Sunday, November 27, 2016

Bending to Beauty: An Interview with Dian Zirilli-Mares

Kirpal Gordon: Congratulations on the publication of your first book of poetry, Bending to Beauty. As your neighbor on Burton Street, I remember how back in your teenage years you were already writing verse, taking photographs and winning awards at Bishop Reilly’s Robert Frost contest. So, after retiring from a life as a reading teacher and elementary school administrator, what inspired you to write a book of free verse at this point of your life?

Dian Zirilli-Mares: I began writing this book at the prompting of my sons, Justin and Jared. These last few years, as we watch their ninety-four year old grandfather become forgetful, we began to realize how precious and ephemeral the past truly is. We regret questions that have to go unasked now; my dad no longer remembers the answers. It became another cautionary tale. The boys knew I have been writing poetry since I was a young girl and urged me to create a book that would preserve a piece of my life for them to cherish when I---or my memory---was gone.

Kirpal Gordon: Justin and Jared are both in the arts, yes? Your mom was something of a poet, too, no? I remember both your mom and dad as open-minded people who in the early Seventies had learned how to meditate. Your husband Ray is quite the rock ‘n’ roll musician. You have been around literature and music your whole life. You mention all five of these people in your dedication.

Dian Zirilli-Mares: My dedication is to my beloved five. My son Justin is a published author, aspiring television writer, and entertainment journalist. Jared is a New York-based actor and singer who has worked on Broadway as well as in television and film. My mom was a voracious reader who dabbled in writing herself, long before it was fashionable to self-publish. She and my father were always ahead of their time. At my father's urging, they were among the first trained in Transcendental Meditation by its founder, the Maharishi Mahesh Yogi. True to his garage band roots, Ray began singing and playing again in a rock 'n' roll band six years ago. But from the moment we began dating fifteen years ago, I was serenaded often, much to the delight of my inner teenager. Literature and music have been my constant backdrop. I can't imagine my life without them.

Kirpal Gordon: Why did you title the book Bending to Beauty?

Dian Zirilli-Mares: A few years ago, I became addicted to silver fabrication. The role of the  torch in the ultimate beauty of a piece fascinated me. In the jeweler's world, fire doesn't destroy. The flame is necessary for the smoothing, shaping, and building of silver jewelry. As I examined my life and wrote my poems, it became clear to me how perfect a metaphor the flaming torch would be. Life's "fiery strokes" may bring pain, but they also forge strength---and strength can bring the possibility of joy again. I have been blessed, no matter the pain or loss in my life, to always be able to "bend to beauty."

Kirpal Gordon: What was your writing process like for these thirty-eight poems?

Dian Zirilli-Mares: Athough I have written many poems over the last fifty years, they mostly burst out of me onto the page. There was no process involved at all. Whenever I felt something intensely, there was a good chance it would eventually find its voice in a poem. I knew that this approach to a book would never do if I wanted to finish it in my lifetime. On the other hand, the sheer act of sitting all day and "waiting for lightning to strike" was daunting. But it was all I could think of doing; I had never tried to discipline my creativity before. It wasn't going well and I felt like a college student writing a term paper. I was always finding "really important" phone calls to make, bills to pay, and laundry to do instead of courting my muse. Happily, I confessed my growing hatred of my writing prison, to my son, Justin, who is a published writer himself. He suggested I begin my early morning writing with a timer set for just 10 minutes. During that time I was to write about anything that came to mind. I should not even attempt to write a poem. When the timer went off, I would be free to move on to something less excruciating. Unless, of course, I was happily writing. Every week I was to add 10 minutes to my timer. Before  long I was up to a half an hour and I didn't want to stop writing. Many days I didn't. My daily musings often contained seeds that eventually grew into strong poems. Some of them surprised me. Although first drafts poured out of me quickly, it took many, many revisions and edits to chisel each poem to where it needed to be. But the greatest gift of these last two years is that when I had to change hats and proof formatted first runs and final files, I realized how much I missed writing poems. Professional writers tell me this is what happens. That maw of silence and lack of creativity eventually seduce you back to the torturous and glorious writer's chair.  And mine is calling as we speak.

