Interview: The Transgressions of Giulio Magrini
Interview conducted by Nolcha Fox
Giulio Magrini started writing poetry in the early 1970s, and takes most of his inspiration from the darker side of human nature. He has performed at the Three Rivers Arts Festival, and many other venues in Pittsburgh, and was among the four featured poets at the Fifth Fourth River Poetry Festival in 1990.
He has conducted poetry workshops in alternative high schools, prisons, and drug and alcohol rehabilitation centers and has also hosted a radio show for local Pittsburgh poets. He was also asked to perform one of his poems, “The Pittsburgher,” his elegy honoring the late Mayor Richard Caliguiri, with the Pittsburgh Symphony Orchestra at Point State Park before a 4th of July crowd of over 100,000 people. That poem is now archived in the Heinz History Museum.
Magrini has always preferred the performance of his work over publishing, until now. The Color of Dirt is his latest anthology of poetry and flash fiction, and is available now from Word Association Publishers.
NF: I’m fascinated by your choice to perform your work before you decided to publish it. What drew you to performance art?
GM: For me, performance was more personal than publishing. My work was, and still is, more compatible with performance through that intimate connection. Publishing, and the associated egos that seem to thrive there, do not interest me. Acceptance or rejection by an entity sitting on a throne of its own design has nominal credibility with me.
NF: Why did you decide to focus on publishing?
GM: I needed to publish to legitimize the readings. I recognized that my audiences considered the imprimatur of published work as a good reason for them to pay attention. So be it… I reasoned that any fly would do on my web to satisfy my appetite and goal of getting my work heard, and now seen in the world.
I have been writing since the 1970s, and now I accepted I had to work with the attitudes I had rejected earlier. It was necessary for me to create something to throw into the next fire. Not in Berlin, but seemingly now all over the world. Freedom of expression is being challenged, and at 73 years of age, it is vital that I catalogue the collection of my writing. “The Color of Dirt” is not an inscription on a tombstone. It is a record and categorization of my life as the grandson of an immigrant and the ongoing creations of an urban writer. I like to think there is great promise in the future, with a follow-up chapbook of my current writing.
NF: What inspired you to collect your writing into a book?
GM: I wanted the book to express the “Colors” of the most important elements, the “Dirt” of my life. I wanted (if possible) to distinguish them as I could not through the years. There is value in retrospection.
NF: Italian language and passion are sprinkled through your book. Tell me how your culture and language influenced you as a person, a performer, and a poet.
GM: I am integrated by blood with my background. I cannot distinguish facets that are an indelible part of my life. I must use and celebrate them, as I would assume any other artist would do. I see the Italian character as synonymous with life as I experienced it through the Italian art of living. I am part of many who enjoy these influences. The same is true with every culture, if you are doing it right.
NF: What made you decide to include writing in Italian?
GM: I embrace the music of the Italian language. I believe in the music of all languages. I think other poets from bilingual backgrounds should absolutely include these exposures in their work when the venue permits. Translate it afterward, and I have found that people absolutely love and recognize other ways in language to express the high value of poetry.
NF: To me, there is a thin line between love, family, relationships, and art. How did you decide which poems belonged in which subsections?
GM: It is true that there are difficulties in a firm distinguishing among these categories. I did the best I could, and I believe I came pretty close. The shades of these categories blend, but within the specific work, I try to keep the poem true to the chapter where it resides. If my reader becomes curious about tendencies within a work, I might direct them to another poem. There is room for all.
NF: I love your poem, “Vince to Rachel Over the Fourth River in November.” It combines the heat of love with snow, and is very romantic, a lovely way to begin the book. Who are Vince and Rachel? What is the story behind this poem?
GM: Vince Zepp is a valued friend who was instrumental in providing me with showcases for my performances when I began my work as a performing poet years ago. He still writes and offers virtual books, and I enjoy his poetry daily. Rachel was his wife at the time, and the rascal Vince planned on throwing a party for her on a special occasion. He invited some local poet friends to their downtown Pittsburgh hotel room that overlooked the Point, which provided a panorama of the confluence of our city’s three rivers. The confluence is governed by a large fountain fed by an aquafer known colloquially as The Fourth River. As champagne bottles chilled in the background, I was drawn to the window to view a magnificent snow squall, so typical of Pittsburgh in November. The snowflakes were enormous and flew in all directions. At first, I dedicated this poem to their love, but have since changed the dedication to all lovers. Rachel has died, and it is what she would have wanted.
