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John Minczeski


Born and raised in South Bend, Indiana, educated by Polish nuns (elementary school) and brothers of the Holy Cross (high school). Two years at St. Edward's University in Austin, Texas. Anti-war activist, draft resistor. I spent my 20th year in Italy after dropping out of school and lived in Spoleto with a family. Later, I lived in Rome. Read Pound, Whitman, and Ulysses, wrote experimentally, befriended an art-dealer named Topazia Alliata who introduced me to some of the avant-garde Italian artists of the day as well as political figures and poets.

Degrees from the University of Minnesota and The Warren Wilson Program for Writers. Have taught for many years as a poet in the schools in Minnesota and as an adjunct in several colleges including Macalester, and the graduate writing program at the University of Minnesota.

Poetry collections: The Spiders (New Rivers, 1979); The Reconstruction of Light (New Rivers, 1981); Gravity (Texas Tech, 1991); Circle Routes (U Akron Press, 2001).

Describe the room you write in:

At the moment I'm writing outside, under my 2nd story deck. It's June, almost the first day of summer. Over the course of several years I have nailed up lattice-work and planted climbing roses and clematis, which are all in bloom right now. I never knew that gardens would become important for my writing life, but they have been, if not inspiration, at least a take off point for poems with larger themes. In my old house I'd built a brick patio surrounded by raised beds filled mainly with perennials. It was there that I wrote the poems that would become the core for Circle Routes. When my wife and I moved several years ago to a house with a big yard, we began transforming the lawn into a garden; it's still very much a work-in-progress. I generally work outside when I'm able-the latticed-in area is like an extra room. And because vines and canes and leaves weave in and out of the lattice, there's a good deal of privacy. I've also taken over what would have been a bedroom downstairs for my writing room. Books line the walls, and I've put a lounger (which we picked up at a furniture clearance sales room) almost in the center. I do much of my drafting there with a pen and a black bound sketch book. Because I draft pretty much all my poems by hand, I can write anywhere, and frequently do. On the whole, however, I prefer familiar settings for my writing.

What is the strangest thing you've done for writing material?

I'm not always able to come up with a decent poem after doing something, even if it's intentional. We currently have the "Body Worlds" exhibit at the Science Museum in St. Paul. Designed by Gunther von Hagens, a physician/scientist who invented a way to preserve bodies and body parts through a process he calls "Plastination," the exhibit shows actual cadavers-their skeletal systems, musculature, organs, etc., etc., in various poses-some athletic and some contemplative. I was pretty scornful of the whole idea at first and was going to boycott the thing-I mean the idea struck me as a dans macabre of sorts-then I thought maybe I could get a poem out of it. So I shelled out 25 bucks and went with a scientist friend who had dissected a cadaver many years ago in dental school. It was fascinating, I admit, and my friend (whose main area of research is genetics) was quite impressed by the detail both in the exhibits and in the informational blurbs beside them. He also pointed out a few details that were anatomically incorrect. In the end, though, while I have notes, no poem has surfaced. I went from feeling quite negative about the show before I went, to being fascinated while there, to feeling that it is ghastly and more than a little creepy after all. What really got to me was that he actually signed some of the exhibits he posed-"woman archer," or "soccer goal keeper"-as though they were his creations. How many poses does one need to create with these cadavers-at what point does the "Gee whiz" factor exceed the educational value?

I could write a poem about it, but it wouldn't be a very good poem, at least not now, because I've already decided what my reaction is. So the poem would neatly plod its way to its pre-ordained conclusion. It would be very much like what William Matthews wrote in "Mingus at the Showplace" where the speaker, as a young man, thought that one "had experiences and shat poetry."

Knowing the outcome of a poem in advance before the actual making is the difficulty of political poetry. Not that good political poetry is impossible, but it's easy to make it dull. I'm speaking out of personal experience as one who's written scores if not hundreds of failed political poems.

My wife and I once took a class in freshwater entomology. A poet-friend had introduced me to fly fishing some years before and my wife was fascinated by the flies. So I signed us up first for a fly-tying class and then for a bug class. I should say that she is an expert fly-tyer, though she lacks interest in standing in a stream and using her flies to catch trout. The bug class was taught by a Ph.D. in entomology who each week brought what he'd dug up from river bottoms in large Rubbermaid tubs. We had to find nymphs and larva in the muck and identify them based on gills, legs, tails. And my wife, whose response on seeing a spider is "Kill it!" handled stone fly nymphs, hellgrammites, dragonfly nymphs (that have gills inside their anuses-they breathe by shooting water out of their rear-ends as they propel themselves like jet skis). My poem, "Mayflies" came out of this class. Learning that mayflies emerge into adulthood (in their next-to-last instar) without mouth parts stuck with me until it came out in a poem. That poem then set off a number of other poems that I think of as "arguments with God."

