliest forms of writing and storytelling, especially mythology and folklore. As far as contemporary writers go, I’m of course a huge fan of Joanna Valente; I love them and their work. Since Flowersonnets was released, I’ve gotten really into Myung Mi Kim and Douglas Kearney, two of the biggest innovators writing today. I also read a lot of my friends’ work, like Maryan Captan, Chris McCreary, Mark Lamoureux, Misty Rosso, Kirwyn Sutherland, Faye Chevalier, Pattie McCarthy… It’s a long list.
DM:How would you describe yourself as an Italian-American writer?
AC: Ha. I didn’t really have a say. I was born into it. I’m not sure if that is something that has really been defined in popular culture yet. I mean, there’s no way I could write what I write the way I write it without being Italian-American. But the same could be said of any individual from any cultural background. Catholicism has definitely been a prominent influence on my perspective of the world and of art especially. I was raised Catholic, rebelled against others at a young age, but it’s affected me my entire life. My aesthetic is certainly colored by both the negative and positive aspects of religion in general. Aside from religious tones, parts of my past, my childhood, my family, stories I heard growing up…all of that finds its way in through the cracks of anything I write.
DM:Finally, is there anything else you’d like to talk about or let our readers know?
AC:I have a new book coming out in late 20/20 ,early 2021 from Apep Publications, called Nazareth. It’s a full length experimental epic poem that is based on early Christian Gnosticism and astrology. It’s kind of conceptual, I guess. I based the structure off of the Orphic Hymns, Hesiod’s Theogony, the Torah, among others, but it’s a continuous story broken down into 33 poems as the Sun passes through the constellations. So keep an eye out for that.
DM: Thanks Angelo! Best of luck!
Siren Shore: The Enchantment of Naples, Antoinette Carone, Shakespeare & Co. 105 p, $11.99
Reviewed by Monica Borzillo
Antoinette Carone’s Siren Shore: The Enchantment of Naples offers the reader glimpses into the life that goes on in the seaside city. Her ten stories are rooted in the contrasting themes of love and loss that harken back to the Greek myth of the siren Partenope who drowned in despair after she failed to lure Odysseus to her. The siren’s story took place in what is now the modern day Bay of Naples, and when Naples was a Greek city it had been named for her. Each short story explores these themes and together they create a picture of the peaceful city.
The first story of the book,“Journey in the South,” depicts a love between one couple that could not be sustained and ends with some regret. In the story “Maledetto,” Carone depicts the anxieties of new parenthood through a family who are worried their child will be born unlucky. There is a sprinkling of magic in her writing, which is most visible in the story “Guardian Demon.” The story begins like a fairy tale with the opening line, “Once upon a time there was a demon who, invisible to human eyes, roamed the streets of Naples” (73). In this story, a man meets his end when a demon who has been watching over him catches up to him. The theme of loss is great in this piece, as he must leave behind his family.
Other stories focus on a single character, such as the story “The Mayor of Piazza Bellini.” In this story, we meet a well loved dog who has lived his whole life in Naples. Another story, “Meno male,” depicts a man whose skills would be suited for a different job other than the one he has, but he still counts himself fortunate to have a job. The love in this story is Mario’s love for his work and the loss is his inability to find work in a job that would properly utilize his talents. This shows how Carone explores the different kinds of love that exist beyond simply romantic or familial. These stories focusing on one character offer the reader a personal connection with the people and the city, and they tend to have a lighter tone to them and alternate with the stories of more romantic love and subsequent loss of that love.
Carone’s collection of short stories is an enjoyable and quick read for anyone who wants to peer through a window into this city. Her stories of love and loss will connect with the reader and invite them to take a closer look not only at Naples, but perhaps the love in their own lives.
Boombox Serenade, Joey Nicoletti, BlazeVOX [books], 2019, 102p
Reviewed by Danielle Maggiore
Joey Nicoletti’s fourth collection of poetry, Boombox Serenade, is one that weaves the theme of connection and acceptance throughout with the recurring motifs of cultural identity and music. The latter is easy to find, from the cover art and layout of the collection being split into sections labelled “Side A” and “Side B” to the numerous poems that take their names from song titles, such as “Spanish Harlem” (Ben E. King), “Do You Know the Way to San Jose?” (Dionne Warwick), and “Lovesong” (The Cure), just to name a few.
Aside from those titles and mentions of the songs within the poems themselves, the poem “Boombox Serenade”, which gave its name to the collection as a whole, lists a series of songs and the people Nicoletti feels connected to through those songs. The wide variety of songs he includes shows how personal they are to him, as each person mentioned not only got a song but a little message along with it. For example, he says to “…Please begin / with Jackson / by June Carter and Johnny Cash / for Robert, and for Angela, who writes prose / hotter than a pepper sprout” before moving on to vastly different songs, like the Cantina Theme from the Star Wars films, Eat It by Weird Al Yankovic, and Imagine by John Lennon.
The motif of cultural identity isn’t so blatantly obvious as that of music, but the subtle inclusion is just so beautifully done. You can see this in poems like “Higher Unlearning”, which opens with the lines “Do I have to shower each day / to keep my Mediterranean / hair and skin / in tip-top shape / as I was taught / when I was a child?”, and “Trash Site Genealogy”, in which Nicoletti recounts his family history in snippets of memories and common everyday items like “a newspaper, yellowed / as my father’s teeth”. Poems like these show the communal aspect of cultural identity, particularly in relation to his family, although Nicoletti’s spouse also makes several appearances throughout the collection.
The poem most focused on cultural identity is, in my opinion, “Capicola Slang”. It starts off with Nicoletti discussing his father’s choice of saying gabagool rather than the more proper capicola, tying this choice into his family’s “sense of being Italian, / American, and both, / with or without a hyphen.” He then moves to connect this very common Italian-American experience of “the bastardization” of Italian words as Nicoletti puts it to more personal experiences, such as his parents’ divorce, his mother’s death, and his father’s descent into sickness. It is this connection to his personal life that makes Nicoletti’s poetry feel so universal, as I’m sure every Italian-American can also tie these cultural experiences to their own personal ones.
Boombox Serenade is a well-crafted collection of poetry that uses motifs of cultural identity and music without overdoing them so much the reader gets sick of reading about them. Rather, each instance of these motifs was clearly chosen carefully and, whether obvious or subtly done, really shows off the overarching theme of interpersonal connections and acceptance.
INTERVIEW: Danielle Maggiore talks with Joey Nicoletti
DM:What is your writing process like? What was your main inspiration for Boombox Serenade?
JN:I lost a great deal of people in the past 3 years. Most of these deaths were sudden, and I found myself writing down my reactions down in notes on my phone, in part because I didn’t always have access to a journal, pen, or pencil when I first heard of the deaths. I usually write longhand, but typing enabled the rawness of my feelings to cascade on the screen quickly, and proved to be cathartic. I actually felt a little bit better after doing so, so I stayed with this process, although I wish the circumstances that made this happen were different.
After about 2 months or so, I saw that I had almost 50 short notes. I noticed that the older one were mostly despondent, and the newer ones were comparatively more upbeat. I looked at these notes and wondered if any of these notes might become poems. I grabbed a pencil and copied some of them into a notebook, and began to nip and tuck them here and there. Before I knew it, I had some new poems, the first of which was “Tony’s Birdhouse.” This poem was written to celebrate the life and work of Tony Hoagland, who I had the honor of working with as a graduate student at New Mexico State University. It pointed the way towards Boombox Serenade, whose poems have the DNA of sorrow and gratitude. They are attempts to sing the praises of not only people and places I love, but also of those human beings who have been immeasurably kind and generous to me throughout the course of my life. Thus, “Tony’s Birdhouse” is one of the more satisfying poems I have ever written, a pleasure which is made all the joyous by its inclusion in Volume 3.2 of Ovunque Siamo. Camerado, who touches Boombox Serenade, touches a grateful person.
In the respective maelstroms of such losses and gifts, I have made some new friends, all of whom have raised my awareness of just how stupidly lucky I am to not only be alive, but also to be living in such a fantastic place as Western New York (WNY). I now understand why Buffalo is called “The city of good neighbors.” As a result, there’s a great deal of Buffalo, Niagara Falls, Grand Island, and other WNY locales, peppered with some New York City, Long Island, dashes of New Mexico, and other places. The WNY people who I have been off-the-charts fortunate to have met, let alone have had the honor of getting to know and be friends with in these places have given me joy, support, comfort, hope, and have inspired me to keep moving forward in an increasingly, as a former student I worked with put it, “insane and unpredictable world.” If I don’t read Tony’s wonderful book Donkey Gospel, I don’t go to New Mexico State University to learn my craft. If I don’t go to New Mexico State University, I don’t get my first college/university teaching experiences. I don’t meet my spouse, and how insanely different my life would be. The state motto for New Mexico is “Land of Enchantment.” Thanks to Tony’s work; his teachings; his kindness; his generosity; his friendship, I can vouch for this. In fact, I dare say that both, my personal and professional existence might be best described as a life of enchantment, and Boombox Serenade celebrates that.
DM:What poem from this collection are you most proud of and why?
JN:In addition to “Tony’s Birdhouse”, I’m especially proud of, in no particular order, “Motherfucking Jeopardy at the Gypsy Parlor,” because it’s a poem for the living; “Encouragement,” because it touches on my upbringing and passions for learning and unlearning old and new habits of mind and heart; “Poem Where I Become a Fan of The A-Team, because it’s a homage to the past, present, and future, and “Boombox Serenade,” because it’s the book’s crescendo and sign-off. Philip Levine discussed his writing as a means to “pay tribute to those who taught me that my life was a sacred and holy thing.” In my work I try to give thanks, praise, and gratitude to the people and places who did—and continue to do the same for me, albeit from a second-generation Italian American perspective. This is the crux of Boombox Serenade’s matter, where most of the poems are elegies, tributes/homages, and long-overdue valentines.
