Interview with Poet Marisa Frasca

Poet Marisa Frasca graduated from the New School’s Riggio Honors Program, where she was also the poetry editor for 12th Street Journal. She received her MFA in poetry from Drew University. Her poems have appeared in 5AM, Adanna Journal, Philadelphia Poets, Feile Festa, VIA, Sweet Lemons 11, Arba Sicula, among other publications. 12th Street’s Art Editor, Kadin Herring, had a conversation with Frasca about her book, Via Incanto: Poems from the Darkroom, and other beautiful things through email.

Kadin Herring: The cover art is astounding. The coating of the cover even feels eerily smooth. Where did the idea of having a chalk sketch of you come from?

Marisa Frasca: I am not a visual artist. I did take one beginner art course at The New School and loved feeling my hand that sloppily held a charcoal pencil when in class we sketched live models. I don’t know how the publisher made the book cover feel so velvety smooth, but I will ask. As far as the image on my book cover is concerned, I can tell you how it came about. When the good people at Bordighera said the Press wanted to publish my manuscript I began thinking of the cover, and searched for ancient and contemporary art that would somehow inform the reader of major themes contained in the book. Nothing felt right. One morning, I woke with a crazy idea and dug up an old photo album. I pulled out the last photograph my photographer father took of me as a 11-year-old girl newly arrived in America. My father died shortly after snapping that photograph, so this is the last photograph he took of me. On instinct I made a photocopy of the photograph because I didn’t want to ruin the original, then with a soft charcoal pencil I blacked out half my face on the Xeroxed copy, but left some transparency on the darker side of the image. I also exaggerated the mouth, brow, and eyelashes because I didn’t want the picture to look like me at any age.The whole process took no more than three minutes. I went with an amateurish instinct. I remembered a quote from Wallace Stevens: “It is necessary to any originality to have the courage to be an amateur.” So I allowed myself the luxury of not thinking about the cover too much, you know, whether it was good or bad. Just went with a gut feeling. The image, to me, recalled one poem “Depth of Field” where the speaker refers to herself as a “hyphenated woman,” but more than that, it was the process of superimposing the charcoal image I had made over my father’s art that felt so right, so mysterious, like an incredible connection formed by the beloved dead photographer father and the living daughter who pays tribute to him in the title of her book: In the darkroom.
I spent most of my childhood in Sicily with my father in his darkroom. I don’t remember any books in my house. Both of my parents never went further than a fifth grade education, but I had hundreds of photographs at my disposal, and when the writing bug hit me, so late in my life, I re-entered that sacred childhood place. The old darkroom I once knew so well became a portal from which many poems in this book were brought to life.

KH: To say that you are proud of your Italian roots would be an understatement. You mentioned in your book that you even once enhanced your accent just to make it known that you were of Italian descent. With that being said, how do you feel about the growing trend with fashion companies or marketing firms to incorporate foreign cultural customs or styles in order to sell products or even diversify their audience?

MF: Italy is where I was born, where my roots are, and in many ways that history defines who I am. But I think it’s dangerous to have too much patriotism for any country. I’m convinced that feeling too proud brings about crazy notions of national superiority and that can lead to world wars. The last census report that came to my house in the mail asked me to check off whether I was Caucasian, Black, Hispanic, Asian, or American Indian. That question really annoyed me and I wrote: “I’m human, that’s all”. I’m sure that didn’t go over too well with the people who were just trying to do their job at the census bureau! But I loved writing that wise-ass remark. I can’t wait for the day when none of us are racially labeled, although I may not see it in my lifetime.
Getting back to your question about enhancing my accent in one poem, which I assume you’re referring to, “Transforming the I” —-Yes, I did enhance my Italian accent in the 1970s (The Me Decade) just as I tried to lose my native Italian accent and speak with an American one in another poem: “Yearning for the Lips of Others” that takes place in the mid 1960s, when American society was going through such changes, namely the Civil Rights movement and the last remnants of war in Vietnam. Of course I had no clue about the social fabric that was so radically changing America. I was just trying to assimilate with other kids my age and learn how to communicate because I felt deaf and mute without a language. It’s hard being an immigrant, all around, and I would love to speak more about that, but I know you want me to answer the second part of your question about fashion companies that promote foreign customs in order to sell their products.
I’ve had a long successful career in the fashion business, have dealt with textiles made with such intricate techniques by skilled artisans that my job felt like I was handling precious art. I see nothing wrong with fashion houses promoting foreign cultural customs. We consumers can become informed of cultures and languages that are different from our own, and I see value in that, as I see value in the art of tailoring. The things I fear: rampant Western consumerism and the race of many manufactures who make clothes anywhere in the world where they find the cheapest labor force, therefore, exploiting the poorest people who work in sub-human conditions.

KH: When you attended The New School, you were poetry editor of 12th Street. Was that the first time you realized that you wanted to have a career in writing or at least realized that a career in writing was possible?

MF: I had a wonderful time as poetry editor of 12th Street at The New School. I remember that room on the fifth floor where all of us involved with the journal worked so hard, many times late into the night, and the end result was so satisfying. If my memory serves me right, the journal won two awards that year, one for Design and one for Content, from the Associated Writing Programs.
The poetry editor experience served me in two ways: I learned how to better edit my own poems by reading and re-reading the work of my peers who had submitted to the journal. There were many fresh and wonderful poems that weren’t so polished, and I liked that. Though craft is certainly necessary in the making of a good poem, not censoring the poet is equally important. I made gentle suggestions when I saw words that felt like fillers and added little or nothing to the poem, but I never attempted to change anyone’s poem. I read the poems out loud so my breath would break where the lines broke. I looked for musicality, so essential to a poem. I became a better critic of my own work. I had not read my own drafts out loud before my poetry editor experience.
Early on, I never thought about a career in writing. I just wanted to write the best poem I could and give it a heartbeat. The more I wrote, the more writing became a need, like water.

