I knew of Dave Caserio before I met him last summer, the two of us featured writers for a multi-discipline art project in my hometown of Billings, Montana. A longtime fixture among respected Montana artists, Caserio’s voice is lauded by friends and fellow artists. Not only is his poetry epic in scale and sound, it is epic in the temporal sense. Says Martin Farawell of the Dodge Foundation Poetry Festival, “The far-ranging inclusiveness of these poems is part of their maker’s attempt to use the full range of experience and perception, to be spontaneous and disciplined, personal and universal, emotional and intellectual, visceral and spiritual, to fully acknowledge and use our innocence and experience.”
Caserio also habitually incorporates talented musicians into his sets, staging the atmosphere of his spoken word offerings as a set designer might for a Broadway musical. Introducing Dave to Easy Street’s readers is a great joy. One can glean completely different experiences hearing Caserio read than one does from sitting in a quiet room to digest his first poetry collection, This Vanishing.
Here we give you the stunning “Forensic Love” in both formats: read below or click here for the aural version, as performed with the brilliant Parker Brown on bass.
I will be unearthed—
Another nameless coffin in an overcrowded world
In 2098—and they will jettison me ninety-two million,
Eight hundred and twenty-seven thousand miles
Beneath the sun, unto the eternal revolving wheel.
Bin of old bones that once in vacuum will never die
But spin in contrapuntal harmony with the moon.
Dark sister may she last, watching as I watch,
Whatever earth, with each unfutile spring, may bring
Again: great grey heron rising from pure blue of water
Out over mist and reeds, or redwing blackbird, first seed
And thorn, or Copernicus to tell us he was wrong;
That the human heart and not the sun
Marks the center, the doorway to life.
And perhaps this end will not be the end.
But nicked by a meteor, thrown by its wake,
This ole jangle and clank of bones
With their endless code of once living
Cells of experience will, as a wolf howl
Or a vowel will, without the consonant of things,
Drift toward the vast outer unknown.
Unlured by Saturn, uninjured by the sun,
Able to miss each wandering asteroid
As ancestors, sister and brother to my uncle
Joe Vezzetti—long may his gold tooth gleam
—did not. For in a moment of singing they failed
To miss and travel on their way, a careening
Drunk one night on a mountainside road in Italy.
And before bursting in smithereens, they went
Screaming into flames. But I will last until I last,
Bump up and nuzzle the nose of another someone
Who, in whatever form, will pluck me from the deep.
Mystery or fraud, I will be as Lucy, from Olduvai Gorge,
Piltdown Man, mask of Agamemnon or whatever hunkered
Unknown daubed a bison’s soul in primordial light of Lascaux.
Here the knee bone slipped the femur, the tibia twisted away,
The shin scraped and the toe cracked. But not the how or why,
Not the song. Not that I was drunk and spinning on one leg, whirling
As if it were a stick of fire above my head a cherry-red, feedback
Engorged, eight-stringed electric bass guitar that yowled and screeched,
Shrieked as shrieking cats in heat or wild Picts at Hadrian’s Wall,
When I tripped and fell and broke my damn knee.
So perhaps, bit by bit, those who discover me
Will come to know what fragrance lies unbloomed.
What Bushman chant or Ibo tongue?
What vanished larynx of Sioux?
What grief Enkidu under earth?
Upanishad, or Andromache at the wall?
Odysseus before the blood?
Or Gullah, Geechee, a south side jive?
What palaver we, as humans are,
That lingers in these bones.
ES: Can you tell us about your writing environment? What are the essentials you need around you, if any?
DC: Chaotic. And then, not chaotic. When I am working on a poem everything is out or eventually will be out and visible, on the floor or on my desk: books, various drafts, scraps of paper (envelopes, yellow legal pads, old journals), even computer files with various ideas and sketches are left on the desktop to be rummaged through.
It is a gradual process lasting as long as it takes to write the poem, but the mess builds up, dishes don’t get done. Also, there is a quiet and resilient emptiness, a space that seems to act like a tuning fork for whatever the poem might be. Even though I do most of my writing at a desk in a room surrounded by books, I have written and completed poems in a variety of locations from a New York City diner at 4 am to sitting under a tree on a sunny day. I think that interior, that capacity to write, is always there. Triggers and our willingness to follow what is released by that subtle or dramatic seismic shift is an essential habit. It doesn’t matter where we take it up. However, having a room, a place, a desk, the opportunity for distraction (windows open, windows closed, music on, music off) or the option to shut the blinds and be a hermit, is a constant that I have come to depend on.
ES: Where are you from and where are you now? Does sense of place factor into/inform your writing?
