Interview with Thomas centolella
Conducted by Megan Ross Rodriguez and Julia Fox
Transcribed by Megan Ross Rodriguez
Megan Ross Rodriguez: Would you talk to us about your education and how you got into poetry?
Thomas Centolella: Well, I wrote my first poem at ten in Catholic school as an in-class assignment, and it turned out to be so impressive that the nun thought I had plagiarized it. And I said to her, But you just gave us this assignment, and I wrote it right here in class. So how could I have plagiarized it? And then she believed me, and she picked up the poem and said, Well, let me see if I can get this published somewhere. I was ten years old, right, and I never saw that poem again. And to this day I believe that she ripped me off and passed off that poem as one of her own. Ever since then I’ve been trying to prove to the world my worth as a poet. So it all started at ten.
Julia Fox: Do you feel like you’ll ever be able to do that? To prove your worth, if you haven’t already?
TC: No, probably not. It’s a constant process, you know. It’s like anything in life. It’s a constant process. There’s no endpoint. No terminus. That’s just a funny little story. I think you heard me say that when I went to Syracuse I was, for the first two years, doing film and video, but they didn’t have a major, and then I ran out of courses, and I loved it, and I felt like I have to do something creative here. I thought about painting because I’ve been drawing since I was a little kid and painting as well, but I didn’t like the structure. I didn’t like being in a studio for four hours painting from a model, for instance. So I said forget about that, and then I kind of stumbled into the writing program. I mean, I found out about it, but it was very competitive. You had to apply and submit poems, and I got rejected. So I thought, you know what, I handed in my stupid high school poems. I should write some new things, which I did, and then the next semester I got in. Then it just took off like a space shuttle. I mean, it was just incredible.
I had the good fortune of having teachers who recognized in me what I was capable of and then utterly encouraged me, so I never once felt I’m not sure that this is the right thing for me. It was just the opposite. This is absolutely the right thing for me. I went home after that first semester—I went home to my parents, and I said I’m changing my major from psychology to dual major in English lit and creative writing because I’m going to write poetry. And I think my mother said, Well, you know, whatever makes you happy. I looked at my father and he was nodding his head. He said, Yeah, that’s nice. And then: How are you going to make a living? Well, that’s a whole other thing. I didn’t worry about making a living, and actually by the time I got to be a junior I had a really great teacher, Philip Booth, who was from Maine. Julia [Raffel] might know of him. And he was extremely encouraging too about my talent, and where I could go, but he was very discouraging about looking at it as a career and trying to get a job, and again I was young enough to not worry about it. I would be sitting there in his office thinking, Yes, but look at you, you have this wonderful job at this great university, why can’t I be like you? So maybe, I can get a job. He was right though, it was very very difficult to get a job, but nonetheless I just kept doing it because I loved it so much. It felt as if this was what I was meant to do, and I’ve said for many years that, well, I like to quote Gary Snyder, who said that poetry is not a career, it’s a calling. And I feel like I was called, and I answered the call, and here I am. Still have to make a living though. So I got into teaching, a community college in Marin, north of San Francisco, and I love teaching. I mainly teach private workshops now though. So I only have one college course, and I’ve taught at universities too like San Francisco State, taught at Berkley extension, visiting writer to different colleges and universities, but mostly what I do now is I teach private workshops in poetry and in prose.
JF: Has teaching influenced your own personal writing?
TC: Teaching? Probably not, yeah, probably not. I’ve never thought of it that way. Can you give me an example of how it might have influenced me?
JF: We’ve talked to others, like Eula Biss was here and George Saunders, and they said the exchange of ideas and being in a new role, something to that effect. I don’t know if it’s true for everyone.
TC: Yeah, not so true for me, I think. Although, that question does remind me. Going back to Philip Booth, one day I said to him, What is more important to you: being a poet or being a teacher? And he said, When I’m being a poet, it’s being a poet. When I’m being a teacher, it’s being a teacher. And I thought that was a really good answer. So, as a student, you do not want a teacher who’s begrudgingly present because he or she has to make a living. You want a teacher who loves being there and is giving their all to you. And then when they’re home doing their writing, you don’t want to begrudge them forgetting about you and becoming the writer, going back to being the writer that they are, and that’s how I am, you know. When I’m there, I’m fully there, and I love being there, and when I’m home, I don’t really think about being a teacher. So for me there’s not a whole lot. If anything, teaching’s informed by being the writer. The writer isn’t being informed by being the teacher.
