Dante Di Stefano is the 2019 winner of the Auburn Witness Poetry Prize judged this year by Vievee Francis. In the following interview, SHR assistant managing editor, Angela Winsor, talks with Dante about his award-winning poem “Burning Churches,” its themes and inspirations, and the importance of bearing witness.
Angela Winsor: The poem opens almost like a prayer then moves through images of mass, tabernacle, statues of saints, and monstrance. How did you want these conventions of religion and religious symbols to function in the poem?
Dante Di Stefano: I hope the religious symbols and church architecture layer the text in interesting ways. Since this is a poem about American history and the history of racism and racially motivated violence, the images might evoke the role of Black churches as sites of resistance to oppression from slavery days to present. However, of course, those tropes also evoke the manifold ways Christianity bulwarked White supremacy from the Middle Passage onward. Despite those negative associations, many of us still find great beauty and solace and compelling strangeness in these tangible artifacts of faith.
The religious images are also freighted with personal significance. I grew up in a strictly observant Roman Catholic family, so these places and symbols hold tremendous power for me still, embodying as they do the mystery of spiritual experience, and, also, the failures of The Church—or any strand of dogmatic Christianity—as a guiding orthodoxy. Although I’m not a practicing Catholic, I love churches (the physicality of a church building, whether it’s a cathedral, a storefront in a strip mall, or a country parish); I have a profound respect for all manner of religious practice, and I pray daily, so I regard the religious conventions and symbols in the poem with affection, awe, nostalgia, and fear. These symbols also remind me of the central symbol of Christianity: the broken body of Christ. The great truth of Christianity (and of poetry too, I think) is that we are all broken, but that our very brokenness constitutes an “earned communion” (to borrow a phrase from Seamus Heaney). It is the earned communion made manifest in our poems that makes the struggles of daily living and the ugliness of human hate a little bit more bearable.
AW: I remember the recent public, international outcry when Notre Dame was burning. This outcry stood in stark contrast to the long-standing lack of attention surrounding the burning of predominately Black churches by White supremacists here in the U.S. Can you talk about how you processed the burning of Notre Dame in light of our country’s own long history of negligence when it comes to violence against people of color? How do these issues speak to each other in your award-winning poem “Burning Churches”?
DDS: The contrast that your question delineates provided the impetus for “Burning Churches.” Coverage of the Notre-Dame fire led me to the story about the burning of these Louisiana churches by Holden Matthews in March and April of 2019. I read an article about how fundraising for the destroyed churches increased in the wake of the cathedral fire. I might have missed the arson story otherwise; it was national news, but it was only a blip compared to the amount of ink and airtime devoted to the iconic cathedral’s fire.
At the time, I was reading Katherine Belew’s Bring the War Home: The White Power Movement and Paramilitary America. Belew’s history charts the militarization of American policing and the spread of White supremacist terror from the Vietnam War to the Oklahoma City bombing. Belew proves that the White power movement has been pursuing a strategy of leaderless resistance for the last fifty years or so; in this light, Holden Matthews’s arson is linked to the terrorism of Timothy McVeigh, to the 16th Street Baptist Church bombing in 1963, to innumerable heinous acts all the way back to the transatlantic slave trade. When I think about those churches burning, I wonder why we aren’t talking about this history more often (even if, as a culture, we are talking about White supremacy and racism more often, I don’t think we are having those discussions enough, or in the right way).
So, to circle back to your initial question, Angela, I see the multiple narratives and images in “Burning Churches” negotiating the spaces between attention and distraction, between power and marginality, between old hierarchies and the possibility of a leveling Now.
AW: I was so intrigued by the pauses and silences on the page. Can you talk about the play with spacing in this poem?
DDS: In “Burning Churches,” I hope the intralineal spacing in the poem reenacts the historical record and the gaps within it; these spaces also represent the silent, the silenced, and those who do the silencing. Narratives and counternarratives populate around the blanks—clustering, clipping off, and resuming—just as they do in everyday conversation, in textual and oral histories, and in national politics and journalism.
