Carmine Di Biase on Creating the Poetry of American Rondeau [INTERVIEW]

Viewless Wings Poetry Podcast host James Morehead interviews poet Carmine Di Biase about his upcoming chapbook American Rondeau (Finishing Line Press). Carmine writes about English and Italian literature, and his poems have appeared in various journals. Last year his English translations of thirteen poems by Cesare Pavese appeared in L’anello che non tiene: Journal of Modern Italian Literature. Occasionally he reviews books for the Times Literary Supplement. He has recently retired as Distinguished Professor of English at Jacksonville State University in Alabama.

An edited transcript of the interview with Carmine is included below. The full interview, including Carmine reading selections from American Rondeau is available on the Viewless Wings Poetry Podcast:

James Morehead: Before discussing your wonderful upcoming book, American Rondeau, I’d like to ask a couple of questions about your years as an English Professor. What poetic gift did you most want to share with your students?

Carmine Di Biase: “What poetry can do for people who don’t write it or don’t aspire to become artists of any kind, is give them company to express something that they have felt and haven’t given a voice to that may make them feel adrift or alone. To discover a disturbing sentiment or nagging inchoate feeling in a structured articulate print form I think can be a gift of immeasurable value and a tremendous consolation.”

James: What did you learn about giving effective feedback in your years working with students?

Carmine: “I think sincerity needs to be rewarded no matter what the formal defects of a piece of writing might be. If the sentiment is sincere, it needs to be rewarded and acknowledged because there probably will be signs of some kind of emerging structure. I do believe that every sincerely felt and expressed sentiment is looking for its form — its most natural, most economical form. In that way, effective feedback comes from within and that’s what I’ve always tried to do with my students. Whether they’re writing a poem, sonnets, essay, or piece of fiction, I’ve always tried to tell my students to hang on very tightly to the impulse that led them to start the piece, because it’s from there that everything else will come, including the form.”

James: As we’ll come back to later, you have a love of Shakespeare. I watched Joel Coen’s “The Tragedy of Macbeth” and it made me hungry for more Shakespeare. I’m gradually making my way through each of Shakespeare’s plays. Why have his plays achieved such longevity, and how can modern ears benefit from words written hundreds of years ago?

Carmine: “This is a question that keeps getting asked every year and every year there have been complaints about there being too much Shakespeare. I went in the year 2000 to a conference in Long Island at Hofstra University where a member in the audience actually called for a moratorium on Shakespeare productions because he felt that they had been so bad in recent years. Yet, the plays keep on living. I’ve been working as a dramaturg for the Shakespeare project in Northeast, Alabama. Our goal is to put on a Shakespeare play aimed at young audiences free of charge, but with professional actors mixed in with student actors. It’s amazing how accessible the plays can be made. I think that the reason that Shakespeare is still such a draw is that even in his own time, the settings and the characters were not local. Except for the very English plays, the settings and the characters are dislocated. The stories that he tells are of a fantastical world that is neither England, nor Italy, nor Austria, nor France, nor Africa. Yet, this kind of kaleidoscopic mishmash of characters, ethnicities, and locales results in a kind of universally adaptable, universally accessible, and appealing vision of humanity.”

James: In “A Deed without a Name” you write, “It’s true, I carved a gaping hole into Macdonwald and his innards steamed as they came out. / So, yes, my sword smoked, but I never cut a man in half, lengthwise, from the navel to the chin.” In several of your poems I imagine you winking at the reader – there’s a mischievous humor in your poetry. How do you approach drawing from source material as iconic as Shakespeare?

Carmine: “That poem actually comes from an article that I wrote on Macbeth years ago. There’s a moment in Macbeth, and Macbeth is one of the best-known plays, there’s a line in the encounter between the witches in Macbeth that snagged me when I was reading the play for the first time. Macbeth asks the witches, ‘What is it that you do?’ and they answer ‘A deed without a name’. It became a quest for me for several years to figure out what the witches mean by ‘a deed without a name’. The more I pondered, read the play, and read about the play, the more clear it became to me that Macbeth, and in fact, all of Shakespeare’s work is a kind of dramatic presentation of Shakespeare himself learning about the power of language and the power of naming. If you look at the play carefully, you see that the most poetic moments are the ones that involve naming in one way or another. This isn’t just proper names, but the naming of things, people, and lists as well. The thing or person that is named is dominated by whoever’s doing the naming. 

“When Duncan first meets Macbeth on the stage, he says “my Cawdor, my Glamis”, and it could easily escape the fact that he’s using a possessive pronoun. That’s the point when Macbeth is named Thane of Cawdor and he’s supposed to be happy because he’s been promoted. But he’s been given a traitor’s name. The first Cawdor is going to be executed for treason. Now, he’s Thane of Cawdor in addition to being Thane of Glamis, which refers to specific territory, but the problem is, he’s been given a traitor’s name. He’s been given this name by the king, and it’s from the king that all of his identity has ever come from and will ever come. This is the case unless he kills the king and becomes king himself. 

“At the very end of the play, Malcolm is grim because and repeats at the end of the play what happened at the beginning of the play. He says ‘Henceforth be Earls, the first that ever Scotland’, but of course, we know there’s another Macbeth in front of him somewhere. There’s another person bristling at the sudden realization that all of his being will forever come from above and not from within. This is why I think Macbeth never enjoys a moment of his position of being king. What he really wants is not to be king, but rather not to be forever subject to the king’s whims. 

