I’ve always been enamored by strange, off-the-beaten track kind of stories.
ISSUE I contributor John Sibley Williams talks to Frank Paino about his latest book of poetry, Obscura, published in May 2020.
FRANK PAINO holds a BA in English from Baldwin Wallace University and an MFA in Creative Writing from the Vermont College low-residency writing program. His poems have appeared in a variety of literary publications, including: Crab Orchard Review, Catamaran, North American Review, World Literature Today, Gettysburg Review, Prairie Schooner, The Briar Cliff Review, Lake Effect and the anthologies, The Face of Poetry, Poets for Life and (upcoming from The University of Arizona Press in 2020) Beyond Earth’s Edge: The Poetry of Spaceflight. Frank's first two volumes of poetry were published by Cleveland State University Press: The Rapture of Matter (1991) and Out of Eden (1997). He has received a number of awards for his work, including a 2016 Individual Excellence Award from The Ohio Arts Council, a Pushcart Prize and The Cleveland Arts Prize in Literature. His third book, Obscura, was just published by Orison Books.
JOHN SIBLEY WILLIAMS is the author of As One Fire Consumes Another (Orison Poetry Prize, 2019), Skin Memory (Backwaters Prize, University of Nebraska Press, 2019), Summon (JuxtaProse Chapbook Prize, 2019), Disinheritance, and Controlled Hallucinations. A twenty three-time Pushcart nominee, John is the winner of numerous awards, including the Wabash Prize for Poetry, Philip Booth Award, Phyllis Smart-Young Prize, and Laux/Millar Prize. He serves as editor of The Inflectionist Review and works as a freelance poetry editor and literary agent. Previous publishing credits include: Yale Review, North American Review, Midwest Quarterly, Southern Review, Sycamore Review, Prairie Schooner, Saranac Review, Atlanta Review, TriQuarterly, and various anthologies. Visit him at www.johnsibleywilliams.com.
JSW: Congratulations on the publication of Obscura; it is a beautifully haunting book that’s about as visceral and thought-provoking as any I’ve recently read. Before digging into the poems themselves and your vision and process, I wanted to first ask about something I learned in Obscura’s foreword, namely that these poems are twenty years in the making. As your previous collections were published in 1991 and 1998, can you tell me a bit about your hiatus from publishing poetry and what drew you back?
FP: Immediately after the publication of my second book, I became rather disenchanted with writing. For some reason, I felt I’d pretty much said what I wanted to say in the first two books, and I was afraid of repeating myself. So, for a few years, I just didn’t write. Then, my mother developed severe medical issues which necessitated her moving in with me and my twin sister. Our mother required a lot of hands-on care that was exhausting both physically and emotionally. I know there are plenty of people who have written in circumstances that would have made that time seem like a picnic, but I am not one of them. I didn’t find the situation at all conducive to writing, and that went on for a number of years until my mother died.
Eventually, I realized I couldn’t resist the urge to write, so I returned to poetry. But it was a struggle and, before I knew it, about fifteen years had passed. By that time, I had built up enough of a store of poems that I actually had two manuscripts ready to circulate. I began submitting individual poems (which I hadn’t been doing) and, eventually, the manuscripts. It took about three years to find a publisher and nearly two years for the book to be published. And, by the way, Obscura is a combination of both collections—so right now I have a complete manuscript of older work and I’m also about a third of the way into a new manuscript.
JSW: I can empathize with your inability to write during such a trying time. During our current quarantine, I cannot find it within myself to put pen to paper. For me, a little distance is required between experience and exploring that experience. I can also wholly understand your fear of repeating yourself. Stagnation, by which I mean writing about the same old things in the same style and structure, is a worry we both share. So, what is it about the poems in Obscura that differ from your previous books? How do they break from your older work?
FP: It’s interesting, actually, because I’m finding myself more productive during this period of self-quarantine than I am when I’m working my regular job at a university library. I’m able to focus more fully without so many distractions.
You’ve nailed it with regard to stagnation! It’s a huge fear of mine and one I’m not sure I will ever really overcome. I write on themes I am passionate about and that’s actually a pretty small collection of mostly strange things. But if there’s no passion in it, I wouldn’t feel justified, or even motivated, to write about a given topic. So, I’m still circling the same subjects, but I’m vastly altering my approach insofar as style is concerned. And I hope that will be sufficient to prevent stagnation.
Obscura differs from my first two collections in some significant ways. The most obvious is movement away from more personal poems. There are still personal poems in this collection, but not as many as in previous books. Beyond that, though, the work in Obscura tends to be much longer, both with regard to overall length as well as line length. While the poems are still narrative, they’re more lyrical. There’s also a lot more focus on historical events, most of which are generally not well known—thus the significance of the book’s title.
JSW: Perhaps Obscura’s most evident theme is that of contextualizing little-known historical events. Can you tell me about the process behind this? How did you select which figures and events to include? What links them to each other? And how did you strike that balance between authenticity and poetic dramatization?
FP: I suspect what draws me to these historical subjects is the result of my childhood and interests. I’ve always been enamored by strange, off the beaten track kind of stories. Having been raised Catholic, I was exposed to all manner of truly bizarre tales—saints who carry around their flayed skin or plucked eyeballs, reliquaries containing corpses or body parts of the canonized, a half-nude man nailed to a cross as a blood sacrifice.
Selecting which figures or events to write about is more a question of them finding me. That sounds rather suspect, I know, but it’s true. I have an entire folder of strange historical topics to draw from. My twin sister has a keen sense of what will resonate with me too, so she often sends me facts and fragments I ended up using in these poems.
