I miss the very close community that I believe we all felt when my family and other families in our conservative Baptist church saw one another as special and bonded. We counted on one another. Whenever the pastor turned the lights on, we were there: Sunday School, church, prayer meeting, young peoples’ meetings, vacation Bible school, mother-daughter banquets, midnight watches, potlucks, revivals, and car washes on Sunday afternoons.
Q: In his foreword to this translation, Rowan Williams says that you invite the reader to get “lost” in these poems—and that while we are lost we may become open to noticing something we hadn’t seen before. Does this description resonate with you?
A: What a profound and precise observation! It is the author, first and foremost, who “gets lost.” He (or she, in my case) is the one who must catch sight of something “we’ve never seen before.”
I didn’t expect to ever publish this memoir, primarily because I didn’t feel it “fit” the genre as it exists today (and it doesn’t, but that’s why I treasure indie publishers like Slant Books). I embedded these poems and fables and theological reflections in various places in the narrative to give variety to what might otherwise have been a wearing litany.
When I am writing about subjects that touch my emotional life—my mother’s decent into dementia, my father’s murder—the forms help me constrain the passion, which heightens the energy. On a more prosaic level, my mother was a lover of crossword puzzles and word games, and there is definitely an element of challenge and fun for me to work in strict forms. Plus, I just like the way sonnets look on the page.
Every act of welcome is a gesture of gratuitousness. There is no profit or calculation that shapes the relationship, but only unconditional love for the destiny of the other. We don’t need anything more than this love to welcome someone into our house and thus into our life. For this reason, gratuitousness is at the origin of every experience of welcoming or hospitality.
Piccinini was an Italian surgeon at Sant’Orsola hospital in Bologna, a husband, a father of four, and a passionate leader and friend of thousands of high school and university students in Italy between the 1970s and the end of the twentieth century. He died at the age of 48 in 1999 in a car accident on the highway between Milan and Bologna. At his funeral in Bologna, celebrated in the basilica of San Petronio by the then archbishop Giacomo Biffi, there were seven thousand people.
I have been gathering and archiving Lorenzo Albacete’s writings and related audiovisual materials for the past five years. As a result, I now have a fairly comprehensive knowledge of Albacete’s overall body of work, but writing the biographical essay was an opportunity to make connections between all these materials and discover the person behind them.
One trigger for this particular novel was coming across the King James Bible phrase “the mystery of iniquity” (2 Thess 2:7-9). I found it a very intriguing phrase, one always relevant but no more so than today. (Modern translations lean toward rendering this “the spirit of lawlessness,” which certainly seems loose in the world today in many ways both overt and subtle.) What is evil? Why do we participate in it?
During the years I was writing the pages of Sister Zero, I was also teaching myself to do mosaic tiling. With each little project—covering a wooden box, a mirror frame, a clay pot—I learned from small successes and big mistakes. (Plus, smashing china plates can be very cathartic!)
With the publication of The Fate of the Animals, your “Three Paintings Trilogy” is beginning to take shape. So the question arises: what could possibly link paintings as different as Rubens’s Baroque The Drunken Silenus (covered in the first volume) and Franz Marc’s modernist The Fate of the Animals? Is it all subjective—or are there truly things in common here?
When our son died, I was struck by a phrase my wife repeated both shortly after his death and in the nearly five years since: “Where are you, Daniel?” We need to imagine a somewhere for those we love. I think, in part, that need is connected to our greatest fear—that those we love simply disappear without a trace as time passes.
The earth is dying in a way that it was not (or we did not know it fully) when I was a boy, a way that is different from what is meant when we acknowledge that this world is always, as the Bible puts it, “passing away.” And this fact changes everything. Yet the earth is beautiful and will remain so. How can I show my children this goodness despite what threatens it?
No matter how many poems you write, the challenge is always with the blank page as you begin to write your next poem. There’s the emptiness, but it’s like a mirror with so many ghosts and echoes on the other side. Where are you going? Do you really know where this particular poem will lead you? Sometimes you do have an idea, a jumble of energized music swimming around as you look into what appears to be a void.
I’m intensely interested in the complexities of ordinary crime, like in the stories of Kevin Hardcastle: a world without mastermind Dr. Evils and I-can-solve-anything Sherlocks. But a world where those with power do exploit the weak for their own protection or benefit. I’ve seen that reality, from domestic abuse that’s touched people I care about to misogyny, racism, and sexism in the workplace.
The four parts of my book echo the progression of Virgil’s The Georgics: Book I—agrarian labor like tilling the soil, weather signs and war omens; Book II on olive groves vs. vineyards (“The Vituperation of the Vines”), birth of trees; Book III on animal husbandry (veterinary care, procreation), cycles of life in nature; and finally, Book IV, a “bio-mythography” of bees. I also explore Virgil’s questions in The Georgics: What is the ultimate path to happiness? What is pleasure? What is a good life?
It confuses me that nature writing should be considered as some sort of specialized niche. The earth is really our grand subject. But, like Wordsworth, I seem to be as interested in the quirky people I run across as I am in the natural places in which I find them.
Even as a kid, I remember reading stories and being enamored not only by the characters, plots, and settings but also by the notion that there was a personal presence behind the telling, that someone out there, some author, had first imagined into being what I as the reader was now imagining into being. As much as I loved reading, this idea of being the first imaginer was something that I always aspired to, and I was lucky as a young writer to have had many good teachers—from elementary school all the way up through my graduate programs—who cultivated this aspiration.
In another poem, I imagine the etymology of my surname as though my ancestors were plowmen, and I then tried that metaphor of turning earth for the poet’s task of “turning words / back to life, to light not stellar / but diffuse, like moonlight spread // across some field I must cross / by foot, by dream, by shadow.”
Books are also made from other books. I picture literature as a house haunted by the ghosts of authors past, full of echoes and whispers. I may only be able to name the literary ancestors of a given book after the fact, but I always know that they exist.
I think God’s miracles come in all shapes and sizes, and that many are mistaken for simple chance. We miss seeing them for what they are every day. The miracle at the heart of In Things Unseen is both big and small, in that it affects the entire world yet is only known by four people. In other words, it’s a personal miracle on a public stage.