David Yezzi is passionate about the performance of poetry.
“I don’t think a poem is alive until it is read out loud,” says the Albany native. Yezzi, an actor and the co-founder of Thick Description, a San Francisco theater company, has performed in works by Shakespeare, Shaw, Brecht, Goethe, and Williams, both in the United States and abroad.
Yezzi is the author of three poetry books and the editor of The Swallow Anthology of New American Poets. In addition to poetry, Yezzi composes libretti. Yezzi was the Stegner Fellow in poetry at Stanford University from 1998 to 2000. His poems have appeared in such places as The Atlantic, The Paris Review, The New Republic, The Best American Poetry, The Yale Review, and Poetry. A former director of the Unterberg Poetry Center of the 92nd Street Y in New York, and is currently the executive editor of The New Criterion. In addition to his poetry, his literary essays and reviews have been published in such places as The New York Times Book Review, The New York Sun, The New Yorker, The Wall Street Journal, and The (London) Times Literary Supplement.
Yezzi will be reading with author Kaya Oakes as part of the Frequency North reading series on Thursday, March 21, at 7:30pm, in the Hubbard Interfaith Sanctuary, 959 Madison Avenue. He’s looking forward to reading at Saint Rose, especially since it falls during Social Justice Week. Speaking to him over the phone in New York, where he lives with his family, Yezzi and I discussed his career, his motivation, his connections to Albany and the Capital Region, a fellow named “Dirty Dan,” as well as his latest poetry collection, Birds of the Air.
How is Birds of the Air different from other books you have written?
This book is my most dramatic. By that I mean it contains dramatic verse. There are four monologues, and one of them, “Tomorrow & Tomorrow,” is actually a duologue with two voices speaking. In my last book, Azores, there was one long monologue about a father, but this was more of an isolated poem. In Birds of the Air, the characters are more dramatic as well. It’s also important that my poetry sounds natural. A lot of poems, especially monologues, sound like verse, but I wanted these to sound more like natural speech.
What inspires your poetry?
I am engaged and inspired by words. We all have different experiences. Poetry is the words that convey emotions connected experience. All of my poems are a mixture of personal experience and pure creation.
What do you love about poetry as a genre?
Poetry uses language that pays attention to the emotional charge of language. The verse is the music in language. I think poetry is the most precise tool for expression emotion in language. Poetry gives another layer of meaning to words beyond the dictionary definition.
One of the ones I’m planning on reading is “The Good News.” There’s an audio performance of this poem as well as the print copy on the Poetry Foundation website if people want a preview of the performance. I’m still deciding which of the others I want to read.
“Tomorrow & Tomorrow” is about an actor in “Macbeth.” I know you’ve had experience acting in Shakespeare plays. Is this poem autobiographical in some way?
All of my poems are partially autobiographical. This poem is actually about a guy in a German production of “Macbeth” and his girlfriend. It’s actually a funny piece. A bit of dark comedy. The plot of the guy and his girlfriend is very distantly related to Macbeth and Lady Macbeth.
I know another aspect of your career is theater and performance. Do you use these same performance skills when you are reading poetry out loud?
I do. I actually teach a class in reading poetry for writers of poetry. As the head of the Poetry Center at the 92nd St. Y, I became aware of the importance of being an effective reader. It is important to convey your poem to the audience. I am aware that the poem has life as a spoken act. The poem isn’t complete on the page; it needs to be spoken out loud. The performance is just as important as the poem itself.
Professor Nester tells me that you know Father Chris [DeGiovine, Dean of Spiritual Life at Saint Rose]. What can you tell me about your relationship with him?
I’ve known Father Chris since childhood. I went to Doane Stuart school in Albany and Father Chris was the chaplain at the school. He is an important part of my life both personally and spiritually. He has been a friend and a mentor since I was a child. I think he is an important cleric.
Are any of your poems about the Albany area?
There is a poem in my last book about a high school kid and this is loosely based on my own high school experience at Doane Stuart. Another poem is “Dirty Dan.” There was this short-order cook on Lark Street, and he was a crazy guy who would memorize everyone’s orders and make breakfast for forty people at 4 am. The place would be packed with everyone looking for something to eat after a night of partying on Lark Street. He was an area fixture. His name was Dirty Dan, and so the poem is about him and my memories from that time in my life.
Now that Birds of the Air has been published, what future projects are you working on?
I am currently writing a biography about Anthony Hecht. Hecht was a Poet Laureate and a Pulitzer Prize-winning poet. Like me, Hecht also had some experience in theater, so it’s an interesting connection between the two of us. I’m also finishing a verse play. Part of the play is included in the latest book, and it’s called Schnauzer. It’s going to be a one-act play with three scenes.
What are some of the challenges you’ve faced with writing the biography?
The learning curve is steep. I’ve written reviews and essays, but I’ve never really written in this style and prose before. There is also tons of material and research that is going to go into the biography.
What advice do you have for aspiring writers?
Read everything you can before you write and never give up.
- Radical Catholic Author Kaya Oakes and Albany-Born Poet David Yezzi Come to Frequency North on March 21 (stroseenglish.wordpress.com)