MRR: When we were talking about your poems in class, we looked at the different Views, and how the book starts with View #1, and then we get View #2, and View #8, and the students were curious about the Views. What was your process of writing those, and how long were you writing those, and where were you writing those, and where are all the other Views?
TC: I’m not telling. They’re in a secret vault in Geneva. It’s a great question. I figured somebody would ask me that. Well, let’s talk about process. For me, I don’t work with a predetermined sense of what I’m about to do. How does a book get created? For me, poem by poem. I don’t necessarily know in the middle of all that where it’s going, what the theme is going to be, is there going to be a theme, is it going to be a book of quite eclectic things that don’t necessarily add up to one giant theme for a book. So I’m just going at it poem by poem, right? So somewhere along the way I apparently thought of this concept called a View, and my guess, I don’t remember exactly, my guess is that I was looking at Hokusai’s Thirty-Six Views of Mount Fuji. Hokusai and Hiroshige are two of my favorite artists, and the last poem in that book is modeled after their work. One of the greatest pieces of art in art history is the Thirty-Six Views of Mount Fuji, and I have this gorgeous coffee table book at home that has both Hokusai and Hiroshige in it from an exhibit. James Michener owned these originals, an amazing collection. At any rate, that’s probably where I got the idea from. Would it be interesting to have a number of views of the same thing? But what would that thing be? And that thing is simply my life--to put it simply, and, you know, un-mysteriously.
But I’m also fascinated by ancient history and art through history. So, something that comes down to us quite often is the fragments of what once existed in a stunningly integrated way, and we don’t get the entire integration. We just get fragments—Sappho, Greek statuary, you know there’s an archeological dig and they find a bunch of lovely things, but not every item in that thing, whatever it is, and I think that led me to a sense of mystery. It always leads me, ancient anything leads me, to a sense of mystery, but this is where we all came from. This is what preceded us. How many people think of that on a day-to-day basis? I do. I don’t know that a lot of people do, but I do, and that informs always a sense of mystery and inspiration for me. In other words, I am part of, the little me is part of, this much greater entity called the world, and the world goes back a long ways. So when I see even a fragment that speaks to me, it hums and vibrates with mystery and wonder, and I love that.
So, I think that, probably, I’m giving you this very cerebral approach to it. But all of that happens subliminally. That happens subconsciously. I’m not aware of it while I’m doing it. I kind of stumble into it. It’s like you’re walking through a forest on a path, and then suddenly you decide I don’t want to be on the path, let’s just take a side tour here and see where that goes. And sometimes it actually leads back to the path, but on the way back it’s very interesting, and it’s not what most people are looking at from the path. I just follow wherever the instincts take me, and in this book I think once I stumbled onto the idea of Views, I liked the idea that I wasn’t going to write in this linear way, that it wasn’t going to be View #1, View #2, View #3, all the way through thirty Views. That seemed too programmatic to me. So there you have it. I mean, this is my homage to the fragments of ancient art and history, I think, which I was not aware of while I was doing it. Only later do you look back and think, Oh, I think that’s what it’s all about. It’s a good question.
JF: When I read through this, I noticed, just in lines throughout all of your poems, you have almost advice, sometimes coming from “the oracle,” sometimes through the speaker, maybe not so direct, but to me that’s what it felt a little bit like, especially doing goodness and being, not to sound cheesy, but kind of striving toward goodness or positivity, and to me it almost felt like a quiet call to action. Do you think that would be an accurate way to say that, or maybe you don’t agree with that, and if it is—
TC: Tell me what you mean by quiet call to—I love that phrase, I mean you should write that down, you probably did. It’s right there. What does action mean to you?
JF: I was thinking of it in kind of a broader way. I think that’s why it became a question I wanted to ask because like, Do good, be good, sit with ideas worth sitting over and thinking about, and try to just absorb what you can and manifest it in a positive kind of way. But then I was like, How do you do that, how does one, maybe in your personhood, or maybe as a writer, or whatever the overlap of those roles are? I don’t know.
