Q&A with food writer and poet Leo Racicot - writes poetry with ample doses of Catholicism and Eastern Religion

"Enlightenment, if it comes at all, comes after hundreds, thousands of incarnations. I wait for instructions from The Universe. When I feel it speaks, I try to listen. When it doesn't, I wait."

Leo Racicot: B(Eat) A Soutra

Leo Racicot is an award-winning essay-memoirist and poet. His most recent publications appear in Gastronomica, The Harvard Gay and Lesbian Review and The London Review of Books. Leo Racicot Racicot is a Lowell, Mass. native, but has spent much time in Somerville, Mass. For awhile he worked at The Somerville Theatre in Davis Square, and crossed over to our burg from the Republic of Cambridge quite often to live his life. Like Jack Kerouac, another Lowell native son, Racicot writes poetry that is spiritual, with ample doses of Catholicism and Eastern Religion. Racicot, a food writer, poet, and movie critic, among other things was befriended by noted food writers Julia Child and M.F.K. Fisher and has many anecdotes about these epicurean icons, and other personages he has come across in his rich life and his eating of rich food.

His latest book of poetry is "Alone in the Yard: Buddhist, Beat and Otherwise” by Big Table Press. Leo Racicot's work has been featured in "Co-Evolution Quarterly","Utne Reader", "Spiritual Life", "Gay Sunshine Journal", "First Hand", "The Poet", "Ibbetson Street Press", "Poetry", "Shakespeare's Monkey" and "Yankee". Two of his award-winning essay-memoirs appear in "Best of..."anthologies, and he is the recipient of the Antonio Machado Poetry Forum Award (1992). His holiday story, "The Little Man" is being published by Snug Harbor and will be available in audio and animated form on fablevision.com. He is hard-at-work on a new biography of Edmund White as well as a comprehensive bibliography of White 's work.

Interview by Michael Limnios

What experiences in your life have triggered your ideas most frequently? How would you characterize your poetry?

   As I grew and hopefully continue to grow as a poet, I find a lasting connection between what I do and other forms of Art. During or after I see a dance performance, a play, tour a museum, etc. a poem or, the idea of a poem, will come through. The emotions I experience through other disciplines then infuse what I, myself, create. So Art triggers Art. Extreme events, trauma, great joy -- these, too, lead to a need for expression, outlet. The first poem I ever wrote was at the age of 10 following Jack Kennedy's assassination. I did not know what to do or where to go with all that sadness I carried for that gorgeous, glorious man we had all loved. The need to express/expel the pain became overwhelming. I recently came across this poem in the attic, was surprised at how not-awful it is. I also could see a tie-in between the president's murder and the death of a parent, the assassination mirroring the death of my father, another gorgeous, glorious being, three years earlier. 

       Over a lifetime, a theme has developed in my work which now mostly struggles to seek and find, to balance the disparity of human emotions -- destruction and creation -- Life turns on a dime and I continue to be fascinated by that -- how elation can suddenly lead us down what Joni Mitchell called, "the dark, dark ladder". How, in moments of utter despair, something as small as a single flower, a stranger's smile, a strand of music can bring us back to ourselves. I suppose this brings a schizophrenic quality to my poems but I see and have experienced that same dynamic in my own life and in the lives of others -- friends, lovers, acquaintances. At 63 I am still looking for the monster lurking under the bed, the escape hatch that will help me to outrun this monster. Often, we find the monster is ourself and the escape hatch is the poetry we write, the statue we sculpt, the song we sing. The purpose of poetry is to see monsters and to tame them.

What has been the relationship: music and poetry in your life and writing? How important was music in your life?

    Music was with me since the age of 7. In the 1950s, gender boundaries were firmly in-place -- a son spent most of his time with his father; a daughter, with her mother. When my father died, quite suddenly (I was seven), my mother and sister continued to hang out with each other whereas I, now fatherless, found myself much of the time alone. Music became one of my sheltering places, my comfort in my loneliness, a guarantee. I shut myself in my bedroom for hours on end listening to all the great songs and musicians. I had many influences: my parents had married later in life so I listened to the music they (and my relatives) listened to -- all the wonderful song stylists: Sinatra, Peggy Lee, Rosemary Clooney, Ella Fitzgerald, Tony Bennett, and composers: Cole Porter, Harold Arlen, Hoagy Carmichael, Irving Berlin; an endless treasury of clever rhyme, the perfect phrasing, the swing and sway informed me. I listened, too, to a lot of Broadway musicals of the time -- My Fair Lady, Oklahoma, Funny Girl, Camelot. I drove my poor mother bananas singing at the top of my lungs like Julie Andrews (I could mimic Andrews perfectly, even hitting her famous high A, above C. My poor mother!) This exposure to lyrics, especially, developed in me a rhyming mind. Even when I am out walking along, thinking to myself, or chatting with friends, rhymes emerge. I have tried, at times finding it annoying, to make it stop but I can't. My growing years were also filled with the music of my generation – I loved and still do the musicians of the Folk Revival period: Judy Collins, Bob Dylan, the great Odetta, Theo Bikel, Pete Seeger, Ronnie Gilbert, Joan Baez, Phil Ochs. I also have deep inside me where it will stay for eternity the music of Nina Simone. That voice!  I was blessed to see her one time only at Symphony Hall, Boston. Never before at any live concert (and I have been to dozens) have I felt so transformed. Her presence was that transcendent. I floated home, like one of Chagall's ecstatics.