DC: I was born and raised on the South Side of Chicago. My Italian-American father met my English mother in Warrington during the Korean war. The Air Force sent him back first and my mother followed, seven months pregnant with me, arriving on a four engine prop airplane at Midway. I am part of them, of their histories, families, and narratives and I draw on those inherited blessings as subject matter for poetry. Yet, I have always felt outside of that, a bit of a stranger in my own family. Not in a dysfunctional or alienated way, but that there was something inside me that had nothing to do with any of them. As far as place goes, I don’t think of myself as a regional writer. I can make most anywhere home. No one location seems to carry the sense that a particular soil, its history and stories, is the singular source for my poetry. I seem to move to a place that interests me, stay 8-10 years, then move on.
I’ve remained in Billings longer than anywhere I’ve lived except where I grew up. Montana has a familiarity that feels like home: mountains, rivers, open space, wind, sky. I have always been drawn here and to the West, though I don’t know where I truly belong. Chicago on the South side, NYC, Seattle, San Diego, each place was important to me when I was there and is layered into each subsequent place. We live among ghosts, as it were. The time of Marco Polo is a walk along the rims and in the broken country as it stretches toward the Crow reservation. I see remnants of the Holocaust in the wreck of old mining camps. As if, wherever we are, our feet are in the river of time and the current of voices, stories, events, all seem to be of one.
ES: What are the basics of your process? Do you start with a word or idea? Do you write immediately or let it simmer for a bit? How do you edit? Do you ever give up on ideas?
DC: All of these. Yes. I often give up. I make excuses. I procrastinate. I get anxious, lazy. Fear and self-doubt can take over. One of my first poetry teachers, Tom Absher, reminded me that a poet, or any artist, is in it for the long haul. So I hope I understand that time is precious, uncertain, and inevitable, that persistence, despite failure, is key. Poems have their own prodding. Sometimes they come in a rush. It doesn’t matter where I am at. Other times I let them simmer, brush the urge aside if it feels too superficial. Or, to the contrary, I can start on the surface and scratch my way toward something. They can begin with a word, a memory, after extended research or an offhand remark; but the sound, the breath, the physical feeling and rhythm have to be there. Sometimes I wake up in the middle of night and a line or a word or a way into the problem or block in the poem opens up and I have a choice to get up and write or go back to sleep. One must work, be determined, yet flexible and intuitive in listening. Each poem is different.
I do revise and edit, but that is ongoing and part of the process. Even then, there is discovery, a new perception, or association. I’d like to believe that there is some nagging, annoying, ruthlessness in me, that won’t let go until I’ve made the poem as true as I am able.
ES: What other art forms factor into your work? From what and where do you draw inspiration?
DC: I think that a poem is not meant to be experienced solely through contemplative reading and silent intonation, that the other, powerful, magical aspect of poetry is its public face–what happens when it is spoken aloud, solo, or in concert with another voice, instrument or art. In that moment it becomes both theater and performance, a communal experience ancient as it is new, whose roots reach back into the oral tradition, into the shamanistic, into the bardic. Some part of me has always recognized the legitimacy of the idea that a poet might chant, sing, dance, take on other voices, imitate animals, tell stories, use masks, costumes, drumming or music, and still be a poet. What I find useful and valuable in the expression of other art forms, say architecture or slapstick comedy, is there in poetry as well. A poem may not actually get up and dance, but it does have the energy and movement of dance within it. To that end, I will almost always include dancers, musicians, visual artists, and actors in any poetry event that I produce. Even when in the traditional contemporary mode of a single poet at a podium reciting to an audience, I try to let that knowledge factor into the reading.
Inspiration? What I believe about inspiration is this: With a finger, reach up and scratch the air. The fabric and cloth for making is everywhere. Be attentive and be open and be in the habit of being so.
ES: If you had to give a good friend three books to read while spending the winter in Antarctica, which books would you give them and why?
DC: Three is tough. A complete collection of Shakespeare’s plays and poems; The Gift: Imagination and the Erotic Life of Property by Lewis Hyde; Praises and Dispraises: Poetry and Politics, the 20th Century by Terrence Des Pres. If I might add one more, The Great War and Modern Memory by Paul Fussell. There is no why, beyond the fact that these books were vital to me in a time when I needed what each had to offer–either to teach, or affirm, or to startle my imagination into new possibilities of association and connection.
Dave Caserio is the author of, This Vanishing, from CW Books and Wisdom For A Dance In The Street, a CD of poetry and music from Gazoobi Tales. A recipient of a Fellowship in Poetry award from the New York State Foundation of the Arts, Dave works with various community outreach programs, the Humanities Montana Speakers Bureau, Arts Without Boundaries, the Billings YMCA/Writer’s Voice “Poets on the Prairie”, and for the Billings Clinic Cancer Center conducting writing workshops for cancer survivors.
He is a founding member of the writer’s collective, Big Sky Writing, and Producer of a series of poetry-in-performance events, A Feast For The Hunger Moon, WordSongs, Arc of the Communal, and I Conjure A Stubborn Faith, that combine poetry, music, dance and the visual arts.