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10 Questions for David Torneo


my mother was never mistaken
for a junkshop trumpet
or a yard sale saxophone, not even a xylophone
with its teeth knocked out,
nor was she a late night
tone deaf lounge siren,
but there was enough cacophony
and wild-ass mock jubilation
crueler than money
pouring out of the instrument of her throat
to stun a family of bison,

from “Friday Night Fights,” Volume 60, Issue 4 (Winter 2019)

 

Tell us about one of the first pieces you wrote.
The first poem accepted for publication was back in the mid-1980s was titled “A Tale of Two Dogs”. From what I recall, I was under the influence of several poets at the time, significantly Kenneth Rexroth. Rexroth had a big presence on the West Coast for many years, and I find it a shame his name has all but disappeared. I grew up in California and made many trips up into the Sierra Nevada Mountains and along the Big Sur coast range, exploring the backcountry as he did. Thinking about him now, he must have been a real model for me, a distant mentor I suppose you could say.  His own poems as well as his translations from the Chinese had a tremendous impact on the work of poets for a long time.

That early poem of mine carries his imprint I’m sure in the way it considers place, my immediate surroundings at the time living near the foothills of Santa Barbara, the presence of the Pacific Ocean, constellations overhead, Orion in particular, our relationship to the animals living nearby, and the transformative power of the imagination. The two dogs of the poem turn into Mule Deer in the end.
 

What writers or works have influenced the way you write now?
I’m very lucky to have great friends who’ve brought the work of many great poets into my orbit and influence my work, and I know without a doubt are sources of inspiration. Gary Snyder, Robert Hass, Galway Kinnell, Elizabeth Bishop, Stanley Kunitz, Philip Levine, Denise Levertov, and Carolyn Forche. These poets still mean a lot to me, and I go back to them with great pleasure and respect.

Just to name a few over the last few years, Patrick Rosal’s Bonesheperds, Steve Scafidi’s For the Love of Common Words, and Ross Gay’s Catalogue of Unabashed Gratitude. Over the long haul, it’s been Frank O’Hara’s Lunch Poems and Gerald Stern’s Lucky Life and The Red Coal.  I would be remiss to omit my poet friends Yalie Kamara for her compassion and lyricism, and Chris Mattingly for his grit and music, his tenacity and fearlessness, and the encouragement I receive from them both.
 

What other professions have you worked in?
For 16 years I was the clinical coordinator for a youth shelter in Bloomington, Indiana where I worked with runaway and homeless youth.  In California I was lucky enough to work for a community mental health program that offered group therapy and socialization for homeless mentally ill adults. The latter job was a mix of social work, community outreach, and counseling.  Those jobs have had a big impact on my life. Currently I work for a national organization called CASA, an acronym for Court Appointed Special Advocates. We train and supervise over 150 amazing, compassionate and dedicated volunteers who advocate for children removed from their home due to abuse and neglect. Our task is to represent the children in court, among other things.
 

What did you want to be when you were young?
I remember going to church as a boy and praying to be a running back for the Green Bay Packers. As a youth, I was preoccupied with sports at an unhealthy level. Whatever season it happened to be, that sport consumed me, night and day. In junior high, high school and beyond I was a bona fide ‘gym rat’, always in search of a gymnasium. Do they still exist, or is every hour scheduled for kids these days and supervised by adults? We would pile in someone’s car and drive all over the county looking for an open gym. A few of us on my high school basketball team were given keys to our school’s gym, no questions asked. In those days there was apparently no concerns with liability. Once I tried to compete in basketball at the junior college level, I knew I had hit the end of the road, the end of a dream.
 

What inspired you to write this piece?
In a roundabout way, the paintings and life of Lucian Freud inspired me to look at my childhood, my family, and my parents’ marriage in an unsparing way, close up, including all the blemishes, so to speak. I read Phoebe Hoban’s short biography of Freud, Eyes Wide Open, and went to a small exhibit of his paintings in New York City at the Acquavella Galleries. My son Adam lives in Philadelphia, and during one of my visits to see him, we made a point of traveling to New York to look at Freud’s work. The honesty of his portraits is very moving. Spellbinding too. You feel a bit like a voyeur gazing at these nude monumental figures. What I love about Freud’s portraits is his non-judgmental depiction, the fact of the body. In the poem published in MR, I tried to be as honest as Freud, sticking to facts the best I could. Of course, no model was sitting in front of me, I only had my memory, and I did my best to allow the poem to go where it needed to.
 

Is there a city or place, real or imagined, that influences your writing?
New York City from 1954 to 1966, a time and place I tend to romanticize.
 

Is there a specific music that aids you through the writing or editing process?
I usually require silence when writing, but during the revision process, I enjoy listening to music. I love John Coltrane’s work in general, but three pieces in particular put me in the right mood—"Central Park West,” “Naima,” and “A Love Supreme.” The first two put me in a contemplative space, and the last strikes me as the apex of spiritual and creative exploration.
 

Who typically gets the first read of your work?
As I said above, I’m fortunate to have good friends with whom I can share my work. I’ve just started attending a small weekly gathering of writers who are kind and caring, nurturing, honest, and sincerely eager to read each other’s work. This is a real gift. For years, a group of us met weekly at the Green Bean coffee shop on 4th Street here in Bloomington to share poems. We disbanded due to various reasons, life changes, etc. and I know we all miss those relationships that were formed, the regularity and trust of those gatherings.  A few of us have decided to meet again, not all of the original poets, but a few of us from the Green Bean days.
 

What are you working on currently?
I’m revising a longish poem tentatively titled “My Virgil”. I’m guided by a poet I revere through an underworld that includes moments in my life I would like to retrace and reclaim. There is a section where I attempt to explain to my late father our country’s current predicament.  I ultimately ask for forgiveness.
 

What are you reading right now?
I’m in the middle of a long beautiful novel by Jun’ichirō Tanizaki, The Makioka Sisters.
 

DAVID TORNEO has had poems published in Another Chicago Magazine, The Café Review, Mudfish, Limestone Post Magazine (online), and Monster House (online). Monster House Press printed his poem “Intimations of Happiness Deferred” in the Monster House Press pamphlet series. He is a co-founder of Ledge Mule Press and the editor of Pickpocket Books, all based in Bloomington, IN.


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