I’ve been noticing this type of spacing proliferating in work by many of the talented millennial poets who’ve risen to prominence in the past several years. In some ways, this is a typographical fad in contemporary poetry, but the spacing does hearken back to the midline breaks of Anglo-Saxon poetry, as Stephanie Burt has recently noted. And, at its best, this strategy for organizing music and motion in a poem can be really arresting (see, for example, Kaveh Akbar’s incredible “Portrait of the Alcoholic Floating in Space with Severed Umbilicus”).
Last year, I was also studying W.S. Merwin’s second four books and the way he organized sound without punctuation in his short lines. Merwin’s sonic patterning likely influenced my poem.
AW: I was interested in the pronouns of the poem—the collective “our” and “we” vs. “them.” Can you speak a little to the “we” of the poem?
DDS: The “We” jumps around a bit. There are many different groups and stories circulating within the poem and the pronouns attach and decouple from those groups as the poem moves along. One “we” would be Roman Catholics, another would be humankind in general, another, Americans, another, African Americans, another, members of the churches that burned, another, Antiracists, another, viewers of cable news, and so on. There’s a great deal of ambiguity in the deployment of pronouns throughout the poem. You might also read the poem as containing multiple voices, none of whom necessarily speak as a cohesive “I.”
As a side note, I’ve been writing poetry for twenty years or so, and I think this is the first time in my mature work that I’ve ever used the word “we,” except maybe when invoking The Constitution’s famous opening salvo. It seems like a dangerous proposition to assume inclusion in a group and to speak for others in a poem; this poem embeds the knowledge of that danger in its pronouns.
AW: How have your personal experiences and background shaped the writing of this poem?
DDS: For the last twelve years, I’ve worked as a high-school English teacher, and in that job, I’ve seen up-close the impact of racism, misogyny, homophobia, and classism on students for whom I care deeply. My daily work in the broken public-school system constantly directs me to reexamine the ways in which my life experiences (as a White middle-class male) have been misshaped and supported by White supremacy, male chauvinism, and American jingoism.
I’m forty-one years old, so, like many people who came of age at the end of Generation X, my consciousness about racism in America was shaped by acts of violence against Anita Hill, Rodney King, Abner Louima, Amadou Diallo, James Byrd Jr., and the prisoners at Abu Ghraib; their traumas informed my understanding of American empire.
AW: In thinking about the poet as witness, I’m curious about your thoughts on both the importance and burden of witness today. How do you allow “witness” to inform and influence your writing? How do you conceive of yourself as a “witness,” especially in the context of “Burning Churches”?
DDS: In “Burning Churches” I’m bearing witness to a series of discourses, and to the reportage on a series of real events, which are linked to a long history of terror. I’m also bearing witness to what it’s like to be alive in the United States of America in 2019, in a nation that has succumbed to a reality TV ontology. Toward the end of the introduction to her anthology Against Forgetting: Twentieth-Century Poetry of Witness, Carolyn Forché remarks: “the resistance to terror is what makes the world more habitable.” If the poem makes the world more habitable, then I think it’s because it implicitly echoes the point of Ibram X. Kendi’s recent book, How to Be an Antiracist. In 2019, it’s not enough merely not to be racist if you’re interested in making American life better for everyone. Instead, you must be actively antiracist.
In Poetry and Commitment, Adrienne Rich said: “For now, poetry has the capacity—in its own ways and by its own means—to remind us of something we are forbidden to see. A forgotten future: a still-uncreated site whose moral architecture is founded not on ownership and dispossession, the subjection of women, torture and bribes, outcast and tribe, but on the continual redefining of freedom.” I share Rich’s belief in poetry’s ability to reveal this hidden future.
AW: As you know, Vievee Francis was our guest judge for this year’s Witness Prize. What does it mean to you to have had your poem selected by her?
DDS: Vievee Francis can riff with equal brilliance on lines from Iceberg Slim and Hans Christian Andersen. Her collection Forest Primeval puts her in the top tier of American poets. She’s someone whose work elicits a visceral emotional response from me, but whose technique is also exquisite. I’d like to dwell in the music of a poem like her “Happiness?” forever. I admire the formal risks she takes in poems like “A Flight of Swiftlets Made Their Way In” and “A Song on the Ridge.” I can feel a poem like “Taking It” in my knuckles. In short, Vievee Francis’s hard earned duende, her great imagistic intelligence, her love of literature and life, and her bigheartedness drip from every word she writes; she’s the kind of poet I aspire to be. Having her even read my work is a great honor.