You have taught creative writing for years. What do you try to teach your students.

When I do a poets-in-the-schools residency, I usually have a week to present some ideas and ways for students to write poems. I try to give some idea of the surprising aspects of poetry, how metaphor and imagery work together, and to suggest a basic structure. I have them work with lyrical models since narrative poetry leads students to use "and then" a great deal. I give examples of anaphora and refrain with poems like "A Divine Falling of Leaves" by Vallejo. I like to show them odes by Neruda and explain how they include turn, counterturn and stand. The students work on poems following various patterns and strategies, though if someone has a different idea I always encourage them to follow it and see where it goes.

What is the writing scene like in the Twin Cities?

Several years ago we lost one of our great bookstores, Ruminator Books (formerly The Hungry Mind). It featured readings almost every night by local writers and poets and by writers on tour, and it had a well-stocked poetry section. The staff was dedicated and excited about literature and whenever I needed a book I would call there first. More than that, it was an informal center for writers who'd run into each other by chance and maybe go next door for a coffee…

There's one independent bookstore left in St. Paul and several in Minneapolis, but the loss of Ruminator is still large, at least to me.

There are many fine writers around, thank God. And we continue to have a steady stream of writers coming through the Twin Cities thanks to Graywolf Press, Rain Taxi, The Loft Literary Center, The University of Minnesota Writing Department and others. This past spring, Graywolf flew Venús Khoury-Ghata in from Paris for a series of readings. I've been a fan of hers ever since reading She Says. The Loft brings in nationally recognized writers for its mentor series. Six local writers are chosen to work over a weekend with the mentors, who then give a public reading with several "mentees." Kim Addonizzio is reading at the Loft next week. Rain Taxi sponsors some memorable readings-I especially remember D.A. Powell's reading 2 years ago, and Bei Dao reading with Eliot Weinberger. Frank Bidart "The Music of Dirt" at Macalester College this past spring.

While the area's rich in literary publishers, there are relatively few journals which, given the number of MFA programs in the area and the vitality of the writing scene, strikes me as ironic.

Summer is the slow time of the season for us and I tend to run into fellow writers and artists mainly at the St. Paul Farmers' Market in lowertown on Saturday mornings.

Talk about your books Gravity (Texas Tech) and Circle Routes (Akron Poetry Prize).

I was extremely fortunate with these two books. Gravity was a finalist, under a different title, for the AWP Award Series in 1990. Though it didn't win, Texas Tech selected it from the pool of finalists. It's actually my MFA thesis and I had written many of the poems while working PITS residencies in St. Paul and around the state. Other poems reflect my former life as a pilot and flight instructor, including a brief stint doing aerobatics in San Marcos, Texas when I was a student at St. Edward's. Instead of saving the money I made from instructing, I spent it all on renting a Citabria, a two-seater airplane that had been re-designed for aerobatics. Ellen Voigt was my thesis advisor and the final shape of the book reflects her excellent ideas on structuring the book around safety and danger, flight and being earth-bound.

I wrote many poems for Circle Routes during a summer in the late 90s when I didn't have much summer work and was able to spent large chunks each morning sitting on my patio writing. What started the collection going was "Pencil in the Concentration Camp," a re-telling of a story Topazia told me about being in a Japanese Concentration Camp during World War II. She and her husband, being anti-fascists, were unable to find work in Italy where one needed party membership to get a job. A professor of her husband's said a teaching job was available in Japan-this would have been in '37 or '38. While in Japan, Topazia said she learned the language from her children who picked it up very quickly. She also studied with a master flower arranger. By '43 or so, everyone in Italy was anti-fascist and Mussolini was overthrown. Refusing to declare loyalty to Mussolini, Topazia and family were sent to a concentration camp in Nagano, site of the winter Olympics several years ago, where they remained for the duration.

During a visit to Topazia in Rome, she said she was feeling a little rueful that her friends and husband were finally getting attention through their art or writings, but she wasn't. I wrote the pencil poem after I got back to St. Paul to honor her-the sheer courage in standing up for her beliefs in nonviolence, and her willingness to accept the consequences of her act of conscience-and the poem became the center of the book.

I was nervous when I showed it to her, afraid she'd be upset I had used her story, but she was actually quite pleased and during my last visit to Rome showed me the journal she'd kept "with the famous pencil." One of her daughters, using that journal, wrote of the family's experiences in the camp and Topazia's later life as an art dealer in Rome. For an epigraph, she used a quote from the pencil poem.

One of your poems is being published in translation in the Polish American issue of Nowa Okolica Poetow. Please talk bout this and when the poem was first published.

Actually I have three poems appearing in the issue, which is devoted, in part, to Polish-American poets. Janusz Zalewski, the editor, sent me the manuscript of the poems in the original, and I think it's a fine group of poets-William Doreski, Stuart Dybek, Elisabeth Murawski, Barbara Szerlip Judith Vollmer, Cecilia Woloch, Mark Pawlak and friends like Linda Nemec Foster, Sharon Chmielarz and John Calvin Rezmerski. Some of them I included in Concert at Chopin's House: A Collection of Polish-American Writing which I edited for New Rivers Press almost 20 years ago.

Two of the poems, "Grandfather Janósz and the Polish Graves of New Prague" and "Columbines" have, if not a Polish theme, at least a Polish reference and originally appeared in Gravity. "Sunrise/Spoleto 1967" was a poem I included in Concert at Chopin's House. Spoleto is a city in the mountainous Umbria region of Italy, where I lived for several months in 1967. I had gone to Italy with a friend, also a fledgling poet, whose professor suggested we stay with the same family he stayed with. An ancient city that goes back to the bronze age, Spoleto is adjacent to Monteluco where there has been a monastic presence ever since St. Francis' time. There has always been something sacred and spooky about the mountain; the Romans even enacted a special law, the Lex Spoletina relating to the mountain and the holm oak, a kind of Mediterranean evergreen oak, that grows there. I return to Spoleto from time to time in my poems, and I think "Sunrise/Spoleto" was one of the first: an homage of sorts and a homesickness. In "Columbines" I was thinking about those I had planted in my garden, whose blooms seemed somehow Polish, though I had no idea at the time if columbines even grow in Poland. I was also wondering what seeds immigrants would have brought over from the old country for the sake of continuity and of something familiar. "Grandfather Janósz…" is based on a story I head an old guy tell in a bar in New Prague some years ago. I had been doing a residency in a near-by town and spent several nights staying at the Czech hotel there. The man, speaking loudly about his great grandfather who was in the czar's army in the Crimean War, also spoke about his brother who visited Poland and brought a tin of Polish dirt back. Some of the poem, especially about sprinkling the dust on a friend's grave, and the widow's gratitude, is almost verbatim..

You have a strong love for Eastern European poetry…

It's influenced my poetry from the beginning. Michael Dennis Browne, a teacher when I was an undergraduate, gave me some poems by Zbigniew Herbert and I was hooked. A little later, Victor Contoski sent some translations he'd done of Tadeusz Rózewicz-I'd sent him some poems for Blood of Their Blood which he was editing for New Rivers, and we struck up a correspondence.

I'm mainly familiar with the older poets, ones who'd survived the War or who, like Zagajewski, take them for mentors: Szymborska, Milosz, Anna Swir, Halina Poswiatowska. We stayed with Sarah Luczaj and her husband, Lucasz several years ago during a trip to Poland and over the years she's sent me some fine translations of Poswiatowska which have gone, unfortunately, unpublished.

Two years ago, one of the artistic directors of The Theatre de la Jeune Lune asked if I'd help out with some ideas on a project she was considering-a production based on Mikail Bugolkov's The Master and Margarita. She wanted to include some of the poets of the time-during the purges and excesses of the Yakov terrors. She'd read Nadezhda Mandelstam's Hope Against Hope and was deeply impressed (who wouldn't be) with her portrayal of those utterly grim times. I went through my anthologies, and collections, re-read Osip Mandelstam, Marina Tsvetaeva and Anna Akhmatova. Unfortunately it was in translation, but it still began to rub off somewhat, and I could hear some distant echoes of those poets in my own work. It's inevitable for me-I've always been something of a mockingbird. The theater company has gone through some re-organizing in the past year. Even with a Tony Award, proceeding with four artistic directors had gotten cumbersome and the houses weren't always packed. Therefore many projects, including The Master and Margarita, were placed on hold.

What are you working on now?

I've gotten to the point where I don't like to say what I'm working on now, especially if it's a big project. Lacking a big project at the moment, I'm mainly writing drafts and going over older work, some of it abandoned (rightly so in many instances) and some of it needing a little extra tightening. I'm a reviser, frequently working on a piece until it won't budge any further. Then I'll try some radical revisions, changing the whole thing.

Earlier in the summer I worked on an older manuscript, The Last Pietà. It had been a finalist in several big competitions and last year, out of frustration, I tore into it, substituting maybe a third of the poems, but the tone was no longer even and I think I defeated my original idea behind the book.

I'm also working on another manuscript, The Night Dog Dialogues, a long sequence of meditations on death, the soul and a geriatric Labrador retriever. I'm in the process of writing several poems that will go toward the center of the book. Other than that, I've been opening my notebook, usually while sitting in that under the deck room, and facing the terror of the empty page.

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