Interview with poet Dennis Formento -- a bright publisher, activist, and free-jazz/free-verse performer

"Music and art can confront and free us from the mind and spirit prison because they  get us out of the cerebral chatter of the frontal lobes and allow our feelings to change instantaneously."

Dennis Formento: Free Mind & Spirit 

Activist, poet and sometime free-jazz/free-verse performer Dennis Formento, lives in Slidell, LA with his wife, artist, teacher, and yogini, Patricia Hart. In 2010, Paper Press published Cineplex, poems dating from 2011 to 2013. Dennis Formento is the publisher of Surregional Press and the author of five chapbooks. A sixth, Ra Blues Are, from Umteen Press in New Orleans. With movement artist Nanette Ledet, he is currently working on a “cosmo-drama” featuring the poetry of New Orleans ex-pat and original beat poet, Bob Kaufman. His poem "In Memory of James Black" appears in Plunge. Exquisite Corpse has "Ecologisms" and also "The Golden Triangle: An Interview with James Nolan."                        Photo by Craig Morse

His poems and ecologisms are on-line at Muse Apprentice Guild. His chapbooks include "William Faulkner Lives & Dies In Camelot," "The Big Book of Holy Wars," (with Arthur Pfister,) "In Memory of James Black," and "PoBoy Dressed to Go/ Ecologisms."  Mesechabe's Surregional Press published John Sinclair's FATTENING FROGS FOR SNAKES: A DELTA SOUND SUITE. Participant in 90s explosion of New Orleans poetic arts at the Dragon's Den, Maple Leaf Bar, Sweet Lorraine's and numerous coffeehouses and galleries; published Mesechabe: the Journal of Surregionalism arcing Mississippi Watershed ecology with city culture, N.O. home brewed; recited poetry with free jazz Gilgamesh Orchestra, founded Frank Zappatistas free jazz/free verse band, 2001, inspired by music of Sun Ra; collaborated with dancers, visual artists in New Orleans Dramarama and other venues; joined nucleus of movement to stop David Duke's racist juggernaut; defended women's clinics and protested the “peaceful” atom; sweltered in N.O. humidity, drowned in dead-end jobs; escaped the flood of Katrina in '05; read at Venice Biennale, 2009 and at Locanda Hermann in Rome. 

Interview by Michael Limnios

Literature, music and art can confront the “prison” of the spirit and mind?

Absolutely; music and art can confront and free us from the mind and spirit prison because they  get us out of the cerebral chatter of the frontal lobes and allow our feelings to change instantaneously. They can also reinforce negativity; it’s very important what the musician, writer or artist intends to do with the art.

What do you learn about yourself from the literature and music? What has offered you?

The first thing I learned, probably without realizing it at the time, was that I am an artist. When I was a kid, I knew that I wanted to be “some kind of an artist” although it took me a while to realize that words were my art. What I’ve learned about myself is that I’m a short-form artist; no novels or epics from me, probably. I say “probably” because these longer types of writing are done the same way shorts ones are, one page at a time. Just with more planning. I also know that I will never get finished, not because I will never run out of things to say, but just because I will always put something down on paper or on the screen. As for music and literature, the two go together for me because I have always loved music and have tinkered around with it for my whole life. I’m not a musician, because I’m a klutz and just can’t play anything. I can sing a bit. So music makes me want to respond verbally. Music for me is like a new text in a foreign language is to a translator: new material to work into a new shape. I never run out of material as long as the music is inspiring in some way. 

I’ve also learned to accept that my limitations show me my strengths as long as I use them properly. It’s better to be a poet who writes good poems than to stretch my limitations and do something else badly. 

"The triggers of creation are: dreams; failures; the recognition of oneself in others and in other types of sentient beings; the usual stuff—love—missing your dead father. The regrets I feel." (Photo by Patricia Hart - Dennis with guitarist Ed Barrett)

What characterize the philosophy of Dennis Formento? How do you describe your poetry?

What characterizes my philosophy is that reality is always more complicated than it appears and it usually has nothing to do with what I think it is. My poetry currently is more personal than it’s ever been before. I always will marry dream and reality, a sense of play with language and I always will write for the general, intelligent reader and listener rather than for a specialized, “in-crowd” audience. People are more intelligent than the mass media give them credit for. I think they are hungry for things they do not know.

