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Inspired Poetics. Harold Heft interviews Pier Di Cicco
by Harold Heft

Pier Giorgio Di Cicco's career trajectory is the stuff of CanLit legend. From 1975-86, he published 13 books of poetry¨a blistering pace that prompted one reviewer to ask: "Can [Di Cicco] produce one and sometimes two books a year of 'mature work?'" By the mid-'80s he was a rising star, gracing the cover of Toronto's Now Magazine, dubbed the "father of Italian-Canadian writing."
After 1986, though, Di Cicco went silent, disappearing into a monastery and, subsequently, the priesthood. This silence was broken in 2001 with the appearance of a volume of new and selected poems, Living in Paradise. Then, last year, he published a breakthrough collection, The Honeymoon Wilderness. The 14 years of literary inactivity, it seems, provided a period of imaginative, spiritual and intellectual incubation. The poems of The Honeymoon Wilderness, in their attempt to reconcile the human and divine, achieve a level of heightened clarity and intensity hitherto unseen in Di Cicco's work, or that of most other writers. In his new incarnation, Di Cicco has emerged as one of the few poets alive with the courage to explore mind, soul, the mundane quotidian, the spectacular revelations of nature, urban dizziness and rural silence for signs of divine transcendence.
Pier Giorgio Di Cicco The phrase "honeymoon wilderness" refers to Di Cicco's self-imposed isolation in rural parish life. The volume is divided into four sections, loosely representing the three acts of the poet's journey: "Preamble", which reflects on the spiritual vacillations of his early monastic days; "Marrying God", an extended contemplation of God's omnipresence; and the final two sections, "Nights in the Country" and "The Simple Breeze in the Willow", consisting of poems that consider the quest for holiness as an ongoing, sometimes commonplace state of being. If the opening lines of Walt Whitman's "Song of Myself" position the poet's consciousness at the centre of all things, then the beginning of "Marrying God" boldly reestablishes the divine as the origin, the underlying creative progenitor: "my god blesses forks and spoons, / and bad sex and bad livers and Pontiac chrome, / chicken and silence. he sifts crowds of busy people / through his hands like sand and wakes me with / new scripts."
The following interview was conducted by e-mail, one or two questions at a time, in December-January 2003

Harold Heft: Between 1975 and 1986, you emerged as one of Canada's most committed and prolific young poets. Then, for the next 15 years, you completely withdrew from the poetry scene into a life of service in the Catholic Church. Can you describe the process of suspending your writing in order to immerse yourself in this new role?

Pier Giorgio Di Cicco: I didn't suspend my writing; it simply became prayer. The same creative juices, aimed at a new direction. What got suspended was "publishing." Prayer is not just formal and repetitious; it is poetic at its best. Once I discovered this, I was fascinated, and it was that which first propelled me to monastic life. The publishing silence was easy. Publishing is merely about "being heard." When the poems become prayers, one doesn't have a lot of quandaries about being heard." Heard by whom?¨one might ask. The existentialism of that is its own story, and everyone writes their own ending to it.

HH: If your writing became prayer over that 15-year period, what inspired the decision, in 2001 and again in 2002, to begin sharing those poems/prayers again?

PGDC: Denis De Klerck, an old friend and publisher of The Mansfield Press, thought there was a readership that wanted my work back in circulation and he suggested we bring out a "New and Selected". At the same time I'd been dialoguing with Dennis Lee who had edited several of my books for McClelland & Stewart in the seventies and eighties. He offered to edit the new and selected for Mansfield. I thought it was a great chance to work with dear and respected friends in an unpressured way. And the experience inspired more writing. I don't think I would have published again in different circumstances.

HH: What is the function of prayer?

PGDC: Prayer is what we function by. It is like oxygen; it is everywhere available in degrees, and when it is not, the human ecosystem ceases to function. When prayer is unavailable, the spirit ceases to function, and the body breaks down. If we must give it a "function"¨it is restorative, it refers a person to meaning, it heals, it illuminates, it grounds, it recalls our point of departure, and refreshes our destiny, and makes the traveling in-between bearable and sometimes beautiful.

HH: Are prayers¨either the prayers of organized religion or the poem/prayers gathered in The Honeymoon Wilderness¨dialogues with God or dialogues with ourselves on the subject of God?

PGDC: Strictly speaking, prayers are dialogues with God. But sometimes they are also a "listening" to God; and in some poems in The Honeymoon Wilderness the reader can eavesdrop on "prayer space"¨or a locus that is mindful of God. Art does that. And I don't mean the poetry of socio-political discourse and the necessary delineation of the ugliness of the world. When art touches the sublime, it points to the ineffable. Any subject will do. One doesn't need a "God-subject." All subjects are God-subjects, and all poems function as prayer when they conjure a rich existentialism.

