My journey to the prose poem took many years to develop. When I was in the seventh grade I wrote a 200-word essay on poetry using alliteration throughout the piece. My teacher, Sister Mary Francesca, impressed with my effort, said to me that I should try to write poetry, she said, “And Joseph, in a poem you don’t have to punctuate”; she knew I had a fear of punctuation. So I began there, and for a few years wrote a few poems, and because of the freedom of not having to use commas, periods, and that monstrous semi-colon, I sort of self-taught myself how to line break. Later in my twenties I embraced punctuation, found that it really was a valuable tool. It was in 2012, when I started work on a poem about the lynchings of African-Americans that I found that an unpunctuated approach gave me more freedom. Here are the first few words from that poem titled “Little,” which is the name of a soldier, Private William Little, who had just returned from serving in WW1 and was beaten up and murdered for wearing his uniform, the only clothes he owned:
“If he had the sense he was born with but he did if he’d taken off his doughboy
uniform that a hostile band of whites demanded but he didn’t …”
I quickly saw that with that freedom came a need to find the right transitions so that the reader wouldn’t get frustrated and give up. As you can feel in my poem in the Sonora Review, “What’s Wrong with That Boy,” there’s a tension that, I think, wouldn’t work as well in a more structured form. So I now think of my style as a prose poem in a poem-box, something both contained and free to bounce off the walls
How does this published piece fit in with the larger thematic concerns that you see in your overall work?
Aside from my early juvenilia poems, I’ve always been drawn to writing on social issues: child abuse and the abuse of women, the aforementioned crimes against African-Americans, anti-war poems (I served three tours in Vietnam), and bullying etc. The poem in the Sonora Review was inspired by a real event I witnessed as a teen. I saw an older boy set fire to a cat; that horrible image has stayed with me, and finally after many years I was able to write about it, though I think I need to do more. Also as poet laureate of Marin County, CA (2013-2015), I put together a book of poems, letters, and other writings, Changing Harm to Harmony,” on the theme of bullies and bystanders. I received submissions from all across America, some pieces showed the darker side of humanity, poems and letters that thought the bullied should just get over it, and that Americans are weak and crybabies, and other pieces that showed compassion, asked for forgiveness, showed remorse. In addition, I raised over $17,000.00 that I donated to inner city high schools, poetry programs, and organizations that helped LGBT teens and seniors who are bullied.
What are you influenced by?
I am mostly influenced by the kindness of most people, their generosity, their willingness to admit mistakes, and too, from the horrible crimes of hatefulness, and how the survivors and the wounded cope and learn to forgive. In particular the horrible murder of nine church members in Charlotte, North Carolina; the friends and family of those fine people killed did not want revenge. What amazing strength they all showed. I don’t know, if given a similar situation, whether I could do the same.
What does your typical writing schedule look like? What aspects of working do you look forward to? What aspects frustrate you?
I write very, very slowly. Each day, in the morning, I try to write something, then return to poems I’ve been working on for months, somehow this works, even poems that seem like sleeping dogs will finally wake up to what it is that they want to do. I guess I wait for the poem to find me. In the evening I read for about three hours, I start with poems from new and old books of poetry, poetry/prose journals (I subscribe to six and read them all), and then read biographies of poets and writers, essays, philosophy, news on my I-phone, then sleep soundly. For me this is a good addiction, both reading and sleeping.
For fun, if you could pick one meal that matches the piece we published, what would it be and why?
This is hard to answer, since my poem is about a boy who sets a cat on fire. I guess I’d copy the Chinese poet Su Tung-Po who tried to live by eating only the rays of the sun.
JOSEPH ZACCARDI lives in a tree house in Fairfax; born in Newark, New Jersey on Labor Day, as a youngster he thought that that holiday was to commemorate his mother’s labor while giving birth to him. He has been drawn to poetry because every poem has multiple meanings and in some ways a poem is like a child’s birth. Each day he tosses seeds from an imaginary apple tree. His fourth collection, A Wolf Stands Alone in Water, was published by CW Books in the fall of 2015. www.josephzaccardi.com