Friday, October 12, 2012

Interview with Poet Dean Kostos

Michael T. Young: Thank you, Dean, for accepting my invitation for an interview. I’m so happy to have a chance to discuss your poetry.

Your latest collection, Rivering, takes its title from Joyce’s Finnegans Wake. I wondered if you could comment on how you feel your collection helps define or redefine that word? What does it mean in light of your new collection?

Dean Kostos: You know, when poets discover that we may have a number of poems, approximating a collection, we look for themes and key words--some unifying principle. Well, I noticed bodies of water threading throughout the poems. So, I ransacked every lexicon I could to find the right word, but none seemed right. Then I was walking to work through the tunnel beneath Bryant Park and saw a lovely excerpt from Finnegans Wake (inscribed in mosaic), with a word Joyce had coined, "rivering." I experienced it as both a noun and a verb. It did what a poem must do: It enacted its reality. The word seemed to course like a river; it was alive.

Michael T. Young: Many of the poems in Rivering address issues of memory or history? The poem “Reliquary Room” says, “I bask in the past” and ends with the line “one self among rows of others.” What do you see as the relationship between memory and history and the relationship between self-identity and both of those?

Dean Kostos: As I think you know, I am not a morose person. However, I do think about death. I guess we all do. Deaths define our personal histories and insist that we come to terms with our own mortality and what it is we hope to leave when we die. In addition, that poem focuses on two people. One is my maternal grandmother, with whom I was very close. My love of the surreal comes from her. She used to tell me folk tales from her Greek village, replete with talking almond trees and jealous roses. The other person is my father, who suffered for many years with Parkinson's disease. Even though our relationship had been problematic, he taught me to respect precision in language. He was a lawyer. Sadly, the disease robbed him of the ability to talk.

Michael T. Young: You have said you like a little surrealism in poems and your poems offer twists on perceptions such as “the sun is not a ball of barbed wire, but a bleeding tangle of nerves.” Who do you feel are your most significant influences in this regard? Also, what, for you, is the significance of surrealism in poetry, what’s its function?

Dean Kostos: The surreal poem is, among other things, image-driven. I believe that's part of the allure, but even before I ever read Surrealist poetry, I was writing it. In one of the first workshops I attended, I brought in a poem about shaving and gathering the whiskers and molding them into a vase. Aside from tracing my surrealist roots back to my grandmother, there was my love of the Beatles: "[W]earing the face she keeps in a jar by the door." Along with Hopkins, the Beatles were my first poetry love. The language of surrealism showed me a way to untangle and explore a difficult emotional life.

Michael T. Young: Many of the poems in Rivering deal with historical silences, or unwritten histories or memories. Was there any intentional connection between this and the cover art you chose which depicts a Native-American Indian? If so, what were those connections? How do they relate to the collections themes?

Dean Kostos: I grew up in South Jersey, where the Lenape tribe had lived. I was obsessed by them and used to write stories as the persona Red Feather. That name was magical to me. Of course, the world is full of histories of conquests and invasions where the earlier inhabitants are seen as undesirable. My father's parents were Greek refugees from Asia Minor where Greeks had lived since the time of Homer. Human history is tragic. Hopefully, in studying it, we can become more compassionate toward others.

Michael T. Young: A number of poems in Rivering are ekphrastic and even seem to play a redemptive role. Do you see art as redemptive and if so in what way is it redemptive?

Dean Kostos: Hugely. As a suicidal teen, who spent two years in a mental hospital for my various attempts, it was art, in all its permutations, which became the most real thing to hold onto. It was a vessel into which I could endlessly pour my hurt and grief, finding my emotions transformed. It was an act of alchemy and love. It is one more reason to support the arts in the public schools.

Click image to go to Amazon
and purchase Rivering

Michael T. Young: The poem “Dwarf Pushing Pram” says of the figure “Forsaken, she retreats into being needed.” And the poem “Introducing John L. Sullivan” says of the trainer, “Whatever he wants, he finds intimacy in being useful and accepts his role.” Is usefulness a kind of compensation for the silences or denials the poems disclose? If so, how do you see this played out in our society?

Dean Kostos: You're very perceptive. I hadn't noticed the similarity between those lines until a friend recently pointed them out. On a more personal level, they refer to times when I fell in love and then the relationship ended, because the other person ended it. Realizing that the object of my affection would now only exist as a friend, I decided to make myself into a very devoted friend—a desire to remain connected.