What experiences in life make a good poet? What are the triggers for creations?

Experiences: you have to understand that there is always something that you didn’t understand about things that happen; removal from the time stream of constantly doing allows a writer or any artist to respond in art. Or at least have time to practice. 
The triggers of creation are: dreams; failures; the recognition of oneself in others and in other types of sentient beings; the usual stuff—love—missing your dead father. The regrets I feel. History and politics. This bioregion and its culture. Sometimes anger. And the inspiration of other art forms—trying to put into words an experience about art or to express what that other art does that can be told or replicated in words. 

Which is the most interesting period in your life? What experiences make you a good poet and writer?

The most interesting period in my life is the present day. It requires most of my attention. Unfortunately, I’m also a daydreamer so I get caught up in the past and the future a lot. But day dreaming often leads me to words and images or situations that sometimes end up in poetry. Day dreaming is a form of rumination that allows me to see what I would do or what I could do if I could repeat a situation or what I should do if confronted with a situation way out of the ordinary.

What makes me a good poet has always been not being lazy when it comes to reworking a poem. Going at it time and again and knowing when to quit on a piece, or what can be salvaged from it, has made me a decent poet. Bob Dylan claimed in an interview that “A Hard Rain’s A-Gonna Fall,” was simply a collection of first lines of songs that he never thought he’d write. Putting together a masterwork from a couple of dozen unfinished pieces is a trick all writers need to learn. “In Memory of James Black,” a poem about the late, great New Orleans modern jazz drummer, is one that I wrote that way.

What was the relation between music, literature, poetry and art?

Music and poetry have never been far apart in my experience. As a kid, I had a knack for remembering dozens of songs. Even though I never became a songwriter, I associated the two. Later, when I discovered the beat and African American aesthetic—putting poetry together with music—I found a way of expressing myself musically with some really great musicians. I’ve been lucky to get to know and work with some great players through other poets, John Sinclair and the late sax player and poet, Richard Theodore (who wrote under the name of Harry Lenz.) Music can be a dramatic accompanist to the words or the words can blend in with the music as another instrument might, or a singer. They’re complementary. I think visual art must serve the same purpose for people, writers who respond to visually to the world, to visual stimuli. 

How important was the music in your life? How does the music affect your mood and inspiration?

Music teaches, and I love to sing, even if only for myself.  I’m learning about the folk culture and the language of Italy, where my father was born, through listening to traditional and modern folk music. Music has a history too, and that’s how I came to be so close to John Sinclair, the blues poet and historian—we’d never met, but someone—the late Ahmos zu-Bolton— arranged a reading featuring us and a couple of other people. We realized the similarities not only in the inspiration for some of our poems but even in the way we did them—coupling our experience of the music what had already been written about it, sometimes in the words of the musicians themselves. 

Otherwise, like when I said, “music is like a text in another language to a translator,” I do literally translate songs not just to understand what they’re about but to learn the language as well. Folk music, like the blues or the tarantella, is the classical music of the people. I learn about their myths, their mores, their history and everyday life, through music. Like Ezra Pound said, “curiosity:” it was his single word of advice to young writers—I’m always going to be curious about music. And it does change or express my mood like it does for anyone else. As a writer, I have to be conscious of how it affects me and my work.

"Music for me is like a new text in a foreign language is to a translator: new material to work into a new shape. I never run out of material as long as the music is inspiring in some way." 

Are there any memories from THE FRANK ZAPPATISTAS which you’d like to share with us?