TC: Do you have a few hours? I mean it’s a great question, and you might be sorry you asked me that question, we could just talk and talk and talk about that. So let’s go back to the oracle because that’s from a poem called “Drifting,” and I used the oracle as a motif throughout the poem. What is this mysterious oracle? For me it was a device to call on, a source of wisdom as a guiding force for the protagonist of the poem. So the poem is written in first person. There’s a protagonist who’s obviously on some kind of quest or journey, and is having a hard time with it, and needs some kind of guidance, as we all do in our lives. And, so, I hit on the Greek idea of an oracle, where that’s what people did. They used the priest to interpret what the mysterious, whatever it was, was uttering to the people and giving advice. I had fun with that. I had a lot of fun with that because what I did was I went to different sources in history and borrowed liberally from them to create one oracle. So, there’s a passage in there, and if you can keep this secret I’ll let you in on it. No, wait a minute this is going to be published. Sorry, I can’t say another word (laughs). No, I mean, this would be, I hope this would be interesting in terms of how one writes. There’s a passage in there in which there’s a quote from the oracle, half of which in that passage is literally Spinoza and the other half of which is literally the Dalai Lama, giving an answer to the question, Can you tell me in one sentence what Buddhism is? When he was at Cornell, they asked him that. Someone in the audience said, Can you say in one sentence what Buddhism is—and he did. That’s how brilliant the Dalai Lama is, and he said, If you can help others, then help them. If you cannot, at least refrain from harm. But the first half of that is: Not to laugh, not to lament, not to curse, but to understand. That’s Spinoza. So I’m putting them together. That’s what I did all the way through with the oracle. I just borrowed from what I call wisdom sources to create the oracle. It was great fun. Wonderful. All right. That’s a little secret.
Call to action. Well, the oracle’s emblematic of that, but all through the book, I think there’s a spirit of hankering after what is the right way to live, you know. And how do you do that? And there are different ways of doing it, it’s just a matter of, Can you actually do it? Can you apply yourself? To go back to Buddhism, and there’s a very strong Buddhist influence in this book, Buddha devised the Eightfold Path, in which here is a very structured regimen for you. You want to know how to do it—I will tell you how to do it. Here are eight ways to do it. One of those ways is right diligence, which means you have to keep at it. You have to keep persevering, even when it is incredibly difficult, even when you’re tired, even when you feel like you’re getting nowhere. You have to keep going. Buddha was a wonderful poet in his own right. He employed metaphors all the time and the metaphor for diligence was that you’re going to cross a muddy river, you’re not going to—I’m paraphrasing—you’re not going to just skim across it, you’re going to be more like the ox who has to struggle through the mud. And I love that because a lot of days feel muddy, you know. You feel like the ox, not some fish that can just swim quickly across to the other side. The other great Buddhist metaphor is that—I always love this—he firmly believed in being a light for people, a guide, but once people reached enlightenment, or whatever you want to call it yourself, then his role is over. So he never considered himself to be a god of a religion, which is what it became. He was a teacher, like Jesus, a great teacher. And once the teaching registered with the student, the disciple, then the role was over. So he said, I am a raft going across this great river to transport you, and then when you get to the other side, you don’t need the raft anymore. And, by the way, if you don’t like my raft, great, find a different raft, I mean, whatever raft suits you. It doesn’t have to be me. I’m not the ultimate in rafts. So, that’s very appealing to me, you know, to have that kind of perspective and humility and, actually, wisdom. I call that wisdom. You know—I’m not the greatest teacher or the best teacher, or the one suited for you. At the end of his life he said this—and I think it was supposed to be on his deathbed: Be your own light. Be your own light. Easier said than done. I hope that answered your question.
MRR: I am curious, based on what you were saying, you used the phrase wisdom sources, so I wonder what are some other wisdom sources for you?
TC: Well, I mean I’ll tell you this is one reason I love literature, and poetry in particular, because I find a lot of inspiration and guidance in reading the great writers. But you know, a lot of the great writers, so to speak, were not fiction writers or poets. I just mentioned Buddha, and Jesus is another one. I mean, if you just look at the New Testament without getting all caught up in religiosity—do you know that Thomas Jefferson came out with a version of the New Testament in which he took out all of the miracles because he wanted to concentrate on the teaching, not on the miraculous aspects? Is this personage truly half mortal, half divine, the divine part of which can perform miracles at will? Or should we concentrate on this personage who had an enormous amount to say to us that is absolutely useful and brilliant and so on. Well, he decided, I don’t really need to know about the divine. The divine doesn’t say anything, speak to me. The teaching aspects speak to me. So he paid for it himself. He published a whole bunch of New Testaments, and I think they’re leather-bound. They must be worth God knows what now. That’s the New Testament without the miracles, and that’s to the point.
