Among cold things, I whisper your name/in the sweetness of morning jams, evening fruits/and the Atlantic that draws me towards you. – John Di Leonardo*
February perfumes the air with desire and passion fruit while the cover of John Di Leonardo’s debut poetry collection Conditions of Desire is scarlet like rose petals, like a daring shade of lipstick, like Cupid’s heart.
Launched in late October 2018 by The John B. Lee Signature Series imprint of Hidden Brook Press, this 74-page collection of 54 ekphrastic poems evolved from Di Leonardo’s visual art exhibition “The Contentious Nude in the History of Canadian Art.”
As Lee penned for the back cover, “John Di Leonardo’s masterful ekphrastic project involves the writing of a collection of fine poems each of which is inspired by an original work of art. Although he is working in the poetic tradition of Keats’s “Ode on a Grecian Urn” and Auden’s “Musée des Beaux Arts,” Di Leonardo is first and foremost a painter who brings to bear the eye of a man whose primary art is visual.”
His transition–from an established artist and visual arts teacher to a poet who paints with his words–has been fascinating to watch.
In my view, what made this debut collection strong was that Di Leonardo used his knowledge of art to select similar themed or linked paintings/sculptures/drawings (spanning from 1486 to 2010) to ensure that his ekphrastic poems exhibited a cohesive theme of desire: loss, lust, longing, and love. The poems are accessible and can stand on their own without the art references but for those who are willing to search the images on the internet, like I did, the experience will add another dimension to the work. Although all the poems were inspired by work by either the Masters or several contemporary artists, the book also includes both a striking cover image of the back of a woman and a centerfold of six graphite drawings showcasing Di Leonardo’s artistic talent. What a gift to mix the different creative mediums together!
While I’m not a huge fan of certain types of desire-themed poems nor this book’s obsession with the woman’s body and the human form, I am impressed by Di Leonardo’s minimalist style with poems no longer than half to a full page in length. Several lines were so unique and strong, they remained with me. In the poem “Nude” inspired by A. Maillol’s “Ile –de France’ Sculpture/Bronze, 1925 he writes: Then the softness of her step/turned bronze//transient as//autumn leaves/ on sullen passersby. (p. 37) In the poem “Longing”: Your black bridal veil/grows tangled/by slabs of satin tears/whites of coffin velvets. (p. 59) In “Suffragette”: Her red hair/with hints of rebellion/the colour of coals. (p. 60)
Earlier this week, I chatted with John about his journey as both an artist and a poet.
Hi John, You’ve taught visual arts for thirty years. At what moment did you decide to start writing poetry and what motivated you to continue honing your literary skills to the point of having a book published?
I did publish a few poems in my early twenties, but I decided to focus on the visual arts. I returned to poetry after a thirty year hiatus, when I retired in 2010. Our children were grown and, of course, that phase of life you have extra time to pursue your hobbies.
As far as honing literary skills or skills in any field, I am a true believer in the 10,000 hour practice theory. After retirement I joined a number of poetry groups, and this was my training ground over the years. I became involved in executive duties, newsletter writing, judging competitions, editing and compiling anthologies among other duties.
I must say that reading and editing hundreds of poems over a seven year period is great training. After a while I began to develop a sixth sense for distinguishing a mediocre poem from a good or exceptional one. In the process, of course, I developed as a reader. I began to read poetry as a writer, taking poems apart to see how they were constructed in order to create their intended impact.
Also, I entered countless competitions, and learned the necessary skill of coping with stacks of rejections. Persistence pays off. My wife tells me I’m the most determined individual she knows.
Describe your creative writing space. (For example, Do you write with pen and paper or start your drafts on the computer? Do you have a favourite chair or special coffee shop seat? Work in silence or with music playing in the background? etc.)
I usually write or paint with early morning light, with a strong espresso or two. I love the solitude and clarity of mind this time of day offers. I write at my desk or armchair overlooking our Brooklin pond usually filled with geese. This view has generated many poems.
I have tried writing on the computer, phone, recordings, but pencil on paper is still my favourite method. There is an organic feeling, an immediate flow working with pencil on paper unfelt with any other medium. After a few pencil drafts, I then rewrite and re-edit the poem countless times on the computer.
Your debut collection of 54 ekphrastic poems reminded me of strolling through a well-planned exhibition in an art gallery. The poems, the artwork that inspired the poetry, plus your own graphite drawings published in the middle of the book, were all linked to the many facets of desire; loss, lust, longing, love theme. Where did the idea for this book come from? Did you start with the theme or did the theme just evolve naturally from the individual work?
Debbie, I am glad you mention that the book feels like strolling through a well-planned exhibition, that was my intention.
The book’s meditation on the many facets of desire; love, loss, lust, longing, evolved in part from a body of large format drawings I was working on at the time for an upcoming exhibition at The Robert McLaughlin Gallery in Oshawa, Ontario on the theme of “The Contentious Nude in the History of Canadian Art.”
Also, the old adage to “write what you know” helped develop my focus and theme. My life has always revolved around the making and teaching of art. I began to revisit paintings and other artworks through the eyes of a poet, that was when the writing began to take shape as a collection of ekphrastic poems.
Ekphrastic poetry is as old as Homer’s Iliad, with many other poets such as Virgil, John Keats, Browning, W.H. Auden, William Carlos Williams exploring the form.
This being said, I have always felt that traditional ekphrastic poetry places too much emphasis on the elaborate description of artwork I wanted to explore other possibilities of the contemporary ekphrastic poem.
I wanted to use the art of the ages as a springboard for character and story. I wanted to use sensual, impressionistic images suggested by these artworks as a set of dots as it were, contextual clues for the reader to experience the poem’s multiple viewpoints.
All your poems are quite accessible, written concisely, in some cases in a minimalist style. They often mimicked light graphic sketches or a thin stroke of watercolour. I didn’t notice any rhymes but I noticed visual patterns on the page. Would you call yourself a people’s poet? Why or why not?
My earlier poems were more narrative in tone, but over time I came to feel what Ann Carson called “combatting the boredom of storytelling.” I read poetry daily; the majority of poems I come across seem to be in the narrative/confessional tradition. I find that I rarely go back and re-read these types of poems, for me they tend to give away too much imagination for story sake.
I suppose because of my visual arts background, I prefer a poetry of precise images, sharp, clear, compressed language, and elliptical image patterns where the reader gleans a personal understanding from contextual clues. This type of verse requires a few careful readings to absorb the subtle, sometimes dense layers of meaning in the poem. To answer your question, I guess that at this point in my writing evolution I would not call myself “A People’s Poet.”
In 2011, your painting of a white mask surrounded by a collage of images was used for the cover of Spirit Eyes and Fireflies, an annual membership anthology of The Ontario Poetry Society (TOPS). It was a striking image. This spring, you will not only have your work on the cover and inside the 2019 membership anthology Dancing on Stones, but you will also be editing and compiling the poems. What are you looking for? Any other advice you would like to share with those members still planning to submit work.
One of my favourite definitions of poetry is by the baroque Jesuit poet Tommaso Ceva that poetry is; “a dream dreamed in the presence of reason”.
I think, we all love reading genuine words that surprise and fly us off the page no matter the form or style of poetry. I feel all artists need to take imaginative risks, especially when they become comfortable with a current manner of expression. I feel that when you begin to copy yourself, you begin to die artistically!
What are your long term plans after the anthology is complete?
I have begun a book-long ekphrastic poem based on one painting. One third of the book is complete as a first draft; I’ve given myself five years to complete the project. I’m terrified and excited at the same time!
Thanks John! Sounds like a challenging project. Keep me posted!
John Di Leonardo is a Canadian visual artist/poet. He has published two award winning chapbooks Book of Hours (2014), Starry Nights (2015), and is the recipient of the 2017 Ted Plantos Memorial Award. John’s book of ekphrastic poems Conditions of Desire was published in 2018 by Hidden Brook Press. He writes and paints in Brooklin, Ontario. For additional information about his arts events and projects, visit his website.
On his website’s event page: view a video of Di Leonardo recorded this past January at the Robert McLaughlin Gallery, Friday Night Events OR listen to an audio clip of his book launch, held October 28, 2018 at the Supermarket Restaurant and Bar in Toronto and recorded by Queen’s University Radio Station 101.9 fm.
Additional information about his debut trade book can be found on the Hidden Brook Press website.
Anthology Submission Call Reminder for Members of The Ontario Poetry Society:
March 15, 2019 is the deadline for submissions to the 2019 TOPS membership anthology, Dancing on Stones to be edited and illustrated by John Di Leonardo. Please submit your ten best poems on the themes of Landforms/Natural Environments, Music, Relationships, Impactful Situations. More information here.