NF: “The Pittsburgher” is a sweet tribute to Mayor Richard Caliguiri. Why did you decide to write it?
GM: I was compelled to write it. Mayor Caliguiri was a beloved figure in Pittsburgh at the time. When he contracted amyloidosis and died at a young age, Pittsburghers were struck with grief. Vince Zepp (remember him?) decided to have a memorial reading by local Pittsburgh writers at a downtown Pittsburgh Plaza. We were to gather our favorite poems of grief and death and read them in the mayor’s honor. I could not bring myself to do that. It seemed sensible to me to create a local color poem for the mayor, as, in my opinion, his life exemplified our city. The poem lives in my performances, and at the Heinz Museum archives. I am pleased, as it demonstrated the value of poetry in our lives.
NF: In the Arte (Art) section of your book, you criticize those who want to control our thoughts and divert us from what is real art, real truth. What has been your personal experience of this?
GM: There is a spectrum of ten poems in the Arte (Art) section of my book. Let me say that through some of them I have discussed art and artists through the perception of a voyeur. Essentially, I do not believe there can be a difference between artists and others who do not or cannot create as artists typically do. Art lives in everyone, whether they recognize it or not. I try to present hope with skepticism through my writing. I like to think I present encouragement in my compositions with a healthy dose of artistic reaction. We must recognize our enemies and embrace those who are with us to create a better environment, especially for those who come after…
NF: I had to read “Turning the Channel from Your Lovely Pose to the Hate Picnic” several times. It struck me as a portrait of a miserable relationship. Where did this poem come from?
GM: I like to have fun, even when I am disgusted or want to attack. This was my response (in part) to the over-correction of the wrongful treatment of women and the general mismanagement of roles. We need to do the best we can personally for each other. Rules and guidelines to correct our social sins must be engaged carefully, as there are people who live in relationships, and are hopefully defined as they wish to be identified in the world. There are terrible challenges to roles today that I believe we are struggling with. We have made galactic mistakes throughout history and must learn from them, and must not believe false characterizations. We must adhere to our natures, and teach our children to respect others, unlike the personas in my poem. I might direct you to my flash fiction “The Story of a Man’s Heart” for more.
NF: What is the story behind “Discovering We are Extinct?”
GM: That was a strange creation, as I initially wrote it as a general introduction to my work environment while an enforcement agent with the PA Dept of Revenue. Initially, it was a terrible whimpering, a reaction to my environment at the time. Afterward, I decided to personalize the second part and examine the specifics of a relationship within that general situation. Unlike many of my other writings, it does not address a personal relationship with my wife Barbara or other person. It is my examination of the failure of a relationship that is startling through its texture of failure, even reaching to trampling upon the bones of failed remains.
NF: Who do you refer to in “Not All You Need is Love and I Do Not Want to Hold Your Hand?” What is the background of this poem?
GM: You had to ask… ? Social media unlocks the doors of many brittle identities. This time, and I understand there are many times… I met someone who with delight posted her image and countless descriptions of her life. ALL ME, ALL THE TIME? I finally grew weary of the continued postings and decided to write this as a poem, reimagining two Beatles tunes for a title.
NF: What is the story behind “Reflections on the Exodus from Hell?”
GM: This has to do with a commentary on a relationship that has migrated to a place where one of the correspondents attempts to leave a premier and exemplary place reserved for the worst of us. Take your love and live in THAT, mister!
NF: The poems you included in the Politica E Guerra (Politics and War) are very powerful. What prompted you to write them? How does this topic impact you personally – did you lose somebody to war?
GM: Many die, and many deaths, unfortunately, are not physical. We live in the distillate of the devastation (and some would say necessity) of war. An examination of what it means to be human comes after that. The discussion and the damage have been the history of our time.