KH: In this book, Italian phrases and vocabulary are scattered throughout. I found it interesting how you incorporated Italian heritage and vernacular to narrate your stories. As a bilingual person, how does language excite you? Do you want to continue to add other languages or foreign customs to your future books?

MF: A bi-lingual poet enters different thresholds, depending on the language she or he is thinking in and what places and scenes are hitting the mind’s eye, at least that’s the way it is for me. The foreign poems in my current book (that face my English translations) are not written in Italian, but in Sicilian — which is practically another language. It is my first language, though of course I am also fluent in Italian because that’s what we’re taught in Italian schools. I feel a responsibility to write in Sicilian because it is a language that is nearly extinct. Sicilian has been regarded as the dialect of the peasant and the uneducated. But it once was a language with a rich literary history.
To give you an example: the great Sicilian poet, Iacopo Da Lentini, our first sonneteer, wrote sonnets even before the French troubadours and Shakespeare. But I’m getting off the topic, sorry. Yes, I do also have Italian phrases scattered in some poems. Italian is an amazing musical language and combining some Italian words with English lyrical narrative gives me greater expression. Sometimes I think and dream in my native language and sometimes in my adopted one. And yes, I will probably always combine the two (or three) just because that’s the way my mind works.

KH: I found your personal experiences with lust/sex in your book was not only beautifully done yet very courageous, especially as a woman. Were you hesitant at all to write so openly about this topic? At any point during the writing process did you feel that you needed to write about these topics to break down negative stereotypes of women’s sexuality?

MF: It goes back to the question of censorship. We cannot censor the writer and must stop paying mind to the critic inside ourselves. Sex is a pleasure for the body and the mind, and there would be no life on earth without it. Eros, on the other hand, is more about soul for me. It’s not just sex but all the rest you feel for a person you want deep intimacy with. Women need to celebrate so many beautiful parts of their minds and bodies, but our old patriarchal culture has painted us as either saints or whores. I’ll leave it at that.

KH: Throughout your book, personal conflict and despair was evident. The mood you created was heavy and always demanded another read through. Was writing this book your way of therapy? Have you always been so personal with your audience in such a direct way?

MF: I think all art is some kind of therapy for the artist. My early poems were mostly about my parents. I noticed that the more I wrote about them, the more I healed some of my old wounds. I allowed myself to cry as I wrote those early poems, most of which I have stored away. My father had died after one year of our coming to America, and as a young girl I became a mother to my mother who was so distraught, and rightfully so. We had no home, no language, and no other family but each other, and we had plenty of hospital bills to pay. I don’t think I ever showed my mother how I was grieving because I wanted to alleviate her grief and despair. I quickly learned to speak English and became her mouth and ears. I quit high school and went to work when I was 15 years old. She went to work in a coat factory and made pockets on ladies coats. She was a skilled seamstress, and we survived. Only a few of those early poems are in this book, while others written later paint characters not necessarily modeled after myself. I debated with myself about putting those few autobiographical poems in the book, but in the end I wasn’t afraid to get personal. Here again I thought of another poet who gave me courage, Toi Dericotte who writes on the first page of her latest book, “I am not afraid to be memoir.”

KH: The format of some of these poems could be seen as a short story or even as an advertisement. This unique writing style is evident in pieces like “Ars Poetica” or “Santuzza, bitter bride, encounters Ms. Alien researching Sicily’s 20th century marriage customs.” Can you elaborate on the creative and personal decision to write in an experimental form? What were the editorial challenges of writing pieces in such an experimental form?

MF: The form in “Ars Poetica” resembles a ruler and/or coffin. I talk about both objects in that poem. The vertically short and condensed lines naturally took on the life of the message while I wrote. The form was not pre-meditated and the poem came out quickly.

“Santuzza, bitter bride, encounters Ms. Alien researching Sicily’s 20th century marriage customs” and the poem that follows it “More Sicilian Sickness” are what I regard as poem-stories, and show the underside of Sicilian culture and how it relates to women who are all victims of the same game. It just felt right to me that such a story should have a long narrative and be boxed in margins. Santuzza is a fictional character.

The poem “Canto for a Quilter” on the other hand, is a sonnet, and celebrates Sicilian culture by showing the art of embroidery. The woman I name “Cantacutra” which means “Quilted Song” in English is also fictional. But while the name of the artist in “Canto for Quilter” is truly unknown, the Tristan Quilt exists and is real. It hangs on the wall of a London Museum and it is known to be the oldest surviving quilt in the Western World. The quilt dates back 800 years and was made in Sicily. With these two poems, so different in form, one with long narrative and one a 14-line sonnet, I attempt to show contrasts in form and content.

KH: As a student in the Riggio Writing and Democracy program, I am constantly straggling the line of expressing my political and social beliefs in my own writing, yet cautious not to alienate readers with different ideologies than mine. How have you learned to angle your point of view in your writing to allow other people to at least understand your political stance or social standings in the stories you have decided to showcase?

MF: I keep away from political correctness. I know I sound like I’m beating a dead horse (Oh what an awful image! Forgive me) but I’ll risk and go back to the question of censorship. Your writing will surely alienate somebody no matter how careful you are not to offend feelings or ideology. So why even try to be careful? It’s not your job to be careful. Your job is to write what is in your gut without vomiting on the page. So the writing has to be as good as you can possibly make it. I’ll leave with this quote from the great Rainer Maria Rilke from Letters to a Young Poet: “I know of no other advice that this: Go within and scale the depths of your being from which your very life springs forth.”