HH: The extended poem, "Marrying God", is probably the most prayer-like piece in The Honeymoon Wilderness. Can you explain why you chose to write the entire piece in lower case letters, including the "g" in "god"?

PGDC: Lower case freed me from the spectre of some rhetorical restraints. Upper case letters typographically signal an import, as punctuation signals endings and movement shifts. They orchestrate breath phrasing and offer syntactical parallelism and symmetries. "Marrying God" has clausal ambiguities that function by relating to a previous clause and the forthcoming clause. Upper case makes that leap-frogging more difficult. Similarly, capitalized names and places distract from the clausal ambiguities (i.e. functional ambiguities). It's like water flowing through a pipe without valves¨the movement is dictated by elevation and turns in the pipe and by pressure. The last section in the book returns to caps, because it uses idiom that is rather more conventional than the jazziness of "Marrying God".

HH: In the poem "Fr. Eugene", you write that "when you can see the / angelic in the imbecilic you're close to god." Someone said that "silliness is a state of grace." What's the connection between the absurd and the divine?

PGDC: One sometimes hears it said that God likes to play. Play is one of things he does, and I don't mean playing hide and seek with reality. He rejoices in the elemental gifts, as children do, as the witless do, as the wise do. There is no connection between the absurd and the divine. The absurd is an ironic statement on reality. God has no irony. The ironic is what we do. The essence of absurdity is that something simple was achieved, or seen, by unnecessary means. The foolishness of that, when realized, may lead to an intuition of the divine, of how undemanding and grand the "divine" is.

HH: Why do coyotes appear in so many of the poems of The Honeymoon Wilderness?

PGDC: I hear coyotes at night, in the country. They are generally invisible. Their wail is like sound of trains, evocative of a longing or the pain of longing. You do not see the poet. But you have the poetry of longing. You can only guess at the animal that made the music, and this gives the music a kind of poignancy.

HH: In the poem "Cowboy on Horse in Desert", the speaker identifies with a painting of a cowboy in mid-journey, "caught in neither leaving nor arriving." Finally, both speaker and cowboy are "satisfied" with the journey itself, "taken into a future that never comes." I can see where Di Cicco the poet would be satisfied with this romantic posture of finding meaning in an indeterminate search for meaning, but doesn't Di Cicco the priest require something more affirming, redemptive?

PGDC: Mind you, the last line of the poem is "I can wish you nothing that you do not already have, and that is your wish for me," so that the "affirming" comes from acknowledgement of the "grace that is," or appreciation for what one already has. And poems help that along. They track our arrival to the sufficiency of all things. To find meaning in an "indeterminate" search for meaning, as you put it, would be worse than romantic. It would be cheap semiotics. But what's interesting in your question is the implied antithesis between the "romantic" and the "redemptive." The "romantic" is sacrifice of any sort begotten of compassion. This is redemptive. It is Christic. We must stop denigrating the word "romantic", confusing it as we do with something that is opposed to reality. A reality unredeemed by sacrifice, poetic or religious, is no reality at all.

HH: Poetry, as Irving Layton taught us, is freedom. Organized religion implies adherence to an imposed structure, order, formalism. Can one be fully immersed in both these camps?

PGDC: The answer is a multiple choice answer. (1) Anyone who knows poetry knows that poetry adheres to organization, structure, order and form (2) Anyone who knows religion knows it is not very organized (3) The temporal contingencies of inspiration have always been a nuisance (4) The mystical writers in any religion are "free." (5) The real enemy of poetic freedom is "political correctness." How well do you think Irving Layton's poetry would have fared read to a faculty of eco-feminists?

HH: You have been compared to Layton in the past. Are you wary of releasing your own work into this type of intellectual climate?

PGDC: In so far as Irving's poetry spoke of the importance of expressing one's opinions and values boldly, and in so far as any poet worth a hill of beans does that, what's the virtue in being wary? William Butler Yeats wrote on the eve of World War I (and the verse still applies): "The best lack all conviction, while the worst are full of passionate intensity"; if that resonates in "this type of intellectual climate," then silence is complicity.

HH: Where do you go from here?

PGDC: I don't know. I do know what I will take with me: an old distaste for dualisms, a dread of the "disincarnate" as advertised by technology and intellectualism, a growing suspicion that the "divine" is under your nose and at the same time transcendent. Fifteen years of absenteeism from the literary community has a kind of "Rip Van Winkle" effect. You wake up with the dreams you fell asleep with, with an idea that they might be useful. ˛
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