“Duncan is an imperceptible, dim-visioned, foolish man. When he arrives at Macbeth’s castle, he remarks something about how it is such a sweet and lovely place and how they are going to have a good time. When the first Cawdor is revealed as a traitor, he says something along the lines of there’s no art to reading a man’s mind in his face, meaning he never expected this from a Cawdor. And of course, he doesn’t learn anything from the experience and repeats his mistake with the next Thane of Cawdor.”

James: Your book American Rondeau is so wonderfully playful with language, combining complex forms with literary references, yet tackling contemporary, and in many cases, personal subjects. I’m fascinated by poets that employ received forms so effectively. How do you choose the form your poem uses?

Carmine: “The book came together gradually and it dawned on me that the mixture of poems inspired by Shakespeare with a larger proportion of poems drawn from my own life form a metaphorical dance with American life. My parents came from Italy, so I grew up speaking Italian in my home. I still speak Italian today with my brothers and with my father who is still alive. I studied Italian also because I didn’t want to lose it and that experience partly led me to literature because I started out in engineering. I was drawn to Shakespeare because so many of his plays are set in Italy and the Italy of his imagination. I was stunned later to learn that there’s no evidence that Shakespeare ever traveled outside of England, let alone to Italy. He knew Italians and probably knew John Florio, a famous lexicographer who was the son of, I believe, a Jewish Italian immigrant. 

“I was drawn to restrictive forms for all kinds of reasons, but one of them is because some of them are still appropriate. I wrote a sestina in this book and it’s about my grandfather. A sestina has a very exacting form because it’s composed of six line stanzas. If you number the final word of every line of a given stanza, that word is used as the final word of every line of the rest of the stanzas. But, the pattern has to be repeated. If you number the lines 1 2 3 4 5 6, then in stanza two, the end words have to appear in this kind of interlacing pattern: 6 1 5 2 4 3. The following stanza does the same thing. The concluding stanza is only three lines, each of them ending in one of the six words, but containing another of the six words inside of it someplace. So it’s the most restrictive form imaginable. 

“So, when James Woodward, my colleague in music, asked me to write a poem in the voice of Lady Macbeth, he just gave me one prompt. He told me he wanted Lady Macbeth in front of a modern bathroom mirror mulling over what had just happened to her. So, I decided to put it in the form of a sestina because Lady Macbeth is a trapped character, the claustrophobic and oppressive nature of this form matches her frame of mind. Then, I did the same kind of thing for slightly different reasons with Puck from Midsummer Night’s Dream and Gloucester from King Lear. This is a very old form that goes all the way back to the Troubadour poets before Donte. A lot of these forms have to do with dance and they were performative. They were forms that the poet’s played with and competed with in public settings. 

“The ballad is clearly related to dance, but its content was the same kind of content that we see in our tabloid magazines — sensational crimes, freakish births, famous people murdered in gruesome ways. Some years ago, I found a story perfect for a ballad and it was the story of Mr. Meiwes who is now in prison because he found someone who would allow him to eat him. Meiwes is the infamous German cannibal whose story was told in a number of news stories and he eventually wrote an autobiography. I invented almost none of the details for that ballad, except the dialogue, and some of the dialogue is true. But almost all of the ballad is drawn from news accounts of this gruesome event. It was the kind of story that 16th century and 15th century ballad mongers would have sold at their books stalls.”

James: In “Elegy to a Cyclist” you do something all poets are called to do from time to time, to eulogize a friend or family member. It’s one of the hardest poems to write, usually without forewarning or much time to complete the task. Your poem closes with “Come down, some sunny day, and ride with us, And lay your winged shadow on our backs.” For poets being asked to write a poem in memoriam, how do you recommend approaching the task?

Carmine: “I think the most important thing in writing an elegy is to determine the most precious gift the deceased person has left you with and go from there. The people we miss never really die because we remember them in certain ways for certain reasons and their presence. Their presence comes back to us at certain moments when we need them. It’s almost automatic.

“Dave was the subject of my poem. At times, I’ll ask myself, ‘What would Dave do at such a moment? What would Dave say?’. He was a ferociously competitive cyclist, but he was so taciturn and never bragged. If he saw somebody bragging, he would teach him a lesson and put a stop to it even if it killed him. I later learned from his wife, the day after a hard ride with us, he could barely walk. He would lounge on the couch all day recovering, but this is something he would never reveal to us. The lesson about restraint was a precious one I gained from Dave, and it radiates throughout my own work. Dave was not a writer, I believe he did quality control at a manufacturing plant nearby. Practically all we had in common was the bicycle. I wish I had told him how much he contributed to my ideas about poetry and writing prose. What he did in his athleticism is what a poet does in disciplining the pen. I think locating that most treasured gift they leave us with, will no doubt turn into a story, form, and shape.”

Listen to the full interview with Carmine, including Carmine reading selections from American Rondeau, on the Viewless Wings Poetry Podcast.

American Rondeau (Finishing Line Press) by Carmine Di Biase
Carmine Di Biase

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