An interview with Dean Kostos about the power of pauses, structure, and zebra metaphors at Coney Island.
Image by Becket Logan
Dean Kostos and I have never met personally, but when I read his poems I recognize in him a kindred spirit. Urbane and worldly, he travels near and far in his search for self-definition and to help shape and color our own daily peregrinations. His vision is always-becoming and harking to some long-lost myth or legend, the one we all can trace our roots back to. It makes sense, then, that he is both a poet and translator—the two activities complement each other beautifully, in the process building and expanding a sense of community for the poet and us, his readers, to feel at home in.
His latest collection, This Is Not a Skyscraper, selected by Mark Doty for Red Hen Press’s 2013 Benjamin Saltman Award, takes a look at Kostos’s New York City surroundings. If you find the title reminiscent of that famous surrealist painting by Magritte, then you’re not mistaken but rather about to plunge headfirst into a realm of disembodied voices and hall-of-mirror images. Questioning our perceptions of the great city, in a politically fraught time that’s filled with promise, Kostos, a local and an outsider, is the perfect guide.
This interview stems from my wish to write about this book. Reading it front-to-back and back-to-front, time and again, I took notes and highlighted my favorite passages. I scribbled smiley faces and questions marks in the margins. In the end, however, I wanted to talk with this poet rather than simply talk about his work. It is my great hope that even though we ended up communicating via email, the exchange comes off more as a conversation between friends and fellow writing artists than a stilted Q & A session. After all, what distinguishes Dean Kostos for me is his ability to breathe new life into the music and images of everything that surrounds us.
-Piotr Florczyk for Guernica
Guernica: Let me be predictable and start by asking about the cover, which I find both striking and mesmerizing. I find the cover striking because it features a blurred image of a skyscraper at night, rather than a postcard-perfect one. On top of that, the title, in large, screaming letters, superimposed across the image, makes a powerful statement—like a censor’s rejection in red ink. I’m lulled by the image because it seems familiar, but then I’m also made uncomfortable by the blurriness and the titular lettering, which is crisp, sharp, even. Why did you make this choice?
Dean Kostos: The title, alluding to Magritte’s This Is Not a Pipe, challenges perceptions and assumptions. It isn’t a pipe, but a painting of one. The title also tips my hand, revealing my interest in surrealism. Speaking of which, this collection responds to Breton’s novel Nadja. In it, he reveals Paris as a surreal locus, both beautiful and sinister. Skyscraper explores that undercurrent in New York.
Regarding the cover art, it’s Georgia O’Keefe’s depiction of the Radiator Building. It’s elegant yet foreboding. I suggested it to Red Hen. They loved it, and Michelle Olaya-Marquez designed this film-noir cover that seems to vibrate.
Guernica: The book is divided into four sections, which group the poems thematically. What are your ideas about putting together a poetry manuscript?
Dean Kostos: Poets agonize over creating an arc in a collection, yet many people don’t read poetry that way. I flip through a book first, to “make friends” with individual poems; then I go back and read the volume as the poet intended. Sometimes I read the first line, along with the last one, to see what those fused lines say.
To construct an arc, I followed the advice of poet Nicholas Samaras—start with a conflict. I open with the Diallo tragedy. The following poems lead the reader through my peregrinations towards something approximating resolution.
To employ a painterly term, I’ve rendered my portrait of this metropolis in chiaroscuro, with the extremes of beauty and brutality.
Guernica: Not surprisingly, perhaps, given the title, the first section appropriates the news and television references that may or may not fit the perception that life in NYC is an inherently messy, even violent, affair. What do you hope to achieve by writing poems that echo or recreate what some might call real-life events?
Dean Kostos: I have an organic connection to this city, even though I love many other cities and like the hive-like quality of urban life. I was born here, as were my parents. My father grew up in East Harlem, the son of refugees. I grew up in New Jersey and then in Philadelphia. Throughout the years, I visited my maternal grandmother in Chelsea (where I live now). My rapport with New York is a love/hate relationship. Being a lapsed painter, I love its rich visual arts scene and extensive subway system. It’s also a friendly city, despite being famously rude. Unfortunately, New York’s increasing corporatization and unaffordable glass-box condos overshadow the older, quirkier city I cherished. To employ a painterly term, I’ve rendered my portrait of this metropolis in chiaroscuro, with the extremes of beauty and brutality.
Guernica: The kaleidoscopic, yet melancholic gaze of your poems extends to your immediate surroundings as well. In “Insomniac Neighbor” you write, “Our ritual of distances devours voices” before focusing on “your TV through the window / across the street—box / within a box. All else / disappears.” I really enjoy this short poem—with its ironic title (who’s the real insomniac here?) and the extra blank spaces between lines—it engages the audience by allowing us to take in the pauses and, if we choose to, fill in the blanks ourselves. This kind of speaker/audience reciprocity seems important to you, or am I reading into it too much?