Kirpal Gordon: In the book’s epigram, you quote Anne Lamott: All I have to offer as a writer is my version of life. Every single thing that has happened to me is mine…. If people wanted me to write more warmly about them, they should have behaved better. Is this a word to the wise or just good fun?

Dian Zirilli-Mares: A word to the wise.

Kirpal Gordon: Your book is broken down into four sections. The first, "Hallowed Places," is rich with memory.

Dian Zirilli-Mares: "Hallowed Places" holds memoir poems.  As I grow older, and lose those I love, these sharp childhood memories become dearer still. The poems in this section capture the past, and some of the people and the times that are precious to me. 

Kirpal Gordon: Marona mia, bella! These lines are also incantatory and become universal when they invoke the sights, smells, joys, mysteries, loves and uncertainties of a young girl: Halloween’s autumn alchemy in Beechurst; your dad playing Italian love songs on his tape recorder; Aunt Rose’s sweet tooth; laying under the balsam Christmas tree; watching wrestling on TV with your grandma on your first sleep-over; your mom praying in the living room. We share the innocence of childhood meeting the wonders and terrors of this world. Perhaps “Waiting for Steve,“ in all its rhythms of puberty and Godot-like comedy, reveals this quality best:

In the heat of summer dusk,

we sit on the curb in front of our house

waiting for the boys to come out.

Scraps of conversation billow up between us,

settle down again,

like brightly colored flags in a sudden August breeze.

Staring straight ahead, eyes never meeting, we tell secrets.

When I grow up I want to be a torch singer. Or a cloistered nun.

You whisper a dream to dance in a cage

in those white go-go boots from Thom McAnn’s.

Jump up to twirl on one ice blue thong.

Sit down beside me again.

We float a leaf and a Wrigley’s wrapper

down the car wash stream at our feet.

Wonder – how much longer till Steve comes,

ringing his bells into the fireflied night.

We hope the boys will come out then.

Pat our damp pixie bangs in place.

What a tribute to an ice cream man! What a tribute to teenhood!

Dian Zirilli-Mares:  I loved going back to the memories of Burton Street and my childhood. I craved the feeling of peace they brought me.  These memories remain an antidote to the darkness and fear I feel as I grow older and watch the world change.

Kirpal Gordon: "No Surprises," the book‘s second section, is an abrupt shift.

Dian Zirill-Mares: In "No Surprises" the poems highlight the everyday wisdom and matter-of-fact learnings of a life fully lived. From the stance of my later years, my poems illuminate what I now see as obvious truths about people, life, and living.

Kirpal Gordon: Not only has the eye of experience replaced the eye of innocence, but the tone of these poems is reflective, rather than evocative. From the last line of your last poem in “Hallowed Places---“Welcome her home,“ a rembrance of your deceased mom---comes “The Battlefield“‘s eight lines:

Day 29 of meditation

and I cannot stanch the rage.

Past betrayals and pains are fresh, bleeding again,

like wounds roughly stripped of their protective gauze.

I survey the littered terrain, learn there are no surprises.

What I do not honor,

what I tamp down and swallow,

does not die.

Dian Zirilli-Mares: The hard work of this later part of my life seems to be to speak my truth no matter the cost.  I've spent too many years framing and reframing the disloyalties of  people I trusted in order to carry on. My poem reflects what I have learned about how effective that is in the long run. It is a Pyrrhic victory.

Kirpal Gordon: Throughout this section, but especially in “The Choice,“ your Rumi-like reflections on motherhood are in such sharp contrast to daughterhood and maidenhood in “Hallowed Places.“ In "Fiery Strokes" you also have some exceptionally strong work. Again, the tone of these poems shift as well. These poems summon the courage hard won of a lifetime learner. Not only do they skillfully meditate on the art of aging, but they read like an Ars Poetica. Like you say: “Driven to gnaw at my life, I cut to the quick. / The tenderest meat is close to the bone.”

Dian Zirilli-Mares: "Fiery Strokes" contains poems of different kinds of loss and pain. But, again, the title poem "Bending to Beauty" reminds that suffering endured can bring strength and growth. Although the poems show no happily-ever-after, the reader can assume the story has not ended.

