Interview with Gil Fagiani- Poet/Author

Gil Fagiani’s poetry collection Rooks (Rain Mountain Press, 2007) is set at Pennsylvania Military College in the 1960s, his poetry chapbook Grandpa’s Wine (Poets Wear Prada in 2008) focuses on his family’s immigrant generation, and has been translated into Italian by Paul D’Agostino. His book of poetry Chianti in Connecticut was inspired by his childhood in Springdale, Connecticut (Bordighera, pending 2010). Finishing Line Press will be publishing in 2012 his new chapbook Serfs of Psychiatry which is set in a state psychiatric hospital.
 
Gil’s poems and translations have been published in more than a dozen anthologies, as well as such newspapers and journals as The New York Times, The Paterson Literary Review, Mudfish, Skidrow Penthouse, Descant, Philadelphia Poets, Identity Theory, Lips, The Ledge, Italian Americana, The Journal of Italian Translation, and Gradiva.
 
He has translated into English, poetry written in Italian, Abruzzese dialect, and Spanish. He co-curates the monthly open reading of the Italian American Writers’ Association at the Cornelia Street Café, NYC, and is the Associate Editor of Feile-Festa: A Literary Arts Journal.
 
A social worker (L.C.S.W.) and addiction specialist (C.A.S.A.C.) by profession, Gil directed a residential program for recovering drug addicts and alcoholics in Downtown Brooklyn for twenty-one years.
 
What was the motivating factor that started you writing?

My first sustained period of writing began in the early 1970s. I participated in the protest politics of the time, and writing served as an expression and documentation of my activism. Through advocacy writing—of leaflets, newspaper articles, and position papers—I strove to raise people’s consciousness about such social justice issues as health care, poverty, and racism.

What is your genre and who is your intended audience?

Today, poetry is my main genre, but I also write short stories, book reviews, essays, and memoir pieces.

I try to reach as many people as possible, and take particular satisfaction in attracting people who aren’t usually a part of the “literary scene.”

Of course, like most writers I value feedback about my work from fellow writers. In this regard, I’m fortunate to belong to Brevitas, an online poetry circle dedicated to the short poem (14 lines or less). Twice a month I exchange two poems with about 50 Brevitarians, some of whom make suggestions for revisions.

 What are you currently writing?

I just finished a book review of Robert Cohen’s, Freedom’s Orator: Mario Savio and the Radical Legacy of the 1960s, which will be published in The Italian American Review.

I’ve proofread the galleys of Serfs of Psychiatry, my new poetry chapbook that will soon be published by Finishing Line Press. It was inspired by my 14 years with the New York State Office of Mental Health, and in particular, the 12 years I worked in a state psychiatric hospital.

I recently completed a book-length poetry manuscript entitled Logos, which focuses on my experiences in a therapeutic community for drug addicts in the South Bronx, and my involvement in the radical politics of the 70s.

I continue to write six-line poems known as fulcrums, inspired by the Cuban American poet Pablo Medina. As a member of Brevitas, I submit two fulcrums twice a month. To date, I’ve written more than a hundred and am considering translating a selection of them into Italian to create a bilingual book.

Later this year, Poets Wear Prada will publish a bilingual edition—English/ Italian—of my 2008 chapbook Grandpa’s Wine. The translator, Paul D’Agostino, holds a Ph.D. in Italian and is a poet, fiction writer and the Assistant Editor of the Journal of Italian Translation.

How do you make time to write? 

I’m wedded to structure, having been a cadet at Pennsylvania Military College from 1963 to 1967, which served as the inspiration for Rooks (Rain Mountain Press, 2007), my first book-length collection of poetry.

Since I retired in July 2011, my writing time is more flexible. In the past, I would write early in the morning before my workday started, a bit in the afternoon, and perhaps in the evening.

Now I think more in terms of at least one quality writing period each day. Since I don’t have to contend with a work schedule, this period can vary from early morning to evening. The great bonanza of retirement is that at times I can devote a day—even two—almost entirely to literary activities.

What inspires you to write? 

My writing could be spurred by a dreamy bittersweet memory: a scene, a song, or a few words of dialogue. Sometimes a news story serves as my muse. When I’m in this mode, I feel an urgency to express myself through the written word. This usually takes the form of a poem, which is accompanied by a feeling resembling the “high” of a mild intoxicant.

Once I’ve created a rough draft, I’ll continue to work on the poem, put it away, return to it, thus beginning the revision stage, when a poem is honed, deconstructed, and reconstructed. This process can go on for years.

When I believe I have it right, it feels preserved, even immortal; I experience a sense of wholeness and calm.

What would you have done differently in your writing life, if anything at all? 

This is a difficult question because before I retired my time was much more limited, and I had to choose carefully how to best use it. My tendency was to favor writing and to a lesser extent, organizing book manuscripts, over other activities. In retrospect, I think what I did made sense, but I pay a high price for not also learning how to more effectively promote my work, and extending my literary network. I am trying to rectify this by emulating other writers who have developed marketing strategies.

I also translate Italian poetry and some Italian dialect poetry into English. I believe there is an intimate relationship between translating someone else’s poem into another language and writing your own. In many ways all writing is translating, because even when we write in our native tongue we are translating feelings, sounds and images into words, sentences and stanzas. 

I regret not having lived yet in Italy for at least six months, so I could have acquired a better sense of Italian and dialect within their cultural matrix. I also have a love of Spanish, my second language, and again wish I could have spent more time in a Spanish-speaking country to deepen my understanding of the nuances of language and culture.

Tell us about your marketing strategy. 

My marketing strategy is limited, for example, I have an author’s page at Amazon.com, and continue to learn how to employ social media to my advantage. For now my online presence is limited to an Amazon author site [http://www.amazon.com/Gil-Fagiani/e/B001K8UL8C] and a literary profile listed in Poets and Writers’ directory as well as a professional profile on LinkedIn

[http://www.linkedin.com/pub/gil-fagiani/47/ba5/87a].

I think in terms of constituencies: There are my friends and general literary acquaintances. When I’m involved with a book launch or literary activity, I contact them by email, and in some cases phone and snail mail. I will also drop off leaflets promoting my activities at other literary events. My five books of poetry are archived at Poets House.

Secondly, there is the Italian American community. I’m a member of the Board of Directors of the Italian American Writers Association (IAWA) and co-curate the monthly reading series at the Cornelia Street Café. I will mention from the stage what I’m doing, as well as circulate promotional leaflets to the audience. My profile is on the IAWA website, and I have an opportunity to post announcements in the IAWA Newsletter, as well as the online calendar of the John D. Calandra Institute of Italian American Studies, which is affiliated with Queens College.

I am also a member of the Calandra Institute’s Community Council, and at times present my work at their events, such as a conference they sponsored in 2010 on Italian Americans and Mental Health. I have also organized a series of bilingual readings—Italian or Italian dialect into English—with Brooklyn college professor, Luigi Bonaffini, who edits The Journal of Italian Translation.

Finally, there is the progressive political community. I am a founding member of the Vito Marcantonio Forum, and some of my work is posted on their website (http://www.vitomarcantonioforum.com). I have presented papers or read my work at such venues as the annual three-day conference of the Left Forum, and the Puffin Cultural Foundation, with Veterans for Peace. Two of my poems, “Pigs” and “Birding Near the Mexican Border,” can be found on the online journal New Verse News (www.newversenews.com).  

Does Your Spiritual Life Influence Your Writing? If So, How? 

Yes, it does in several ways. First, I feel a need to bear witness to scenes of injustice, such as anti-immigrant prejudice, and the official neglect of the mentally ill. Secondly, I try to give voice to those who rarely express themselves in a public literary forum, such as the institutionalized mentally ill, and career drug addicts and alcoholics. By giving them a voice, I hope to affirm their dignity. 

Finally, there is the issue of redemption, particularly as it relates to my years of substance abuse. By turning destructive experiences into the clay of poetry, I feel I have created something of value that I can pass on. 

I believe with few exceptions, people caught up in inhuman conditions are capable of committing inhuman acts against others. In my writing—and as a writer—I strive to be modest, truthful and explore the complexity of human suffering, including my own.

What Is Your Literary Community Burning Desire? 

Having friends in the literary community in Canada, I have become more sensitive to the benefits of government subsidies of the arts. I would like to see something similar to develop in this country, so that writing and literature wouldn’t be so beholden to expensive MFA writing programs and elite cultural brokers, thus limiting its reach to the general public. 

For more information, visit

http://www.amazon.com/Gil-Fagiani/e/B001K8UL8C

 

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