Dean Kostos: No, but you’ve worded it more eloquently than I. Like my neighbor, I’m an insomniac. I live in a fifth-floor walk-up, and the man across the way is always watching TV. It’s a poem about isolation and insulation in a densely populated area. I’ve entered his world through the agency of observation. Our current culture, it’s fair to say, is obsessed with watching and being watched. We’re always being filmed by security cameras, especially after 9-11. Social media, and the approbation it seems to confer, add to this voyeuristic and narcissistic obsession.
Guernica: In another great poem, “Feeding History,” you deliberately animate our memories of important events that took place in 1963, 1993, 2001—what do the assassination of JFK and the two terrorist attacks have in common that you wish to bring out? “A mirror devours his head,” you write in one poem, then “She breathes words into the mouth / of a cell phone, feeds / herself into a window” in another. The idea of seeing and being seen—and in the process breaching our comfort zone—seems important.
Dean Kostos: I created an aleatory system: turning the TV on with the sound off. I wrote everything I saw until a commercial. Then I segued to another program, describing everything without the context of language, until another commercial, etc. When I was done, I was shocked to see so many images in common. Regarding the dates, perhaps we’ll never fully understand what happened on those days. But Clio, the muse of history, remains one of my most compelling sources of inspiration.
Guernica: The past, both the idea of it and the way it continues to inform our daily lives, is at the heart of many of these poems. “Who can decipher the past? Who stands / behind its indelible writ?” you write. Do you see yourself as a chronicler?
Dean Kostos: Yes, absolutely. However, in our disposable culture, the past is of waning interest. The lines you’ve cited refer to a poem about Bryant Park, where a sculpture of William Cullen Bryant sits. He was poet and the then-editor of the New York Post. He used the paper as a platform for the abolition movement, despite loss of revenue. I like to celebrate writers who’ve helped to change the world.
Guernica: In addition to pantoums and sonnets, and at least one villanelle, some of these poems are written in syllabics, like “Subway Silk,” where each of the poem’s five octaves starts out with a line of two syllables, then adds two more syllables in each subsequent line, only to revert back to a two-syllable at the end. Here’s the poem’s wonderful last stanza: “backpacks. / Two people: one / a woman, one a man— / both unaware their backpacks are / touching.” Can you talk about what role form, both organic and received, plays in your work?
Dean Kostos: I love the gamut of poetry—from flarf to OULIPO to free verse to aleatory systems to ghazals to French Troubadour forms, including the dreaded canzone. Forms connect us to history and traditions. At the same time, I’m interested in the conflict that can reside in language itself—using strict forms to violate those forms, to create linguistic friction.
When I write syllabically, I let the power of that machinery instruct me, forcing me to question every word and syllable. I seek lyricism coupled with stringency, a lesson I learned from the great Wallace Stevens.
Villanelles, terza rima, and sonnets rose up like images emerging from the developing chemicals in a dark room. My best poems happen when I get out of the way.
Guernica: “The Coney Island Sideshow,” a nine-part poem, is a small masterpiece. These (mostly) sonnets, or sonnet-like poems, some of which rhyme unobtrusively, celebrate life at its utmost strange and original. The misfits street-performers come alive in the poet’s mind, then continue their existence on the page. Yet “Forget metaphor,” you write at the beginning of a piece called “Angelica,” having decided that her appearance, “tattooed face / is zebra. The ink wrinkles & sags. / Patterns layer until patterns erase // themselves” is more original than the language at your disposal. Can you talk a little about why you felt inspired to write this sequence?
Dean Kostos: I often write about outsiders; this book is peopled with them. I went to the Sideshow twice—horrified yet fascinated each time. I later saw Serpentina in the subway, wearing street clothes and sneakers, but when she opened her mouth, her forked tongue slithered out. All these poems started in free verse, but as I revised, the poems pulled me where they wanted to go. Villanelles, terza rima, and sonnets rose up like images emerging from the developing chemicals in a dark room. My best poems happen when I get out of the way.
Guernica: Questions about longing inevitably bleed into questions about identity: who am I, what am I doing here? Many of these poems recreate beautifully lovers and places that are dear to the speaker but may no longer exist. Do you think poets write about the public past differently than when they sort and sieve through their memories of someone or something personal, hoping that some detail “will activate / a memory-machine bringing back expatriated // selves—promises long erased”?
