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Maggie Millner

Putting to Verse a Childhood Spent with Barnabas Collins: Q&A with Tony Trigilio

(photo by Jacob S. Knabb)

(photo by Jacob S. Knabb)

The Complete Dark Shadows (of My Childhood): Book 1 (BlazeVOX; 104 pages) is a batty new book-length poem from Chicago poet Tony Trigilio that takes as its inspiration the ’60s Gothic soap opera, Dark Shadows. Since he watched the series as a child with his mother, Trigilio has been haunted by the series’ vampiric hero, Barnabas Collins, whose compulsive bloodlust fostered a host of neuroses in the young poet. In an effort to face his demons, compose his memoirs, and keep alive the memory of his mother—all the while combining elements of kitsch, ekphrasis, and new formalism—Trigilio writes one sentence for each of the 1,225 episodes of Dark Shadows, which he then enjambs into series of couplets. Book 1, comprising episodes 210 through 392, is the first installation of the project. By turns comic and heartrending, lyric and absurd, The Complete Dark Shadows (of My Childhood) collages elements from dreams, memories, and pop-culture into a strangely compelling portrait of the little boy who turned into Tony Trigilio. We interviewed Trigilio about his new book via email.

ZYZZYVA: I want to start by asking how this book came about. You mention that David Trinidad sent you the link to the boxed set on Amazon, but I wonder if you had conceived of the project before then—if systematically revisiting Dark Shadows was a task you knew would be necessary for creative and psychological growth?

Tony Trigilio: David’s soap opera epic, Peyton Place: A Haiku Soap Opera, is a direct inspiration for my book. He’s a very close friend, and we regularly exchange and critique each other’s poems. As we talked about his Peyton Place haiku—he wrote one haiku for every episode of Peyton Place—we occasionally found ourselves on tangents about the Dark Shadows fixations that haunted me as a child. He encouraged me to write about them, and the idea for the poem took off from there. I felt I couldn’t just respond to individual episodes or scenes or images. Instead, I had to write about the show in its totality. The only way to do this was to watch every minute of every episode—one sentence per episode, trusting the ekphrastic mode to guide the poems where they needed to go autobiographically.

Sounds great, but here’s where I nearly went off the rails: I thought Dark Shadows only consisted of 300-400 episodes when I started the project, and I didn’t realize until I was 38 episodes into the project that the show actually lasted for 1,225 episodes. Watching over a thousand episodes of a soap opera seemed too outrageous to even imagine. So I decided to try to imagine it. After all, I had only written 38 sentences at this point in the project, which made me feel like the poem could absorb any kind of radical change in my method. I really hadn’t become attached to anything structural in the poem yet, except working from sentence-based phrasing and breaking the lines into couplets, and then concluding each segment of the poem with a final, one-line stanza. The poem became a kind of impossible object once I realized I had committed to 1,225 sentences. And I loved how this change in plans introduced a new tension in my writing process, forcing a collision between my fixations on the minute particulars of language-making and the patience required for writing as an act of radical endurance.

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Living With Others and the Earth: ‘Ask Me: 100 Essential Poems of William Stafford’

Ask Me “Ask me whether / what I’ve done is my life,” writes William Stafford in the title poem of the recently released Ask Me: 100 Essential Poems (Graywolf Press; 128 pages). Published a century after his birth and twenty-one years after his death, the new collection includes 100 of Stafford’s “essential poems,” anthologized and introduced by his son, Kim. These poems repeatedly pose questions of individual and collective identity, challenging those false equivalences between our behaviors and our selves, and positing alternative relationships between the personal and political, the poetic and the vernacular. Ask Me suggests that Stafford’s life is larger than the sum of its actions—larger enough that it keeps speaking, years after it is over.

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The Remnants of the Dead Stir Minor Resurrections: Emilia Philips’ ‘Signaletics’

Signaletics“Don’t ask where the teeth are / you exchanged for coins as a child,” advises Emilia Phillips in the opening poem of Signaletics, her first full-length poetry collection (University of Akron Press, 72 pages). But Phillips goes on to do exactly that: to root out the relics of childhood, and to recover systematically the physical residues of the estranged and the deceased. While the poems of Signaletics vary stylistically from dense prose sequences to neat series of couplets or tercets (including a sonnet), all address the material narratives we inscribe on our surroundings—with our fingerprints and possessions, lipstick stains and letters.

The book takes its name from a system of anthropometry conceived by Alphonse Bertillon at the end of the 19th century to identify criminal suspects. A signaletic assessment comprised measurements of the head, body, ears, eyebrows, and mouth, as well as scars, tattoos, and birthmarks. It is no wonder Phillips chose to base her collection on this method of bodily measurement—while she is obsessed with the body, her descriptions are usually more forensic than erotic, her narrator more coroner than esthete. In “Cross Section,” she writes, “One o’clock & B.’ s body / is now in the chamber where a magnet // will skim her ashes for screws, bone / fasteners, & crowns.” Like B.’s, the bodies that populate these poems are mostly absent, evinced only by what they have deliberately or inadvertently left behind. In her best poems, Phillips treats these remnants not as ontological byproducts but as autonomous bodies, possessed of secrets, stories, and spiritualized inner lives.

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