NF: “The Phone Rings Like It Always Does” really touched me, as I became allergic to picking up the phone after my baby brother killed himself. How difficult was it for you to write this poem? What is your experience of writing to deal with grief?
GM: I have lived through the losses of my family. We all do, but with difficulties that cannot be generalized. I noted the blithe reaction to a ringing telephone, and asked myself whether people realized that “This was the call” that shook them from their routine to a new and terrible reality. I recommend my flash fiction “Little Sister” for further work on my experiences in mourning. It is a flash fiction that details my loss of a sister who despised me.
NF: The pieces you wrote in Famiglia E Relazioni (Family and Relationships) are just beautiful. Tell me about when you started writing them, and whether you wrote them with the idea of including them in this book:
GM: Thank you, Nolcha. I’ve written about my family throughout my decades of writing. They are intricately bound with my life and define me. I was obliged to include them as they represent who I am and how I reached this place.
NF: “The Color of Dirt” is a book of the heart. How are you doing now that it’s out in the world? Are you working on another book now?
GM: I am working on another book, but I must say I am not doing well with the business aspect of finishing the book and promoting it. It appears my doubts about the publishing industry hold true. I seem unable to appreciate the publisher’s dilemma with an artist’s creations. Some of the protocols and necessary elements of producing my book are unfamiliar to me, and therefore frustrating.
NF: You mentioned that you have known your wife Barbara for 57 years. Does she support your writing, and how has she influenced you?
GM: You are another witness to a 57-year-old gift, Nolcha. Five years going steady and 52 years married in October. I know I try her patience with my boundaries, which we all know skirt reason. But it cannot be our job as poets to be reasonable. I think she understands, and I have written extensively about her. I am fortunate, because I never knew her true value as a young man. She taught me, as all women teach men, and I am glad.
NF: Would you mind sharing one of your Barbara poems?
GM: Of course, Nolcha. This one is a favorite for Barbara, written on her birthday 9/11/2002, one year after the 9/11/2001 terrorist attacks in New York City.
Offering for a Princess
You will remember
That this was the birthday
I did not pledge my love to you
For you have it
You have carried it with you
Like a rock a razor a rainbow
And you will have it tomorrow
And so I have been searching
For the passage
That would guide
This presentation to you
But as with many treasures
The maps are obsolete
Numbers are unlisted
The party has moved
Left no forwarding address
Leaving vacancy without details
And no keys to locks
Have been found
On any day or minute or moment
You would have thought that this gift
Is like the past reminders of living love
That have trudged marched scuffled and skipped
Through our celebrations together
And you would be right
The rarity of today’s offering
Is a conspicuous presence in time
In this globe of human fragility
Breaths of wailing
Celebrations in light
Glances of indecision
But not a glance really
An examination in stone and wonder
The consequences resultant
From the attempts that befall
These moments in our hearts
And we hear the song of muted justice
From the gorgons overhead
And in this bleak unraveling of time
Why not Barbara
And so my dear princess
I approach you with the timidity
The uncertainty of a child
Filled with doubt but hope
For today I bring you
The wish of peace
That you may know it
And share it with me
Like the rest of your life
NF: I have to ask. You post photos on Facebook of yummy dishes you concocted. How did you get into cooking up such delights?
GM: It likely began as a kid under the kitchen table of Toscani and Calabrian families. There was a distinct advantage of exposure to the food of those separate Italian regions. I was brought up knowing the kitchen is the most important room of the house. Later, I had a best friend, Massimino, who was a citizen of Roma as well as the U.S. We shared the gifts of our kitchens, and of course I know many great chefs and restauranteurs in Pittsburgh. I have thrived through their protection and knowledge of cuisine. My writing is a sharing, not unlike my table. Whether it is with words or pasta makes no difference. It is all love.
End of Interview
Nolcha Fox’s poems have been published in Lothlorien Poetry Journal, Alien Buddha Zine, and Medusa’s Kitchen, among others. In addition to being an accidental interviewer she is a Best of the Net nominee for 2023 and the editor for Kiss My Poetry and the Open Arts Forum.