There are so many sources that are not what I would call strictly literary, but interestingly enough I find these sources to be very poetic. There’s Zen Flesh Zen Bones by Paul Reps, which is fantastic. A collection of little Zen stories that are only a paragraph long or a page or two long, like prose poems or micro fiction or flash fiction. And what they are is wisdom lessons, you know, but couched in stories. Same thing with Martin Buber’s Tales of the Hasidic Masters. They’re only this long. Now, the Hasidic masters, the Hasidim, were the, and still are, the mystical end of Judaism. Zen, you might say, is the more mystical end of Buddhism. So you cross all these cultures, and they have these things in common, you know. These storytellers were trying to get across something very important to us. It’s a brilliant approach because you’re entertaining people. You’re telling them a little story, and it doesn’t even go on that long, so you’re not taxing their attention spans, and you’re conveying something enormously profound. So, there you go.
And also there are the sayings of my grandmothers and my aunts, and you know, there are those wisdom sources too. Like my Aunt Rose, who said once while she was cooking chicken cacciatore—and she was an incredible Italian cook—You know, the rich have problems too. And she said, We might be poor, but we eat well. But don’t think the rich don’t have problems, they have problems too. Okay, fine, all right, great. I don’t know, who said anything about the rich? But that was interesting because you can stereotype people. You know, if you’re not wealthy, you can be resentful of people who are wealthy, but you never think, They’re still human beings. I’ve known extremely wealthy people—the so-called 1%—and believe me, they have plenty of problems, some of which I wouldn’t wish on anyone.
MRR: We mentioned the oracle earlier, and I had some questions about the process of writing “Drifting.” I went through the poem marking the different threads because at first glance it has so many elements that might seem sort of disparate. So I just wanted to know, going into this poem, how did all of these elements fit together for you, and what was that like, writing that poem?
TC: It was like Heaven. I’m kidding. Well, you mentioned a key word. You said threads. So think of it as a weaving, a tapestry, a weaving on a wall. So you have different strands, and you weave them, which means after a certain point you’ve gotten away from strand one. Say you have four strands, let’s just use an arbitrary number. So you start with strand one, and then you go to strand two, then you get to strand three, then you get to strand four, and by the time you get to four something in you says, Time to go back to one, and you go back to one, but then something else in you says, Let’s not go to two, let’s go to three, let’s skip two. So, you go to three. And then the next one says, Let’s Go back to four. Then you go to four, and something else says, Go to two now, now we’ll put two in. Again, it all happens not in a conscious way, not in a programmatic way. It happens naturally and organically. And one analogy I would give you off the top of my head, because I’ve been an athlete all my life, is when you reach a certain level of prowess and proficiency, you don’t think, you just do. There’s something in sports called muscle memory, which is a matter of repetition of what you need to do, and you just keep practicing that repetition, that repetitive motion, over and over until your body remembers, muscle memory, so that when you’re actually doing the sport, there’s no thinking about it. You just do it. That’s where I am in a poem like that. I have an instinct for when to go to this other strand. But it really is overall, the metaphor for all of that would be a weaving, a tapestry, or whatever you want to call it. I love doing that. I love writing long poems in which I get to do that. I love the tight, lyrical things too. I mean, I don’t want to be committed to just one form in poetry, so any book of mine that you look at, hopefully there’s a variety of things, of approaches. You’ll see that even more so, I think, in the next book. And then even more so in the book I’m working on now. The next book, Almost Human, will be out in 2017. But the one I’m working on now is even going further than that one. I might even read a poem tonight and try it out, turn you guys into guinea pigs. See what happens.
JF: Do you feel like your writing process varies from book to book, just depending on where you are and what you’ve been thinking?
