INTERVIEW WITH DANTE DI STEFANO
Rappahannock Review Poetry Editors: We love the evocative imagery of the sea in “Nocturne.” What inspired you to tie these aquatic themes into a nursery room setting?
Dante Di Stefano: My three-year-old daughter often pretends the floor is an ocean full of jellyfish and crabs. My wife and I devote a portion of each day trying to avoid getting stung and pinched. My daughter loves rivers, seas, the rain, mermaids, baby sharks, and all kinds of submarine life.
I’ve always loved books about the ocean, especially Melville’s seafaring novels and stories. One of my prized books is Richard Ellis’ Encyclopedia of the Sea. I also love Ellis’ book about giant squids. My mind contains multitudes of algae and driftwood and underwater volcanoes and angelfish and plesiosaurs and all manner of cephalopods.
Also, any parent who has put a fussy child to bed or has woken in the night to soothe a crying infant, knows that a certain peacefulness sometimes descends upon a room, a feeling of immensity and serenity that feels oceanic, in the moments just before and just after the little one goes to sleep.
And it occurs to me that when my little girl sees a hardwood floor as a coral reef, she’s inside a poem better than any I could ever compose.
RR: We’re drawn in by the subtlety of the storytelling and the distinct sense of voice in the poem, with its surprising images and constellations of sound. How did you develop voice and the music in the language of the poem?
DS: The poem was written in ten-syllable lines, in a kind of Miltonic blank verse that I’ve been working in for the past ten years. I loosened up the lines a bit and smoothed out and varied some of the cadences as I wrote the poem. There are a few eleven syllable lines in the final poem and the rhythms are not strictly iambic. Counting syllables and imposing strictures from the beginning helps me to arrive at the distinctive music of the poem. Ultimately, though, it’s such a magic thing to be in that space of composition and to move intuitively and fluidly through a first draft. I never really know the source of a poem’s music, voice, and content. Composing a poem is kind of like what I imagine deep-sea diving might be like—suspended in the depths—as exhilarating, as terrifying, as dependent upon one’s training, experience, acuity, and athleticism.
RR: How do you begin a new poem—through free-writing, planning, or some other method?
DS: “Nocturne” started after I saw a painting by an artist named Amy Hoi Ngan Hsiao. The painting, an abstract acrylic piece titled “Sparkle Night,” reminded me of the ocean and the sky simultaneously. The painting made me think of Chagall’s flying brides and angels and whale song and the Book of Jonah. Chopin’s piano nocturnes came to mind and I listened to them, daydreaming about my daughter. I thought about a star I sometimes see from my bedroom window. The first line came to me and then the line about seeing the star. The next day at work during my lunch break I wrote the first draft of the poem in about forty minutes.
Many of my poems start this way. I usually carry around in my head either a line or a phrase until I have time to riff it into a poem. Within a line or two, I usually know what kind of form the poem will take and what type of formal constraints I want to impose upon myself as I compose it. I rarely go back and radically re-envision the form, although sometimes that happens too. Often, my wife will suggest a topic and/or a title for a poem. I write about books and poems and music and art and about things that I read in the newspaper. So, the inciting music might come from these sources, or from something a coworker or a friend says. Now that I am a father, my daughter has spurred much of my poetry and my poetry has become a means for me to talk fortitude and love and strength and truth to the woman she will one day be.
RR: You mention in your bio that you’re a poetry editor. How has this experience helped you develop your own styles in writing?
DS: I’m the poetry editor for DIALOGIST and I read submissions for Bellevue Literary Review. I’ve also worked for Harpur Palate and Arcadia (now defunct) in the past. Editorial work does several things for me.
1) It keeps me from being too self-involved, shifting my focus from my own poetry to the poems of others. Solipsism is one of the great enemies of poetry. Editorial work shreds what Blake called the “mind-forged manacles” of self-interest.
2) It reminds me to remain protean in my approach to poetry. I see so many different styles of poetry, so many different aesthetics. The endless variegation of poetry never ceases to amaze me. I never want to be an adherent to any type of orthodoxy.
3) It enriches my reading life. I always want my writing life to remain subordinate to a rich, challenging, and wild reading life. As an editor, you get to be one of the first readers, sometimes the first reader of a poem. What an honor that is!
4) It connects me to other writers. Even if I don’t develop friendships with the poets I publish, I feel connected to their work. I feel blessed to be a small part of someone else’s life in poetry. I invoke E.M. Forster’s epigraph to Howard’s End as the golden rule for writers: “Only Connect.”
RR: What’s the most recent book you read and fell in love with?
DS: I feel like I fall in love with every book I read. I’m reading Marcel Proust’s In Search of Lost Time for the first time. I’m almost done with the second volume. Proust’s anfractuous sentences, his dramatization of obsessional, lacerating, crazy young love, and his phenomenological insights overwhelm and undo me. I’m finally learning why so many people love Proust.
I can’t not mention a book of poetry, so I also just finished an advance copy of a book called Trio: Planet Parable, Run: A Verse-History of Victoria Woodhull, and Endless Body. This is a collection of three poetry books in one by the poets Karen Donovan, Diane Raptosh, and Daneen Wardrop. It’s an incredible experience, reading these three masterful poets in one volume. Wardrop passed away recently, and the book is a fitting tribute to her extraordinary body of work. Look for Trio in August 2021 from Etruscan Press.
Dante Di Stefano’s work in Issue 8.2: