“I wanted your world to unfold/reveal itself its inner workings/as if all that was required was opening/the back of a watch and the whirl and click of you would be visible.” – Carmelo Militano*
He treats his guests like poetic movie stars. Using his deep and throaty radio voice, Carmelo Militano welcomes each writer into the university studio where they will celebrate their literary lives and reveal the inner workings of their writing world.
Since the Fall 2014, this poet, writer, editor, teacher and radio broadcaster hosted and produced a weekly poetry show at CKUW FM 95.9 in Winnipeg, Manitoba, Canada. Called the P. I. New Poetry Show, the program featured over 120 poets and writers from across the country which meant Militano needed to read some 120 books to prepare for the various interviews.
In early 2019, he began his hiatus from the radio show to work on a new book about the life of the Italian painter and sculptor Amedeo Modigliani. Edits for Catching Desire (Ekstasis Editions 2019) were finished this month with a release date expected in the spring 2020 or later this fall 2019.
Over the summer, while waiting for his new book, I read and reviewed for Goodreads his latest short story collection Lost Aria (Ekstasis Editions 2018) and his earlier poetry collection Morning After You (Ekstatis Editions 2014). (Click the links to see my full reviews.)
His literary voice is authentic. Writing about what he knows best, Militano often sets his poems and stories in Italy, Paris, Winnipeg, and rural Manitoba. The descriptions in both cases are long and rich in detail.
For example in one of his stories, he describes the small railway/lumberyard village of St. Lazare, Manitoba by writing “Living and working on the edge of nowhere added to the steady boom of panic and restlessness I was trying to keep at bay.” As a reader, I could smell the used books in the basement and imagine the cottage with the “faded grey and black shingles” and the “cheap pressed wood”.
In his poetry book, his lyric and confessional poems explore the Canadian prairies especially the snow-covered winters and the spring rains of the Winnipeg area as well as across the ocean to the olive and lemon-scented trees of Italy and the romantic settings of Paris.
Both books are also filled with themes of desire and love (platonic, erotic and sometimes scandalous). There is also the theme of loss: loss of a lover, loss of a mother, the spreading of ashes in his stories plus the recurring melancholic reflection on poetry, books, artists, writing, and creating.
Last week, I chatted with Carmelo (via e-mail) about his work as a radio host and his ongoing journey as a poet, author, and teacher. The conversation was edited slightly for length.
Hi Carmelo, let’s start with your role as a radio host. It can be a bit unnerving to be interviewed live on air. What advice would you give to your guests who were being interviewed for the first time? Any secrets for calming nerves?
I think the simplest way to prepare for an interview is to remind yourself to answer in a truthful and honest way. Impossible to mess that up.
Don’t worry about it. Have fun. Be playful if the questions open up that way. You know more about your work than anyone else in the sense you know what went into the making of your book.
Who was your favourite guest and why?
Two tough questions mainly because I interviewed on air so many good poets and writers. I think my interviews with the Toronto poet Julie Cameron Gray and the BC poet Candice James stand out. In both cases we had a lot of good laughs if I recall correctly. They seemed to enjoy themselves and at the same time they gave some thoughtful answers about their work. I try to make my interviews a combination of fun and thoughtful discussion so that the interview does not come across as an exercise in dreary self-importance.
The other interview that stands out in my mind is with the poet Adeena Karasick. She gave a stunning reading/performance of her work-sounds, puns, and sing-song visual images.
You decided to take a hiatus from the radio show to work on a new book. What can your fans expect from this collection? How will it be similar to your other books? How will it differ?
My latest book is about the life and art of the modernist painter and sculptor Amedeo Modigliani called Catching Desire. The publisher is Ekstasis Editions (out of Victoria) who has published my last four books.
The book is similar to my past work in that it is cinematic. The writing is visual and imagistic so I suppose you could call some of the prose, prose poetry but nevertheless the narrative is pretty straight forward. I like to place my reader in his time, place, and describe light, trees, emotions, his paintings, lovers. His life, especially his life as a painter in Paris at the turn of the century, is inherently dramatic.
The book differs from my past work in two ways. First, I am writing about a real person and I used three biographies (one by his daughter Jeanne) to unravel his work, relationships, and aesthetic outlook and to tell his story in a fresh way.
Second, the book uses both poetry and prose to tell his story. This makes his story more intimate and intense; I think. I also include in the story my search for Modigliani in Livorno. The town of his birth, his family history, and my search are all part of the story.
Where do you get your ideas from?
I find reading stimulates my thinking and what I sometimes end up writing about. I borrow themes from other writers and try to make them my own. For example, I noticed some poets often wrote about their family life. So, I thought why not write about mine which is both the same as others but also unique.
I keep a notebook and occasionally a scene for a phrase will emerge from my mind and I will jot it down and then it turns out it will be used and transformed again.
I also draw on my own experience to create characters in prose or speak in an intimate way in poetry about something that made an impression. The impression can come from almost anywhere: driving, talking, reading, memory, childhood, disappointment.
I read somewhere that you found reading easier than writing. At what moment did you decide you wanted to be a writer?
I did not always want to be a writer. I liked sports from an early age, and loved movies instead on Saturday afternoons at the local cinema. But the arts in general attracted me in a big way when I was around 13 or 14. I think the initial attraction was that it seemed to me that actors and writers or film directors were having a lot of fun and acclaim doing their work. At the same time, they could take on serious topics such as family, violence, poverty, relationships, politics, history, spirituality or whatever.
The artistic life also appeared to be so sexy and cool. It seemed to me being an artist gave you the ability to embrace life on your terms and the freedom to be and explore whatever it was that was important to you. What a great gig!