TC: Yeah, absolutely. And again it’s nothing that I predetermine. I just go with whatever is coming to me, and I receive it, and then see if we can get along. It’s like relationships, you know, whoever turns up and can we get along. Or is there a terrible breakup. A lot of gnashing of teeth. Yeah, and I think that works for individual pieces as well. I mean, even as fiction writers, do you not sit there with a new story and maybe it’s coming to you in a way that you’re not accustomed to, or, you know, it’s a little different from your other approaches? I don’t know if that works so much in fiction, but in poetry, for me it does a lot. I mean, I tell my students don’t struggle with the form that shows up, accept the form. Let the poem tell you what it wants to be, instead of the other way around, imposing on the poem what you want it to be. Now there’s formal poetry. You know, you could sit down and say I’m going to write an Elizabethan sonnet. I’m going to write a villanelle. I’m going to write a sestina. I’m going to write a haiku. Those are forms that are already predetermined. What you do with them though is a whole other thing. I mean, you can mess with it, but that’s not my real point. My real point is, if you’re not going to sit down and use a predetermined form, you’re just going to be open to whatever, then be truly open to whatever. I mean, something might occur to you that is, you know, from Alpha Centauri. That could be very interesting though. Roll with it. See if it does become you.
JF: Do you think you can teach somebody how to do that? If you’re not trying to fit into a form, how do you encourage somebody and give them the tools?
TC: Yeah. No. I mean, well, I have no tools. Well, one thing I could do is in a workshop format, I could do an in-class assignment that springs people from the prison of their thinking because they have to do it in the moment, and they have to follow instructions, which in itself is a kind of form. I have something called Quiz, which I’ve used with everything from fifth graders all the way to people in their eighties because I’ve taught everyone, depending on what job I had, from kindergarten to one-hundred-year-olds. I worked for over twenty years in the Institute on Aging in San Francisco where I would do creative writing with seniors. And then California Poets in the Schools, that would be K through 12. And then community college and university teaching and private workshops. So I’ve covered the gamut of humanity. And one exercise I’ve used that everybody takes to and is fun to do is Quiz. I give eleven instructions, and people have to respond them in the moment, and then once they’ve done that they have to use their eleven responses in a piece. It can be prose or it can be poetry. It doesn’t matter. They have to put all of them together. They have to connect all of them. And then I challenge people, that if they want to do the deluxe version they have to go in order, which forces you, I think, to make connections . It forces you to leap. It forces you to get out of your everyday self-censoring mode as an editor, your own private editor, and just get to it, you see. It puts you in the doing and not in the thinking.
So that’s one way. Once people get that experience, and they understand—not understand, they actually feel how fun it is and exciting it is, and how it’s led them to an entirely new place, the hope is then they’ll carry that spirit with them when they go home and do their own stuff. Like I said, a fifth grader gets off on it, an eighty-year-old gets off on it, and everybody in between. It’s so easy to do, and I’ll give you some examples right now. I think the first one is, You own a personal estate that has a front gate. What does it say above the gate? And then the example I give is: at the gates of Hell in Dante’s Inferno it says, “Abandon all hope ye who enter here.” That’s what it says above that gate, but it might say a little something different above your gate, you know. So that’s number one, and number two I think is—I don’t know if it’s number two—but one of them is, What are you afraid of? And you have to be specific. You can’t say death. You can’t say anything generic. Now if you wanted to say dying, you’ve got to give me a specific about dying, you know, like dying from starvation, for instance. That’s a fear. Or dying in a car crash or whatever. There’s got to be a detail in there. So what are you afraid of? Another one is, What superpower would you pick? And with the kids I tell them , because they’re so informed about superpowers, I tell them, You know what, it would be really cool if you invented your own superpower, not just use one you already know about. Because there are so many out there in literature, you know, from all the superheroes, but it would be cool if you invented one that no one’s thought of yet and do that. And it goes down like that. Where in the world would you like to be right now? A lot of people have said this: Right where I am. And I thought, well that sounds good, but it’s not what I meant. Just go somewhere in the world that you always wanted to go to. All those things will then have to be connected. That’s where it really happens, is when you create a through-line for all those things that seem on the page quite disparate from each other.