I can tell you about an experience that came before the Zappatistas—working with the Gilgamesh orchestra, a group put together by Richard Theodore. We were playing at a hallowed club in New Orleans—the Mermaid Lounge, it’s no longer there. I had the experience, while reciting with this crazed mix of ten musicians, of the floor, literally the floor beneath our feet, lifting up off the ground and hovering there, six inches above the dirt. I’ve never had an experience like that again. Of the Zappatistas: Janna Saslaw, our flute player, helping me get over my case of nerves by saying, “We’re going to have fun.” I realized that I was as prepared as I could be and the thing to do was to enjoy the experience, have faith in my poetry and my voice, and realize I knew what I was doing as well as the musicians knew what they were doing. I had the greatest experience of my music life playing hand percussion alongside the drummer, Endre Landsnes. I learned that a great free drummer can shift the rhythm almost imperceptibly so that whatever groove I found on the tambourine or shaker would suddenly become awkward and would not lock in with what he was doing. So it became necessary to drop out of the sound for a moment to pick up what he was doing or to shift my playing quickly so that it fit what Endre did. One has to do that constantly when the rhythm is free and there’s a great drummer on the bandstand. I learned a lot from Endre that I put to use later with other drummers. 

I also learned that there are musicians who are enthusiastic about working with poets. Some are not, but they are always hyped to play with other good musicians and will take their chances.

We have an album’s worth of live material from 2004 that has never been prepared for release—I don’t know what I was waiting for—but it shows what that band was capable of doing off the cuff. There were two guitarists that night—Janna wasn’t available—and the guitarists (Ed Barrett and Mark Fowler) were incredible foils for each other. The music phased through rock-sounding passages, noise, not necessarily jazzy but funky and spacious at other times. This is the way our music sounded but the two guitars gave it a sharp kind of urgency that we didn’t have at other times.  Spontaneous, because the two guitarists hadn’t played together before, but meshed immediately.

We were all admirers of Sun Ra, and Ra was a poet, so the natural thing to do was to put the poetry and free jazz together and allow the music to take the shape it had to take.  I learned to listen and how to use my voice more effectively than I had before with Gilgamesh.  I learned the value of having a monitor, for instance!

"Music and poetry have never been far apart in my experience. As a kid, I had a knack for remembering dozens of songs. Even though I never became a songwriter, I associated the two." (Photo: Federico Cordovez, Allen Ginsberg & Dennis, Boulder Public Library, July 1995)

Which meetings have been the biggest experiences for you? What is the best advice ever given you?

Biggest experiences, in terms of poets who affected me? Allen Ginsberg, because he gave me the example of a poet who is intensely personal but involved in the world and experienced the world globally. I learned to accept that he did not like my poetry and that I had to find other teachers who would help me become what I had to become. So Anselm Hollo, Jack Collom and Robert Creeley—probably had the most positive effects on me. Anselm because he got my wit and the short poems I was writing at the time. That was my limitation—short blips. Jack, because he was a great workshop teacher, understood the importance of nature and of having a message sometimes in your poem. Creeley, because I found him really easy to be around for the short time I spent with him, and how he really listened to and appreciated other poets. I appreciated that he remembered me when we met again five years later. His language, like Anselm’s or Jack’s, always had a manner of creeping into my own poems, for the good, and I learned a lot about rhythm from him.

How you would spend a day with Ezra Pound and what would you like to ask John Coltrane?

With Pound? Pound: Probably in silence. Although it’s likely that whatever happened would surprise me. I used to be a big Pound fan—weirdly enough, it wasn’t until later, when I’d had my fill and moved on to learn from other poets and traditions, that I found it harder and harder to forgive him for his drift into fascism. I know that other writers, both American and Italian, have accepted that in favor of what he accomplished in creating a new poetics in American poetry and what he accomplished in reaffirming the historical traditions of Latin poetry and of the Italian peninsula, and Provence.  A bioregional writer I know, Guiseppe Moretti, feels that he redirected attention from money and power to the land from which all the riches flow. I suppose I’d ask Pound what he thinks of multiculturalism, since his daughter claimed he was the “father of multiculturalism” in a talk she gave at the University of New Orleans. I almost choked; I felt I had realized what harm he did and could have done to American poetry.  And giving him credit for multiculturalism seems to suggest that the people of those other cultures had no part in the creation of multiculturalism.

Trane: I’d ask him what we can do to reverse the direction of popular music today, whether music can change the way people think and behave. I am not certain he’d have the answer that I want to hear, but that’s the thing about genius: you always have to be ready to be surprised by what a person of Trane’s abilities would do.  I’d ask him what he’s playing now. Mostly I’d just follow him around and talk with him as we go. You learn most when people are off guard. That probably works for spirits too.

Photo: Dennis & Patricia Hart

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