An Interview with Frank Paino
1. When did you start writing poetry? What led you to begin writing?
I began writing poetry around 1987. I’d just returned to college after a hiatus of sorts and my first class was British Lit…the Romantics, in particular. I fell in love with Shelley, Byron and Keats. I was also inspired by William Morris and his contention that people should be actively involved in creating art. What I really would have loved to do was paint and sculpt, but I knew I had no talent in either of those areas…so I determined I would use language as my paintbrush and chisel. The history of my writing is the history of a frustrated painter/sculptor.
2.Who or what has influenced your poetry the most? Who are your favorite poets?
I have always loved to read about strange, little-known historical facts, particularly if they involve dramatic events. I have an impulse to bring those stories alive in my poetry…to illuminate some of the darker corners of life and try to find beauty even in those places, if only through language.
I am also pretty obsessed with exploring stories and ideas foisted on me during a Catholic education that ran from first grade up to college. I was immersed in a bunch of nonsense that encouraged and celebrated twisted and repressive views of sex and sexuality. A number of my poems attempt to revise the myths of saints and biblical figures in a way that illuminates the manner in which those stories seek to make people feel guilty or ashamed of their sexuality or, more broadly speaking, their human nature.
As for favourite poets…my first teacher was the late Paula Rankin. I then studied with Rick Jackson, Mark Doty, Lynda Hull and David Wojahn for my MFA, so they certainly had some influence on my early writing. Nowadays, I am less inclined to choose favourite poets and more inclined to pick favourite poems. That being said, I really love the work of Linda Bierds, Michael Waters, Larry Levis, Beckian Fritz Goldberg and Mary Oliver, to name just a few.
3. Many of your poems seem influenced by a religious imagination (though not necessarily an orthodox one)--do you agree?
Oh, I absolutely agree!
Having been raised Catholic, I was exposed to a lot of wonderfully bizarre stories of saints and their extreme penitential practices. I was surrounded by statues of women broken on the wheel or holding their eyes on platters and men pierced with arrows… and, of course, the crucifix. These are all powerful images and they certainly influenced the formation of my psyche.
Having long ago rejected any kind of religious faith, I am, nevertheless, grateful for that early exposure, as it has served me well with regard to my writing. It provided me with a deep well from which to draw stories and images.
I also have a strong inclination to revise a lot of the religious myths in one way or another. Sometimes, it’s merely to point out their “shortcomings,” if you will. Other times, it’s an attempt to shed a different light on the people or tales themselves. Either way, it’s revisionist.
4. Your poems have strong narrative lines and drama in them--in what ways is that important to you?
I am almost exclusively a narrative poet and that is most-assuredly my preference in the poetry I read. Of course, story alone isn’t enough to make a poem work for me…there has to be some sense of tension, of what is at stake.
I write the sort of poems I like to read. I don’t write for any particular audience, either, though I am deeply grateful to those gracious enough to read my work. I imagine others who read poetry come to the craft for the same reasons I do…to find beauty in language and, hopefully, to glimpse some sort of truth. For me, the narrative is the most effective way to achieve those goals.
5. What is your writing process like? How do you revise? How long do you let a poem sit before sending it out?
My writing process can best be described as torture! At least at the outset. Getting a poem started is always the most difficult thing for me. With few exceptions, I sit down to write having no idea what it is I am going to write about. Of course, the subconscious is extremely compelling. Things I have read, images I have seen, all sorts of things I have picked up along the way are waiting there. It’s a matter of tapping into that.
Generally speaking, I will begin with a word, phrase or image and just start writing around that. If I am really fortunate, after a few hours I’ll get on some sort of roll. I’ll just let the words spill onto the page and they will be almost self-directed, relating to each other and the generative word/phrase/image. It’s almost a trance-like state when I finally fall into it.
When I finish with that, I will have a “blob.” A shapeless mass of words that tell (or try to tell) some sort of story. For me, that is when the fun starts. I can, at that point, begin to play with line-breaks, sharpening language, discovering what the poem is really about.
Revision is a process I can get lost in. Indeed, I am often reminded of Wilde who quipped how he’d spent the entire morning working on a poem only to remove a comma which he subsequently added back in the afternoon.
For me, revision can be a seduction and a curse. I obsess over getting things “just right,” but, frustrating as it is, I never really feel I achieve that goal. In that sense, I couldn’t agree more with Valery who famously stated, “A poem is never finished, only abandoned.”
As for how long I let a poem sit…that depends. I am really loath to sit down and get things ready for submission. It seems every journal wants work in a different format and I don’t have a lot of patience with messing around with that. The fact that my typing abilities and knowledge of Word and Pages are grossly anemic further compounds the situation. So, largely, what holds me back is my own laziness and incompetence. It also follows that I don’t do a lot of simultaneous submitting (where editors allow it) because I just can’t seem to gather enough steam to go through all of the formatting, etc.. I often wish I could pay someone to submit for me.
That being said, I don’t feel I need to let poems sit once I believe I have tinkered enough. Again, my revision process is exhaustive. At some point, I simply have to force myself to “abandon.” Sadly, almost without exception, when I see one of my poems in print, I see changes I would like to make. I am never satisfied.