Regarding authenticity vs. dramatization, I feel my first and greatest allegiance is to the poem, not necessarily each and every fact. I want to serve the truth, of course, but I feel I can get the point across without necessarily covering every detail. I also feel comfortable filling in gaps. I enter the event or the mind I’m exploring and simply observe, pay witness. I try to honor the subjects, not sensationalize them.
JSW: I wholeheartedly concur that truth is what matters, whereas facts (real or fabricated) only work to enhance and clarify that truth. Sometimes we need to invent “facts” in order to better realize and make emotionally accessible a poem’s “big picture.” Can you briefly take me through your process of composing a historical poem? Do you start with the event or figure, allowing your themes to emerge as you write? Or do you start with potential themes and find appropriate historical situations to fit?
FP: I always start with the event or figure. I hold the subject in my mind and proceed from that focal point. And though there are, of course, facts, I never really know which the poem will stress or disregard. It’s like lighting a candle in a dark room. It might end up illuminating a single corner, or the room’s entirety. In that sense, as with all of my poems, it’s a matter of surrendering to my subconscious. I don’t lead. I follow.
JSW: It seems you follow a rather specific yet complicated path, that of infusing the macabre with spirituality and light. Your poem “Descent” includes the powerful line “there must be bliss in such surrender,” a sentiment both religious and utterly human. How do you achieve this delicate balancing act of light and dark in each poem?
FP: I appreciate that incisive observation, John. And I wish I could take credit for consciously orchestrating that balance, but, to be honest, such work is largely done in that altered mental state where I think most poems come from.
My job as a poet is not to insert myself, but rather to get out of my own way. If I manage to do that, my philosophical perspectives will emerge without being forced. They will, in the best circumstances, achieve a kind of grace I could never arrive at deliberately. Achieving that sort of balance, then, is its own act of surrender.
JSW: Which poem from Obscura are you particularly proud of, and which did you find most difficult to get out of your own way while writing?
FP: The first part of the question is really difficult because there are different reasons to be proud, both in terms of craft and exploration of theme. I’ll set aside conclusions on the former for my critics, and I’ll choose the story of “Laika,” as told in my poem, because I think I managed to convey the full tragedy of the events without falling into pathos or vilifying the scientists.
“Elegy Written in Fire” was without question the most difficult for me to write in terms of getting out of my own way. The poem was written in memory of my friend, Tony, who committed suicide by self-immolation on Halloween 2002. Tony was truly one of the kindest people I have ever known, and yet he was driven to despair by individuals who should have supported him. He was a transgender man whose parents so vehemently rejected him that they withdrew all financial support when he was still underage, berated and spoke ill of him at every turn, deadnamed him to everyone they could and, in perhaps the most egregious offense of all, buried his remains beneath a headstone engraved with his birthname. In the poem, I had to restrain my rage, because not doing so would have resulted in something more like a rant than a poem. I also had to keep myself from sounding like I was giving a sermon on how that kind of hatred can literally be lethal.
JSW: I can certainly empathize with the need to restrain rage while writing about personally sensitive or culturally tragic events. It’s so easy to slip into diatribe or didacticism. Did your early drafts of “Elegy Written in Fire” include more of that genuine fury, which got toned down and made universally accessible in the revision process?
FP: Yes! Earlier drafts included Tony’s parents, references to specific incidents—including the outrage of that headstone—and plenty of seething rage, all of which failed to serve the poem in any useful way. It was like an argument where you say things you know you’ll later regret. And, trust me, I would have regretted leaving that in for all sorts of reasons. But of course, that’s what revision is for, isn’t it?
JSW: Knowing what to keep from early drafts and what to discard or revise is often tricky. You want to ensure the emotional drive of the poem remains clear and impactful, yet those same emotions can pull the poem toward sentimentality. Which poets most inform your writing these days?
FP: For me, ensuring emotional drive is fairly easy because of the way I write. Once I’ve started a poem, I stay with it until the point I’m ready to let it go. This is a process that can last several days—sometimes as many as five or six, but I’d average it at closer to four. During that time, I am spending maybe eight or nine hours each day on only that poem, and concentration like that sustains my focus and emotional drive. If I were the type to set poems aside and come back to them months, or even years, later, I don’t know that the same would be true. But I’m not interested in returning to a piece once I’ve abandoned it. And here I say “abandoned” because I wholeheartedly subscribe to Valery’s observation that “A poem is never finished, it is only abandoned.” Of course, that doesn’t mean I won’t change a line or a word or line break when a poem is going to appear in a book, but it’s a tweak at that point.
As far as which poets inform my writing, I’ll say this: when I write, I have certain rituals. One is to have a dozen or so books of poetry at hand, and also a number of literary journals. Always, and I mean always, one of these must lay open on my desk, even if I’m not reading from that book or journal at the time. It’s strange. They’re like talismans that provide a kind of silent inspiration and witness for me. I’ll read from at least a few and hope that a single word or turn-of-phrase will light the fire I need to get my own work going—even if the word or phrase has absolutely nothing to do with what I’m writing about. In that sense, every single poet whose work I read, whether I have a taste for their work or not, whether they are well-known or not, contemporary, modern or otherwise, they all inform my writing in one way or another, and I love that.
JSW: My writing process is incredibly similar to yours, snagging tidbits of inspiration from other books, my physical space, and the world around me.
Finally, Frank, can you tell me what you’re working on now? Any new creative projects?
FP: I really love knowing we share this approach to writing, John!
Right now, I am well into a new manuscript and I’m very excited about that. At the same time, as I mentioned earlier, I wasn’t entirely AWOL from writing for twenty years, the end result being I have a manuscript comprised of mostly older material with some newer work mixed in that I am seeking a publisher for. So, I’ve got two creative projects I feel very passionate about to hold close to my heart…and that feels profoundly sweet to me.
This interview has been lightly edited to fit our style guide.