MRR: I think everyone in my poetry class had a very positive response to “I’m Walking Down the Street Minding My Own Business,” and I also thought of this poem because we talked earlier about how you wanted to make people laugh or cry with your work, and this is one where we all laughed. I actually ended up one day in the cafeteria sort of paraphrasing the part where you talk about how Hansel and Gretel have gotten so old that they have to drop whole slices of bread.
TC: That is funny. I forgot that. That is pretty funny. I have to give myself some credit. I mean, I write so many serious poems. It was a relief to write something like that. A lot of that comes straight out of my life.
MRR: I was wondering if maybe you could talk about the inspiration behind this poem.
TC: The inspiration was things straight out of my life that I made a huge joke about at the time, or in conversation later said, Can you believe that this happened? I mean, I was walking home, minding my own business, and here’s a woman in front of my house, you know, who was wearing overalls and she dropped trou and squatted and just took this humongous dump right on the sidewalk, and I stood there stunned, and then she looked up at me and said, You wouldn’t happen to have any toilet paper on you? I said, No, I don’t. Jesus, I mean really? Okay, you see what I mean. And that opening (of the poem), that was Manhattan. I was visiting a really good friend, a female friend, and we had this running joke that when we were in public we would see someone who was horrendous or just really eccentric or really bizarre, and one would say to the other, That’s your next boyfriend, or, That’s your next girlfriend. So we were walking in downtown Manhattan and we see this crazy guy with a hospital gown, and he’s crossing the street. I don’t even think it was tied in the back, and I went, Oh there’s something—that’s not right. And I looked at her and I go, You know what? That’s your next boyfriend. And then as soon as I said that here were two cops coming, running after him and grabbing him, and it was like he had escaped, probably from the psych ward. So, I just used actual examples. That thing with the money, that really happened in San Francisco. I kid you not. Yeah. Bank robbers had done their thing and then they didn’t realize, because they were dumb bank robbers, that the bags of money exploded with ink, you know, which banks will do. I guess they slip it into the bag or they have their own bags, I don’t know. So, it threw dye onto the—did I put that in there, that the dye was in there? So they abandoned the money, which meant it was just blowing through the streets of San Francisco, money! So it was incredible. I mean, people were just jumping out of cars, like, Let’s get this money! I made up some stuff too, of course. The women in the Mercedes, that’s my little shot at the greedy and the avaricious, you know. She’s got a bag from Bottega Veneta, really upscale, really expensive bags from Italy, and she’s driving a Mercedes. But she couldn’t help herself, she had to stuff it all in there and take off. That’s my rambunctious imagination.
MRR: And then the kids turned the money back in.
TC: That was true. The kids turned the money in because they are good people, unlike that stupid Mercedes woman. That does lead me to a little lesson, though. Let’s talk about this. I try to get my students to do this all the time. So of course you start with the personal, you start with your own world, you start with what you know, but my phrase is: Do not be a slave to the facts. Which means let your imagination seize the facts and transform them into something wonderful and engaging for the reader and for you. Do you not find it the most exciting and wonderful thing when that happens in your writing? When you start to be not just the synthesizer and the journalist, but the creator. You create—you’re literally bringing a world into being that did not exist before you did that. So, you want to do both of those things. The facts are a springboard into the pool of the imagination.
JF: This also came from “Drifting.” I really like “Drifting.” You have the line “I am a responsible and devoted particle of the galaxy,” and that was one of my favorite lines in the book, and it just stuck with me. I don’t even know what my question is. I guess maybe talk about how one is that or just talk about that line and its implications for you.
TC: Great questions, both of you. I mean, incredible questions. Well, that reminds me of the Hungarian philosopher Michael Polanyi, who said something like, My writing is the system by which I am taught to hold the conviction of my own beliefs. So, for me, the poems often aspire to a life that I would like to be living. Doesn’t mean I’m living that life. Which is why some lines sound like assertions, like that line, “I am a responsible and devoted particle of the galaxy.” Keep in mind that those are the words of the protagonist of the poem, which of course I the writer created. But as a reader, those words say to me: I aspire to be a responsible and devoted particle of the galaxy. It doesn’t mean I always am. My writing reminds me of not only where I’ve been, and where I am, but where I want to be. I think all of literature is a wonderful signpost for us, you know. It points you in a direction you would love to be going in, need to be going in. It’s not the endpoint. It’s like Buddha, you know. It’s a raft.