       I also dug the so-called confessional singers -- Paul Simon, Joni Mitchell (whose work I adore), Jackson Browne, Tim Buckley. The legendary blues singers were always on my radio and record player -- Lightnin' Hopkins, Son House, Robert Johnson, John Lee Hooker, Buddy Guy. He is God. I would lie in bed long after 'lights out', the radio under the blanket covers down at the end of the bed and turn the dial with my big toe devouring every song I could find like a delicious meal. It was heaven being in the dark there all alone with that most celestial of blessings -- Music. For a long, long time, it was a dream of mine to make my living as a singer. It never happened, of course, but that is another story for another time. So, yes, music and lyrics play a large part in a poetic mind and sensibilities. I believe we cannot have one without the other.

"Oddly, the moment my life changed most has little to do with Beat interests. I was a painfully, almost pathologically shy person into my late 20s, early 30s."

Which acquaintances have been the most important experiences? What was the best advice anyone ever gave you?

    Dr. Margaret Guindon, a college English professor, was one of the first teachers to consider the lyrics of that rock/blues generation to be poetry and to give it serious academic attention. In place of Wordsworth, Longfellow, Dickinson, Frost (the latter two I still read and re-read), she aimed her laser-sharp dissecting eye on Dylan, Joni Mitchell, Phil Ochs, The Beatles, The Who. This was at a time when such a focus was unheard of. She opened our minds to lyrics as art and would be thrilled, I know, to hear of Dylan's Nobel Prize this year. Guindon woke the sleeping me up.

       I also had a lovely, smart man, Dr. Thomas G. Devine, who told me I could and should write. His encouragement continues to this day; at 88 he remains a valued friend and mentor. Of course, many friendships with the Beats, with Allen (Ginsberg), Greg (Corso), Diane Di Prima, etc. etc. -- just to be with these writers and creators was heaven for me. Also, my lovely and loving friend, Mary Frances (M.F.K.Fisher) who treated me as a peer though I wasn't yet then that. I think the best advice I ever heard was from I.B. Singer who said, "Write one page, every day. Make a habit of it." My own advice for anyone wanting to do good writing is -- Read the great writers -- the Masters. If you want to be a Master, walk alongside them. Let them teach you. I write every day, even if it is a long letter to a friend. If all you can manage from a day is a grocery or a Christmas card list, you're still writing!

Are there any memories from Allen Ginsberg and other Beat writers which you’d like to share with us?

   I have scads of stories about darling Allen Ginsberg, Jack, even, who was friends with my mother (they were in the same Lowell High School class. Jack was a hometown regular, could be seen all over town and interacted with, if you caught him in the right head space).  I will give you a couple -- In the 80s, as part of what we then called Oktoberfest here, Lowell would celebrate Kerouac. Quite a line-up of Beat names would come to the city to participate. (This is how I first met them). After the readings and festivities, Allen and Company re-grouped to the James MacNeill Whistler House and Museum (Whistler was a Lowell native) where he planned to sign admirers' books and posters. (I should also mention that Edie Parker was present with the latest in her long string of "boy toys"). Anyway, Allen signed a poster I'd brought and added the letters OM, giant-sized, on it. At that time, I had no idea what that meant. My friend, Joe, urged me, "Go back and ask him!" When I did, Allen closed his eyes, paused for a holy moment and began chanting the sacred "Ohm....Ohm..."  Instantly, the crowd became mesmerized. As this gentle man filled the small room with a resonance, a nearly galactic peace. He created, within the space of a few moments, a harmony and a magic out of nowhere! That was Allen. The power of him was instant. One of the truly great mystics, I think. The funny bit is -- you couldn't hear the proverbial pin drop until Edie shattered the dome of peace Allen had woven shouting, "Oh, Allen. Stop showing off and get me a drink!"

       Another time, a group of us were with Greg Corso in the old Smith Baker Center downtown. Out of nowhere, Greg began to move slowly, snakingly around, as if in search of something -- a Holy Grail move?? An uncertain but mighty "something?? He was so stealthy about it, so focused. We all began to follow him believing he was on the verge of speaking in tongues, of uttering some undeniable truth. Finally, alighting on the bench of a rickety, worn out upright, he stopped, raised his hands directly into the sky, like Toscanini, brought them down just as dramatically onto the keys and -- played and sang in a loud, uninhibited vaudeville bass -- "Begin the Beguine". So.....epiphanies could come courtesy of the Beats, in the most unexpected forms and ways. That was the whole point of the Movement. Life is a joke. A serious moment turns silly; a silly moment turns black.