Michael T. Young: In “The Stones of the City,” we read “Dense as complicity, we buttress skyscrapers.” To what extent does our complicity in our world make it harder to redress the silences of history and the oppression of the present?

Dean Kostos: This title is taken from one of the many prompts that Ted Hughes wrote for Sylvia Plath, but for which she never wrote poems. I am a political person, but not a political poet. But here, I am making a political statement. Any number of people—workers of various stripes—who are seen as disposable and of little worth are, ironically, the ones whose labor creates the foundation for the edifice of our society. As an adjunct professor, I empathize with that plight. It is a plight shared by many.

Michael T. Young: The arc of the book seemed to go from confronting historical silences to the freedom to spiritually create a new self. Did you see this as the general arc of the book? If so, to what extent do you see the confrontation with the past as a spiritual exercise? What characterizes that confrontation as a spiritual exercise and not merely a historical one?

Dean Kostos: I have always been mesmerized by history, personal and global. But the arc of the book owes a great deal to advice given to me by my friend, the poet Nicholas Samaras. He suggested that I structure the collection with a novelistic arc: introduction, rising action with conflict, crisis/climax, falling action, resolution. And yes, in the confrontation with hurts and wounds, there is a trajectory toward a more authentic self. It's almost like what Michelangelo said of The David, that he was already in the block of marble; Michelangelo simply needed to chip away everything that wasn't The David. I see our lives as a process of chipping away until we reach a more authentic self.

Michael T. Young: Do you have a favorite poem in this collection? Which one is it and what is significant about it for you?

Dean Kostos: It's hard to choose. It would either be "Garden" or “Nostalgia for Now.” "Garden" articulates the outsider status of the poet (perhaps of all artists). For many poets, there was an early sense of not belonging, not fitting in. Precisely that perspective places one at an oblique angle to the world. It allows one to see society through a fiery bevel.

"Garden" also plays off of my interest in etymology and religious imagery. For example, the word “stigmata” is the plural of “stigma,” which in Greek literally means "stain." It also clearly has religious connotations, and, more literally, is the central portion of a flower. I like words and images that are overdetermined, allowing for multiple simultaneous meanings. After all, it's a poem about transformations, and it's an elegy. It allows me to write to Daniel Simko, who died before I ever had the chance to know him. His only book, The Arrival, was published posthumously. My stanzas provide windows through which I attempt to make contact with Simko. The "ash" that begins and ends the elegy is a painful remainder of one's physical frailty. Ash is a potent symbol in Hinduism, Christianity and even in Aeschylus' Agamemnon. I would like to point out, however, that the poem is also redemptive, for it begins with brightness and ends with "suns," each of us growing our own.

"Nostalgia for Now" is possibly one of my least linguistically dense poems. A lyric poem, it exists outside of time, enacting vignettes that explore an experience I don't fully understand. The poem makes no attempt to "understand" the phenomenon of recognizing people I have never met before. More than that, I have that emotional tug that one feels upon seeing an old friend, but these people are unknown to me.

Michael T. Young: Are there any prose works that have noticeably influenced your work as a poet? What are they? Can you say in what way you feel this work or works influenced your poetry?

Dean Kostos: Absolutely: Pedro Paramo, by Juan Rulfo; Einstein's Dreams, by Alan Lightman; and Nadja, by Andre Breton. Interestingly, each of those novels concerns regret and the loss of time and options. Each of those novels obsessed me, providing a thick, intoxicating atmosphere to live in. I reread each one several times. And, like any great work of art, each rereading yielded more layers.

Michael T. Young: What do you like to do that has nothing to do with poetry or writing?

Dean Kostos: I love to get away to a place with lots of trees. Bucks County is where I usually go. It's close to New York, but it's sylvan. It also has the Bucks County Playhouse, where I just saw a revival of Neil Simon's 1963 play Barefoot in the Park. In addition to seeing plays and musicals and frequenting shops that sell homemade chocolates, I like to walk along the river and feed the ducks.

Michael T. Young: Let’s close with one of your favorite poems from the collection, “Nostalgia for Now.”

Sometimes I see people
and feel as if I’ve missed them
even though I may
never have met them before.

Say: the way a woman wears
a plum-colored scarf over an old leather jacket
inspires It’s so good to see her again,
but I have never seen her before.

Or: when I spot a young, unshaven
man for the first time—trundling
an encased cello down the street
on its wobbling wheel—

it’s as though I were peering
through memory with great nostalgia:
this moment in September, this wind,
this peculiar green tinge of light.

Find more information about Dean Kostos or his books at his website: