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Michael Gizzi Reads at Rust Belt

Artvoice: Earlier in life you worked for over a decade as a licensed arborist. I notice the titles of your first three books all point to the natural world (Bird As, Avis, Species of Intoxication). Do you see any connection between your poetry and your life among trees?

Michael Gizzi: I did work for many years as an arborist or tree surgeon, as it’s more commonly known; I knew one character who referred to himself as a dendrologist! I studied arbor culture at the Bartlett School of Tree Surgery in Stamford, Connecticut. Bartlett had its laboratories in North Carolina, as well as offices in 48 states. This was 30 years ago. Upon receiving my MFA from Brown (I had already begun apprenticing with a “tree jockey” named Dave Sweet), I continued my studies at Bartlett.

Having always loved trees—living in the Northeast—and the outdoors in general, I soon got involved with athletics in a big way; one could get away from the pressures of home. After years of college I longed like Whitman to “lean and loaf at my ease.” For me this took the form of tree climbing and every facet of tree maintenance: from bark tracing to espalier to feeding and takedowns. I remember reading “The Nut Brown Maid” by John Ashbery in Poetry Chicago while taking my lunch in the cab of a big tree truck; I also got through The Pound Era in the same way, and much of Zukofsky. I wrote a manuscript called Sold American, which dealt with many of these experiences. I believe Rosmarie Waldrop still has it, or possibly my brother Peter. As the song says I could write a book about my relationship with trees. Perhaps one of these days I will.

AV: You and your brother Peter, who took his Ph.D. at SUNY Buffalo, are both respected poets. Was poetry an important part of your family life or your childhood, or did you come to poetry later in life?

MG: I wrote my first bona fide poem at 11. It was an imitation of Villon. I remember it was called “Testament.” I remember distinctly at that moment responding to the call to be a poet. In retrospect, what a pawn a child is. The first poem I memorized was “Miniver Cheevy” by Edward Arlington Robinson. I was looking through a box of my father’s old high school textbooks and found a section on Robinson. As it turned out my father was fond of this poem and suggested I put it to memory…“Miniver Cheevy child of scorn grew lean while he assailed the season he wept that he was ever born and he had reasons…” Neither of us knew at that time how devastatingly prophetic this poem would prove to be. My brother Peter, who is 10 years younger, was only 12 when my father died suddenly in a plane crash. Peter was always interested in what I was doing (the inevitable hero worship) and he often saw me stay up late into night writing poems. I remember a particular Xmas after dad died my mother and brothers spent the holiday at my wife’s family manse in Chester, Connecticut. Being Xmas, Pete couldn’t sleep and wandered into the study at dawn visibly impressed by the seemingly mad fervor of his big brother. Peter is the brother and son and student apprentice that one such as I (and his many readers) are blessed to know in this lifetime.

AV: You have done a lot of collaborative work with artists and poets. Can you talk a little bit about collaboration in general, and then specifically your book Lowell Connector: Lines and shots from Kerouac’s Lowell, which you collaborated on with poet Clark Coolidge.

MG: Clark Coolidge and I have collaborated on various projects over the past 21 years. Unpublished pieces on Providence, Rhode Island. A number of Kerouac pieces, and some very silly and extremely funny personal pieces, on the beach at Martha’s Vineyard, etc. Some of these experiences were the most enjoyable of my life. Pure glee! We completed Lowell Connector in 1990. Poet John Yau tagged along and added some much need relief from the goof-driven seven-mile Kerouac trek that produced the final artifact with photos by Celia Coolidge, Clark’s daughter. I have done a number of collaborations with sculptor Win Knowlton and a chapbook with Trevor Winkfield. All I can say is it gets you out of yourself. Move a muscle, change a thought, or something like that.

AV: Your poetry seems to me to be heavily grounded in music. Some of it is quite dense, and it often reaches for a kind of musical sublime by way of the rhythm. It especially reminds me of jazz in its rhythmic complexity. How do you think about rhythm when you are working? Is it all an improvisation? Or do you have certain musical ideas you are working with when you write?

MG: My work has always been driven by musical impulses. My first inspiration musically came via the bel canto singing in operas by Bellini and Donizetti. I also worship the contralto voice of Kathleen Ferrier. Later it was Bob Dylan all the way—still is! The Incredible String Band, the Band, the Beach Boys, James Brown. And then there were periods of Mozart and Bach chamber music, then Mahler and Morton Feldman, but always there was the insistent and spontaneous immediacy of jazz. I start listening and then just wait for the words in the form of pictures, neologisms, puns. It’s all an open conduit to what you hear could make all the difference. Music like pastry has changed the world.