I settled on writing after seeing a play I wrote performed as part of the school’s variety show in junior high. At the time I was also reading Charles Dicken’s David Copperfield and his ability to describe a character and a scene impressed me. I wanted to do the same thing and I guess that was a beginning of sorts. The fact I liked words also fed my desire to write. Finally, the mystery of writing, its magic, its power was a great draw.
Who were your literary mentors and which writer influenced you the most and why?
Well, let’s begin by saying I never had a flesh and blood mentor- a writer or poet who took me under their wing to show or guide or nudge (if you will) the way.
The few writing courses I took were not very helpful.
But I have been a reader from an early age starting all the way back to Grade Four. I should say, however, not always an avid reader. I also liked sports and played football for five years as a teenager.
I think the first major influences on me were initially pop and folk songs. If I really liked a song, I would memorize the lyrics. I can, for example, to this day recite the entire lyrics to an obscure Bob Dylan song called Tom Thumb’s Blues. In high school I took to the poems of Dylan Thomas and T.S. Eliot. But the poet and novelist who impressed me the most and I discovered in university was Michael Ondaatje. I loved the visual way he writes. I like to write in a visual way.
I later took a shine to the prairie poet Robert Krotesch, the Beat Poets, and the warm-hearted and beautiful poet Pablo Neruda who I discovered by accident in the then Eaton’s bookshop one evening after a bad break-up.
Canada is a multi-cultural country. I noticed that many of your poems are influenced by your Italian heritage and that the Italian language is often added to your work. Did you ever feel that your voice was squashed by others? Why or why not?
Yes, I include my Italian culture, and by culture, I include my upbringing and the fact my parents were essentially rural peasants who uprooted themselves and landed in a cold foreign country with little money and no English. I was part of that experience and you cannot ignore it as it shaped your experience as a child. So, that and my desire to understand where I came from, my past, and my parents’ past, seeps into my writing.
In Canada I do not think we actively squash voices so much as simply ignore them. Italian Canadian writers for over thirty years have published works in Canada but other than Nino Ricci and perhaps Mary Di Michele there is not much of an awareness for Italian Canadian writing. It rarely gets reviewed and major cultural institutions such as universities do not pay much attention.
However, let’s be clear about all this: I don’t think being a white European male of Italian descent prevented me from being published but coming from a peasant background did make me doubt my ability to participate in the sophisticated world of writing which in the end is no one’s problem but my own.
Describe your creative writing space.
My writing space is a small brown wooden desk about 2.5 by 2.5 beside a window that overlooks the parking lot below our condo. Decorating the end of the desk is a short glass used for soda water from a café in Milan but now filled with pens, a small fierce looking copy of a mystical Aztec jaguar head from Mexico City used by warriors to scare their enemies before battle; it makes an awful shrinking sound when you blow into the small opening at the top. Last, there is a short green clay Gaudi lizard from Barcelona with red and blue tiles as part of its skin sits on top of a colorful drink coaster from Greece.
There is also a calendar with squares big enough to fill in for appointments, and a few small notebooks one of which I record books read and films watched.
I like to write in silence and in the morning before gym for three or four hours.
To shake things up I sometimes go to Bar Italia here in Winnipeg and write in one of the booths although the place is often noisy and people I know often stop by for a chat.
In both locations I write on/in my laptop. I consult notes sometimes that I have gathered or look for something I vaguely recall writing down. Or I read through my journals in the hope of finding some hidden gem preserved by pen on to paper.
What other hobbies do you have besides writing? What do you do to relax?
My hobbies are gym, travel, visiting second-hand bookstores, reading, exploring Winnipeg’s food scene, and watching art films from Europe or non- commercial film titles at the Cinematheque.
I go to the gym 4-5 times a week and do a combo of spin classes and free weights. I am fit and often tell people I could wrestle a bear for a sandwich. Gym is also my down time.
I am constantly reading. I declared 2019 the year of the ancients and took to reading writers such as Tacitus, Herodotus, and Suetonius. I have fallen off the wagon, however, and impulsively read some Roman, Greek, and WW2 history, the novelists John Banville and Lawrence Durrell, the poetry of Pablo Neruda and Pessoa. I also like to read memoirs and biography. I read at night.
What’s next for Carmelo Militano? In the short term? In the long term?
In the short term, my next project is film. I am the story consultant for Jeff McKay, a documentary film director and partner of EdgeLand Films (Winnipeg) who is creating a film partially based on my first book The Fate of Olives. It was published over twelve years ago now and is out of print, although I hear it can be found on Amazon to my disbelief!
The film is an exploration of landscape, memory, family history, and how all three are involved in the creation of identity. Jeff wants to combine both his family past and my written family history and shoot an evocative poetic film as homage to both.
We are off to Italy and the Channel Islands for two weeks in November 2019.
In the long term I want to write another book. I have already written two books of poetry and four books of prose. My next work is vague in my mind, but I want to write an evocative and poetic erotic mystery story. Anais Nin meets Raymond Chandler mash up or if you like film China Town meets Last Tango in Paris.
Thanks Carmelo! Wishing you continued success with your work.
Carmelo Militano is the author of two books of poetry (Morning After You and The Stone Mason’s Notebook) and four books of prose. He is the winner of the F.G. Bressani award for poetry, 2004. His prose works include the novel, Sebastiano’s Vine, a short story collection Lost Aria, and the Italian travelogue/memoir The Fate of Olives. Militano’s latest work is Catching Desire ( Ekstasis Editions), the life and art of the modernist painter and sculptor Amedeo Modigliani to be published spring 2020 or late fall 2019.
Information about his latest books can be found on the Ekstasis Editions backlist!