Dean Kostos: Personal loss—which connects us as a human race—becomes historical. In this case, the loss was due to AIDS, which has left its indelible mark on history and politics. In Auden’s poem, “The Cultural Presupposition,” he asserts that human beings are uniquely aware of mortality. As a result, we’ve created two things unique to our species —religion and art, as a means of transcendence.
Guernica: Toward the end of the book’s third section, the focus shifts again, to ekhphrasis, where in a series of equally poised and penetrating poems you engage with and respond to, among other things, Greek sculptures one sees in the Met. What emerges from these finely wrought poems, is your desire to bridge the gap between life and art. When you write, in the poem that opens section four of the book, “Didn’t these misfits know / I had uplifted them into art?” I think I know the answer, but whose side are you really on in the perennial struggle between life and art?
Dean Kostos: When I was fourteen, I tried hanging myself. I had a noose around my neck and one foot off the chair, my radio playing. Just before I lifted my second foot, my favorite Beatles song came on: “Eleanor Rigby” (their lyrics had a seminal influence on my poems). At that moment, I realized I had one thing to live for—beauty. Art is a manifestation of beauty, not as something decorative, but as a force, an inner order. That vow made with a noose around my neck has never let me down. Recently, after a very painful day, I passed by a brownstone, where someone had draped lace over the window. As I was taken in by its delicacy, my sadness lessened.
Poems force one to focus, to go within—like a meditation. I can’t think of anything more valuable and healing for our culture right now.
Guernica: As the book comes to a close, you continue to rummage around in memories. In “Astoria,” a poem both fleeting and physical, given the corporal metaphor at its center, the speaker sounds unsure whether to celebrate or mourn his having been freed from his surroundings and the feelings associated with it, when he writes “No longer formed / or deformed by desire, I am water reciting its body.” These lines speak beautifully of a man’s wish to start over—but is that possible? When we write poems, we start over time and again, but in life things are a bit more complicated, aren’t they?
Dean Kostos: Alas, yes, but poetry still matters, even if we live in a country obsessed with sports and reality TV. Poems force one to focus, to go within—like a meditation. I can’t think of anything more valuable and healing for our culture right now.
Guernica: This starting over must also feature prominently in your work as a translator of Greek poetry into English—do the two activities, translating and writing your own poems, reinforce each other?
Dean Kostos: Greek has declensions, as do Latin, Russian, Sanskrit, German, and others. It’s clear that a noun is a subject or an object, regardless of the sentence structure. Poets who’ve written in such languages play with syntax in a way that is untranslatable. I pilfer those ideas to construct my sometimes “odd,” syntax. It helps me to see language in anew.
Guernica: “Now / the clock hands saw with cello bows— / tempos pulse // even as the clock slows, & time allows me, / I imagine, / to catch up,” you write at the end of the book’s final poem. I appreciate these lines tremendously, for they remind us that our imagination, our faculty to conjure things, sits at the forefront of our wish to live life to the fullest. Do you spend extra time deciding how to end a book? And what’s next, after this?
Dean Kostos: In revising, ideas, themes, and even my interest in mysticism, surface. Regarding the poem you cited, it was going to be the penultimate one. Kate Gale suggested I reverse the order, ending with that poem. It was the perfect suggestion.
I’ve spent fifteen years working on a memoir about the two years I spent in a mental hospital, for depression and suicide attempts. In addition, I am completing another collection of poems (I work on several at a time). It explores my interest in metaphysics. Finally, I’m writing a children’s book. After spending years on that memoir (which felt like performing surgery on myself without anesthesia), I need to turn my thoughts to something uplifting and joyous.
Dean Kostos’s collections include This Is Not a Skyscraper (recipient of the Benjamin Saltman Poetry Award, selected by Mark Doty), Rivering, Last Supper of the Senses, The Sentence That Ends with a Comma, and Celestial Rust. He co-edited Mama’s Boy: Gay Men Write about Their Mothers and edited Pomegranate Seeds: An Anthology of Greek-American Poetry (its debut reading was held at the United Nations).
His work has appeared in over 300 journals, including The Bangalore Review (India), Boulevard, Chelsea, Cimarron Review, The Cincinnati Review, Mediterranean Poetry (Sweden), Southwest Review, Stand Magazine (UK), Vanitas, Western Humanities Review, and on Oprah Winfrey’s website Oxygen.com. His libretto, Dialogue: Angel of Peace, Angel of War, was performed by Voices of Ascension. His literary criticism has appeared on the Harvard University Press website and Talisman. A multiple Pushcart-Prize nominee, and a finalist for the Gival and Jot Speak (UK) awards, he has taught at Wesleyan, The Gallatin School, and CUNY. His poem “Subway Silk” was translated into a film and screened in Tribeca and at San Francisco’s IndieFest.