Kirpal Gordon: I quote in full your title poem:

Every loss I survive marks me.

Just as the torch takes solder and smooths it to an unbroken stream,

I am made stronger with each fiery stroke.

If you work silver to follow your will too long,

it resists and hardens, soon becoming unmovable,

no longer able to bend to beauty.

Only the brush of flame softens, makes it malleable again.

Yet silver holds the memory of all it has withstood.

In the heat and light of the burning torch, it forgives everything,

and everything becomes possible, once more.

Your metaphor of heat and alchemy reminds me so much of India’s yoga poets singing of tapas (inner heat) uncoiling the kundalini.

Dian Zirilli-Mares: I love that!  Although I have yet to read the yoga poets, I am a lover of Kundalini yoga and have been practicing it for the last three years. I was drawn to its emphasis on spirituality, the chanting of mantras, and the focus on the chakras and meditation as gateways to transformation. I have no doubt that Kundalini played a part in the evolution that led to my being ready to write  my truth in Bending to Beauty.

Kirpal Gordon: Once again, your next section, “Vigil Candles,“ shifts mood and tone dramatically from “Fiery Strokes.“

Dian Zirilli-Mares: Like the votives flickering before the statues in a church, "Vigil Candles" honors and marks special intentions, loved ones, and prayers answered and unanswered. The stories behind these poems continue to keep a silent vigil within me. I accept that they always will. It was my hope that others might read them, and recognize something in their lives as well.

Kirpal Gordon: The section opens with these eleven lines:

This morning, a text from a friend –

I was cooking and thought of your Mom,

her trick of bending asparagus to break at its most tender spot.

My mother died at sixty-five.

Some days, she appears unexpectedly.

These endless years without her,

I spit-shine her memory,

parrot her wisdom,

understand her boundaries.

I am a vigil candle.

It’s hard to say where she ends and I begin.

Those last two lines, like the last section itself, suggest an affirmation of lineage, continuity and love. Perhaps in love the boundary between self and other can finally be erased. Certainly that’s the celebration in this section, especially in the love poems to your husband Ray.

Dian Zirilli-Mares:  Ray and I are testaments to the power of the past and a love that never forgets. Our long and winding road back to one another from Burton Street where we grew up, fell in teenage love, then went our separate ways, took 35 years.  But, here we are, the lead singer in the rock“n“roll band and the poetess. Together at last.

Kirpal Gordon: How did it feel tapping into the past, the pain, the fear that comes out of these poems?

Dian Zirilli-Mares: Since I was very young, my writing has been the way I understand and navigate the feelings and choices in my life. I write in order to discover what the truth of a situation is. It is as though the act of struggling to find that perfect word in a poem or a story forces me to see clearly what I am feeling. My writing has worked me through suffering. It has helped me more fully celebrate my joys. Revisiting so many of my life's emotional moments while writing Bending to Beauty was no different. "A Tiny Circle of Light," an essay I wrote for my Master's thesis many years ago, speaks of this. "Always my strongest thoughts surface as poetry. It is as if the original experience is so painfully rich and deep, it grows roots and bears fruit. That fruit is my poetry."

Kirpal Gordon: What's next?

Dian Zirilli-Mares: I think I was unprepared for the extent of withdrawal I would experience after two years of working on Bending to Beauty. The daily discipline of facing my demons and angels while wrestling them to paper became cathartic. However, the more I continued to work at my craft, the more critical I became of each poem. I made a deal with myself, especially in regards to those more complicated, emotional poems---either I would be brutally honest or I would be silent. What is the point of poetry that plays games or hides in artifice? That took care of the heart of my poems. But the longer I worked on each one, the more I demanded of it technically. In the end, at least 25 poems were cut from the original collection because they were not ready to face the light of day.  Perhaps in another two years they will be.  Meanwhile, I am sure there is a great deal more agonizing ahead to be done over the exact word, the perfect metaphor. I am looking forward to picking up my pen again to revisit these first draft poems this winter. Spring.  Fall... 

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