Peninsula Poetry: Albert DeGenova

Albert DeGenova is an award-winning poet, publisher, teacher and author of four books of poetry and three chapbooks. His most recent book is Black Pearl: poems of love, sex and regret; and his collection of haibun and poetry Postcards to Jack was recently released in a second expanded edition. DeGenova’s chapbook Mama’s Blues is forthcoming in August from Finishing Line Press, and his work has also appeared in numerous journals and anthologies. 

DeGenova earned his MFA from Spalding University in Louisville. He’s the founder of After Hours Press and co-editor of After Hours magazine, a journal of Chicago writing and art, which launched in 2000. In 1996, he began attending Norbert Blei’s writing workshop at The Clearing Folk School in Ellison Bay. Eventually, DeGenova began assisting Blei with the class and has led it since Blei’s death in 2013. 

DeGenova is also a blues saxophonist and former contributing editor to Down Beat magazine. He splits his time between Sturgeon Bay and the metro Chicago area. 

What’s your writing routine?

I generally start my day with a cup of coffee and a book, followed by writing/journaling or thinking about writing, or working on my varying publishing projects. Morning is my literary time.

I’ve built a writing studio for myself, which I spend most mornings in when I’m in Door County. There are also those moments, however, when an idea or image comes out of nowhere at any time of the day or night, and that’s why I always have a notebook and pencil nearby. My first poem drafts are always in pencil.

What do most poorly written poems have in common?

They tell the reader what to think and how to feel, or what/how the poet thinks. Often these poems end with an explanation of the poem.

What do most well-written poems have in common?

A single metaphor that takes the breath away, a turn of phrase and rhythm that creates a physical reaction. The gut punch, the exhaled “ohh.”

Consider a couple of famous poems. From Sylvia Plath’s “Lady Lazarus”: 

Dying // Is an art, like everything else. // I do it exceptionally well. // I do it so it feels like hell. // I do it so it feels real … 

Or the opening lines to Allen Ginsberg’s “Howl”:

I saw the best minds of my generation destroyed by madness, starving hysterical naked, …”

Is it important to understand the meaning of the poem or for the reader to be able to “solve” it?

No. Poems should not be thought of as riddles – there are no solutions. Poems should be thought of as experiences. Sometimes it takes years before we can understand something we’ve experienced.

Of course, many poems can be understood for their meaning and purpose, but most important is whether the poet can elicit an emotional reaction in his/her reader, an emotional reaction to the meaning. 

What book are you reading right now?

I’m never reading just one book. Currently I’m reading Three-Martini Afternoons at The Ritz (The Rebellion of Sylvia Plath and Anne Sexton) by Gail Crowther; The Village by David Mamet; Seven by 7 (the poet laureates of Door County), primary editor Mike Orlock; and Wherever I’m At: An Anthology of Chicago Poetry, editor Donald G. Evans.

Peninsula Poetry is a monthly column curated by the Door County Poets Collective, a 12-member working group that was formed to publish Soundings: Door County in Poetry in 2015 and continues to meet.

Human Nature

Some will follow the faint trail of blood
through the fresh snow searching 
for the story, some 
will pay a man with a pickup truck
to remove the carcass – 
the deer that ran, a single bullet in its belly,
to die under a pine tree in my woods.

Coyotes in the night
mutilate the hindquarters, scrape out
with sharp-clawed paws
warm organs and entrails. Crows peck and pull
fur and skin down to long white ribs – 
the pool of red and purple,
the lifeless eyes of the untouched face.

No one blames the coyote or crow
for their hunger; nor the hunter
thinking he missed, who hoped
to share venison with his family.

Some, though, without hunger
would kneel on the dying neck,
draw a handgun
and shoot fifteen more holes into the hide – 
blaming the beautiful doe for something,
something like running.

Some would watch this quietly, some
would cry out, and some would walk away
to let nature take its course.
Once Upon a Best Time

Walking out of Club Aldonna, 44th and Western Avenue, just chugged 50-cent beers from high ball glasses – Aldonna, a Lithuanian grandma, treats us like her own and says be good boys – tonight we are lusting for the Gorgonzola Girls of Bridgeport – we head east on 35th Street, Pete drives, Sandy and me in the backseat, she giggles, she says see ya later baby – back at Aldonna’s, chrome & black choppers line the sidewalk, we play pool with tattooed, long-haired, bearded bikers who call us ceegar-smokin-kids, we bet beers and lose with a laugh – it is summer in Chicago, we are almost high school graduates, we sweat, we talk, plan grand tours of Europe – we’ve been friends since first grade recess – oh, tonight feels like a celebration! – tonight is blue chalk on black denim jacket – tonight is cold beer and the hard crack of the cue ball as it slams into the eight, the dull thud of the pocket and our long roll along unseen tracks. 

                                                                        west heading interstate
                                                                                a handshake
                                                                           the door slams shut
The Morning Sun Opens Her Pink Robe

and you don’t want to look away
the blue hour fades in her smile 
she wraps pink around you
the scent of her warm breasts
her scars against your cheek
seductive as green absinthe
with the promise of noon 
and the white heat of her
reaching the roots of you
the white heat of her
before the night returns
with its sad song of the black guitar

I do not go to church anymore but today
my friend the Franciscan friar
is saying Mass in a century-old chapel
built by old world craftsmen – 
I’ve come for the architecture, the Gothic
echoes, the stained-glass stories.
My friend is celebrating the stigmata
of St. Francis, his homily speaks
of how we mark our private treasures,
as well as our books, with 
initials and notes,
how Christ marked Francis,
how our bodies are marked
with scars, how our souls are scarred 
with the panhandlers we’ve left 
begging on windy winter street corners.
The poet priest fills the air with metaphor.

I see my soul
weakness and desire
tattooed across its shoulders –
I look at my hands
covered with the scars of
holding too tight.
I hide my unholy stigmata
under a coat of regret
ragged at the cuffs
and I ask with an awkward prayer
to be allowed to write 
one more love poem
before I am judged.
Dr. Seuss Mindfulness

Play! Play I say! 
Play in the trees, play on your knees.
Play with the tassels on the lamp,
make sandcastles on your lap.
Play monkey, play Frisbee,
do summersaults with a birdie.
Play I say, everyday!
Play with yourself,
make matchbook towers on the shelf.
Tickle her feet, scratch his belly,
play with the berries in the jelly.
Play with your toes, knot the tail of your shirt.
Play with your hair, no one will care.
Sit on your flip-flops, squirt the ketchup.
Roll down a hill to get dizzy, get fizzy
Be whizzy, say, “Lizzy, twirl your dress.”
Make a mess, spill the beans,
Spit the peas.
Swirl the wine, take your time.
Buy purple flowers, kiss in the shower.
Play! Play! Play!

Distraction a broil behind my eyes
like a bubbling, gurgling hookah
the monkey in my brain
doing summersaults
sipping a dirty gin martini
promising to tell tales of a me
long forgotten –

I walk the path
through wood and meadow
greening again this May
so many hundreds of steps
I’ve left behind here
my broken body of work.
And then, what must have always been there,
a rusting chair under a huckleberry bush
asking to be known
as if it had been hiding
long enough in the shadows –

the hookah quiets to an exhale
like spring or a darkness
waiting for a small touch,
or a late-night text –
the pearl
that every poem requires.