DM:What interests or hobbies do you have that you find fuel your creativity?
JN:For me, poetry is language and rhythm, taking off their clothes and having a fabulous time together. This is to say that I am into connection: the simple act of being with people is an interest of mine that fosters creativity. Friends and family are one in the same to me, so my creativity is fueled by a plethora of sources, including being with family; reading comic books and graphic novels; watching baseball and American football; streaming movies and TV shows new and old; listening to music in private or at concerts; being near or with animals; art, especially painting: anything to do with Marc Chagall; reading; more reading; and food, glorious food: cooking, shopping, prepping, planning, and eating. I also seem to think clearly when I take showers. Did I mention food?
DM:What other writers/poets do you love to read?
JN:This is a list that could go on for a decade and still be incomplete. That said, Langston Hughes and Walt Whitman are the bookends in my shelf of fave writers. I am also smitten with the works of Lawrence Ferlinghetti, Philip Lamantia, Diane di Prima, Maria Mazziotti Gillan, Grace Cavalieri, Michael Martone, Rachel Guido de Vries, George Guida, Samuele Pardini, Jennifer Martelli, Gerry LaFemina, Nicole Santalucia, Peter Covino, Kim Addonizio, Louisa Calio, Jennifer Militello, Martha Silano, Mario Puzo, Richard Russo, Tom Perrotta, John Fante, Jerre Mangione, Gil Fagiani, Maria Lisella, Helen Barolini, Fred Gardaphé, Michelle Messina Reale, Zora Neale Hurston, Juliana Gray, Anis Shivani, Jamaica Kincaid, Margaret Atwood, Lauren Goodwin Slaughter, LaShonda Katrice Barnett, Claudia Emerson, Ralph Waldo Emerson, A. Van Jordan, Toni Morrison, Juan Felipe Herrera, Ta-Nehisi Coates, George Orwell, David Sedaris, Stan Lee, Philip Levine, Gloria Anzaldúa, Thomas Lux, Frank O’Hara, Arundhati Roy, Lucille Clifton, Stanley Kunitz, Stephen Dobyns, Maxine Hong Kingston, and Tony Hoagland, among many, many others.
DM:How would you describe yourself as an Italian-American writer?
JN:Blessed. Proud. Inspired. Curious. To think of all that each one of my ancestors—as is the case with many other immigrants before and after them, and still suffer— endured just to get to the United States of America (or any new country): famine, sickness, poverty; to consider the countless sacrifices my parents and nonni made—my Nonno Giovanni was buried alive while a working at a construction site just months after he arrived: my Nonna Ida became the breadwinner of my mother’s family, for instance; all of the hours my parents worked, just so I could have school supplies, a fighting chance at making a life, as well as a living. While one does not need higher education to become a writer, multiple degrees are needed to instruct it on the college/university level. My parents dropped out of high school, but they impressed the value of an education on me. I was a sickly child, and my father, who saw that I liked reading, encouraged this passion by bringing home a stack of comic books to read whenever I was ill. My mother took me with her just about every time she went to a library or book store in my boyhood. My nonni always gave me money to buy books and magazines at their local convenience store if I wanted to go on my own or if I was picking up items for Sunday dinner or anything else. To me, being Italian also means being American, since I was born in the states and learned of my heritage here. It also means being loving, passionate, supportive, tough, diligent, persistent, resilient, woke, and empathetic. To be an Italian American writer is to pay homage to my special heritage and the people who made it possible for me to write, teach, learn, unlearn, and learn; to share information, feelings, viewpoints, and ideas with anyone who is interested in doing so; it is to be encouraged, supported, and informed, and to inform, encourage, and support others; it is to give everything I have to anything I do or attempt to accomplish as my parents, nonni, and ancestors taught me in their own inimitable ways. Because of them, I have both, and a mission to investigate the immigrant experience from a second-generation Italian American perspective, and I am eternally thankful.
I also feel that to be an Italian-American writer is to promote other Italian-American writers, and I do so joyfully, on and off the page, in and beyond the walls of any room. I can only hope to give back as much as others have given to me, such as organizations like IAWA and IASA, or publications such as Voices in Italian Americana and Ovunque Siamo. But by God, I won’t stop trying, like all Italian-American writers, past, present, and current; like my distant relatives, nonni, and parents in every day of their lives.
DM:Finally, is there anything else you’d like to talk about or let our readers know?
JN:Thank you kindly! Grazie mille. I appreciate you beyond measure, dear reader, not just for taking a moment or two from your busy lives to listen to what I or any other writer (especially those of Italian descent!) has to say, but also because we are all here together here and now. Boombox Serenade is an attempt to give thanks, praise, and props to people and places who I love immeasurably, some of whom I didn’t tell or express often enough when I had the opportunity. I want to do so while I still can. To this ongoing mission, Boombox Serenade is my playlist of gratitude; it’s a starting point for a conversation I want to have with the world, and one that I hope goes on indefinitely. In the immortal words of R.E.M., “Let’s begin the begin.”