BY JOANNA C. VALENTE
If there was ever a poet who was dedicated to craft, it would be Anthony Cappo. Recently, his first chapbook “My Bedside Radio,” was published by Deadly Chaps Press--which is a collection that explores the nuances of family dynamics, and what happens when the family structure disintegrates. What makes the collection so unique is the fact that the poems rely on music, particularly '70s music, as a way to reflect the speaker's own mental state and time period.
I was lucky enough to interview him on craft, how he chose the soundtrack, and more:
JV: Why did you choose to tell the story through songs and popular music of your childhood? How did you actually choose the songs?
AC: Well, it kind of started accidentally. The first poem was one that didn’t even mention a song. But it was a very early childhood memory of (mis)hearing a radio news report about guerillas escaping prison. I guess that got me in an early childhood space and thinking about the radio and all the songs I remembered listening to. Music has always been very important to me, and song lyrics and childhood memories are always popping up in my poems anyway. So, I started writing about memories directly associated with certain songs, and soon, I had a number of poems like that. Then, I realized it was a theme and just kind of went with it. After a couple of months, I had a draft of a chapbook-length work.
I didn’t choose the songs in any organized way. I just thought about songs that were important to me at the time. And I’m not in any way saying that all of these are good songs, or are ones I would choose to listen to now! But they were important or memorable to me then, and they really brought back the feelings of growing up. Some of the songs are associated with very specific memories, and others kind of more evocatively brought me back to certain places or times.
What is your writing and editing process like? I know you value editing tremendously. Would you say the poems come alive more after the editing process? How do you know when a poem is done?
I’m a big editor of my work. I looked back on the early drafts of these poems and some are so different from the final versions, but one or two are surprisingly close. In general, I like to write as much as I can in the first draft, which can sometimes be as little as one or two lines if I’m rushing off to work in the morning. Then, after I’ve written a full first draft, I read it over, and look for things that are unclear or words or images that fall flat. And from there it’s just a process of chiseling away. After I feel like I’ve gotten as far as I can with the poem, I put it away for a while. Eventually, I come back to it and tighten it up even more.
I really do liken writing poetry to sculpting—chipping away until I feel like I’ve arrived at the “essential poem.” I know the poem’s done when some time has passed and I feel like there’s nothing else I can do to make it better—the rhythm fits, the images are interesting, and there aren’t any excess or leaden words. But I work very slowly; it can take months to get to that point and even then, I’m always looking to change a word here and there. I follow the old Orson Welles ad line: “We will sell no wine before its time”!
Other than other writing, what influenced and inspired you during this time?
I went back and listened to some of the songs I remembered. I was listening to a lot of ‘70s songs on YouTube during this period. Not exclusively, of course, but I was allowing myself to indulge in a little nostalgia.
But really, I’ve been blessed (and cursed, haha) with a really good memory and have vivid recall of many things that happened during my childhood. And because I did listen to music so much during this period (and yes, I did have a bedside radio) it was easy to recall songs that went with the memories, and vice versa.
On the subject of writing honestly about childhood and family secrets, I’ve always been in awe of Louise Gluck’s “Ararat.” I read that book literally with my jaw open, thinking I can’t believe she just wrote about that. In some ways, I’d say that book was a permission-giver.
What part of you writes your poems? What are your obsessions?
My poor little battered heart! But seriously, I try to suppress intellectuality and rationality as much as I can when I’m writing first drafts. For me, poems are primarily an emotional expression (“Since feeling is first”!) and that’s what I want to convey. But, of course, on revision the head enters the picture in a much bigger way.
Obsessions? Well, I read an article once that recommended that in ordering a manuscript it was a good idea to group poems into different themes. I did this with mine and one of the biggest themes was “personality disintegration,” so there’s that. But I also write a lot about the search for love and intimacy/loneliness, God/childhood religiosity, and, of course, music and childhood memories.
What are you working on now? What's a dream project for you?
I’m working on revising a full-length manuscript that started out as my MFA thesis, but has been through several iterations since. I’ve sent it out, to no success, and I really want to get it right. So I’m in the process of picking off my darlings, replacing them with newer work, and trying to come up with a manuscript that reflects the best work I’ve written.
I’ve also started on what might become another chapbook, which features kind of an alter ego character through whom I can make light of my obsessions and misadventures. I’ve started out on a handful of poems, but have been largely bogged down at the moment with other things. But I plan to get back to them. Mostly, because they’re so much fun to write.
Anthony Cappo is a poet living and working in New York City. His poems have appeared in Prelude, Stone Highway Review, Connotation Press – An Online Artifact, Pine Hills Review, Yes Poetry, and other publications. His chapbook, “My Bedside Radio,” is published by Deadly Chaps Press. Anthony received his M.F.A in creative writing from Sarah Lawrence College.
Joanna C. Valente is a human who lives in Brooklyn, New York. She is the author of Sirs & Madams (Aldrich Press, 2014), The Gods Are Dead (Deadly Chaps Press, 2015), Marys of the Sea (forthcoming 2016, ELJ Publications) & Xenos (forthcoming 2017, Agape Editions). She received her MFA in writing at Sarah Lawrence College. She is also the founder of Yes, Poetry, as well as the chief editor for Luna Luna Magazine. Some of her writing has appeared in Prelude, The Atlas Review, The Huffington Post, Columbia Journal, and elsewhere. She has lead workshops at Brooklyn Poets.