It’s also a great honor to receive an award named after Jake Adam York. His collection A Murmuration of Starlings provides such a profound examination of the Civil Rights era south with an eye to the history that bookends that era. I particularly admire his poem “March,” which begins with the extraordinary line “Day is halos welded in his eyes,” and I also love his poem “At Sun Ra’s Grave.”
AW: It’s evident from your work that you love language—what else do you love? What, other than poetry, fills up your life?
DDS: My greatest joy in life comes from my wife Christina, my almost two-year-old daughter, Luciana (we call her “Chi Chi”), and my golden doodle, Sunny (named after Alabama’s own, Sun Ra). I enjoy spending time with family and friends. I love all types of music, especially jazz and blues (Coltrane and Monk are my greatest heroes). Nineteenth century Russian novels shaped my consciousness as a teenager, and I love returning to them. I love crime novels, the prose of Borges, and the paintings of Marc Chagall. Don Quixote is my favorite book. I try to get outside in nature as much as possible. I love good food. I love living in upstate New York and visiting Vermont. I love to travel when I can. I spend a good deal of time reading and writing literary criticism. My work as an editor and teacher keeps me busy and energizes me. My wife is the executive director of a small nonprofit arts council, so I volunteer for that organization. Lastly, I love my students, past, present, and future.
AW: I’ve had your poem, “Reading Dostoyevsky at Seventeen” bookmarked in my copy of The Best American Poetry 2018 (and have revisited it many times). It’s interesting to me that both poems include some notion of “burning.” What are you working on next?
DDS: Thank you so much for your kind words about that poem, and for such thoughtful questions throughout this interview, Angela. I’m almost done with my third poetry collection, which is titled, funnily enough (speaking of burning), Lullaby with Incendiary Device.
AW: And finally—the thing I always want to know when I read a piece that has inspired me—what have you read recently that has inspired you?
DDS: Azareen Van der Vliet Oloomi’s novel Call Me Zebra is one of the best novels I have ever read. If you spent your early adulthood reading, and making mistakes partially based on that reading, then you will love this book.
Nana Kwame Adjei-Brenyah’s short story collection Friday Black really impressed me too. I love how the author uses science fiction and horror to explore race and consumer culture in America.
I’m rereading Thoreau’s Walden right now, which is like visiting with a beloved eccentric uncle who believes in extraterrestrials.
Some books about poetry that have interested me, lately, include Philip Brady’s Phantom Signs, H.L. Hix’s Demonstrategy, and Philip Metres’s The Sound of Listening. The scope and erudition of these books is astounding.
I’m really knocked out by Allison C. Rollins debut poetry collection, Library of Small Catastrophes. I’m overwhelmed by Giovanni Singleton’s American Letters: Works on Paper. I’ve also been greatly enjoying Patricia Colleen Murphy’s Bully Love and Maureen Seaton’s Sweet World.
Three friends allowed me to read their forthcoming books in manuscript form this summer and I was so delighted.
Tom Bouman’s ecopoetic rural noir, The Bramble and the Rose forthcoming from W.W. Norton this spring, continues his Henry Farrell series of novels.
Nicole Santalucia’s soon-to-be-published second collection, The Book of Dirt, employs madcap humor and extravagant linguistic acrobatics as it explores homophobia and misogyny in central Pennsylvania.
Lastly, Leah Umansky’s Of Tyrant examines the Trump era in a style that is both haunting and astonishingly inventive. I’m biased in their favor, but these are three of my favorite writers.
DANTE DI STEFANO is the author of Ill Angels and Love Is a Stone Endlessly in Flight. His poetry, essays, and reviews have appeared in American Life in Poetry, Best American Poetry 2018, Poem-a-Day, Prairie Schooner, the Sewanee Review, the Writer’s Chronicle, and elsewhere. Along with María Isabel Álvarez, he co-edited the anthology Misrepresented People: Poetic Responses to Trump’s America. He holds a Ph D in English Literature from Binghamton University and is the poetry editor for the DIALOGIST. He lives in upstate New York with his wife, Christina, their daughter, Luciana, and their dog, Sunny.