"The Beats were very Zen-centered, a great many Buddhist teachings captured them, most especially Allen whose influence over Jack when their journeys crossed at Columbia, was made up of Buddhist and Eastern thoughts and philosophies." (Photo" Leo and his sister Diane in NYC)

How has Kerouac, the Beats and Counterculture influenced your views of the world and the journeys you’ve taken?

   I will start by telling a story.....I was staying at M.F.K. Fisher's place in Northern California. She was resting and I asked if she would mind if while she snoozed, I took a walk. She suggested I make my way up the big mountain behind her home, on the site of the Bouverie Ranch. She teased, "Climb to the very top and see what you can see."  I set off. The incline was steep, the climb invigorating. Yet I noted the scenery, the landscape was pretty boring, lackluster. Trees. Dirt. My body got quite the workout trying to make my way to the summit. A few times, I thought, "The heck with this. I'm going back down."  But the tantalizing idea that something really special was waiting for me once I reached the top kept me moving. Wasn't I pissed when I finally gasped onto the promontory to find only one (one!) of the tiniest flowers I have ever seen, a violet, alone and being beaten up by the wind. I was so disappointed. But then I thought, "I will pick this and show Mary Frances what I found."  For all my trouble and sore feet.  When I did so, she (and her caregiver, Vera) were delighted, could not stop holding and twirling the little purple thing, seemed bedazzled by its  singularity, its courage, for it had survived the cold of the mountain height, all alone. What a wonder they called it, "Una pequena cosa con un gran corazon!"  It taught me an important lesson, that there might be a nonesuch reward at the end of a difficult journey but what you sometimes find is the tiniest prize for your effort. This is the basis of great Zen teachings and of the Beats -- that the purpose is in the trip. What you discover at the end is the unexpected -- the "drink" Edie Parker asked for, the "Begin the Beguine", the almost invisible flower -- Ideally, what your soul wants to find is nothing. The discovery is the journey. The journey is the discovery. In nothingness is euphoria. "Expect nothing", Zen tells us. The world beyond our own lies within. (Gee. I sound like Kwai Chang Caine on Kung Fu. hahahaha!)

     I am a jolly wanderer, a flaneur. Ed White (Edmund) taught me to walk, to look, to see whatever The Universe sends, wherever the Universe leads. Not to plan too much, I did not see a place for myself in this world until I started to write. But I am not a writer. I am an instrument of The Universe, as are we all, as is everything. The writing is not mine. I am a pen. There is nothing to be discovered at the end of a long walk except that the walk has ended. It is the journey itself that is to be exalted, to be prized, not the arrival.

What were the reasons that you started the spiritual researches? What are the lines that connect Beats & Buddha?

   The Beats were very Zen-centered, a great many Buddhist teachings captured them, most especially Allen whose influence over Jack when their journeys crossed at Columbia, was made up of Buddhist and Eastern thoughts and philosophies. For some time, "Beat writing and philosophy was thought to have its roots in world-weariness, energy fatigue, psychic fatigue, the old "Life has me worn out" maxim. Also, the movement was said to have sprung from the "beatnik" culture so popular in the late Fifties. And there were those two vibes to it. But "Beat" derives from "beatific", a holiness, the spirit, life energy – the "chi".

Which is the moment that you change your life most? What is the biggest revolution which can be realized today?

   Oddly, the moment my life changed most has little to do with Beat interests. I was a painfully, almost pathologically shy person into my late 20s, early 30s. I was "lost" beyond description. A volley of sudden losses knocked me over like a bowling ball -- the death of my mother, the death of my beloved Mary Frances (American writer, M.F.K. Fisher), the death of my beloved animal companion, Miyoshi (Mio). I was fired from my job. Great suffering engulfed me, a definite trial by fire. I did not know if I would or could pass through it.

   When I finally did (thanks be to Our Divine Ones), the real me emerged. A flood of writing, social and political activity, growth, a freedom from fear, esp. the fear of being myself, seized and shook me. When I looked in a mirror, I saw that my physical form was not representative of my spirit, that who I am, what I am is energy, not matter. These began the first steps -- baby steps -- I am still a baby. I literally know nothing. Enlightenment, if it comes at all, comes after hundreds, thousands of incarnations. I wait for instructions from The Universe. When I feel it speaks, I try to listen. When it doesn't, I wait. Of course, in the meantime, there is laundry to be done, the dog has to be walked. Lunch!

What is the impact of poetry and Beat counterculture to the racial, political and socio-cultural implications?

       I have been absent from the academic scene for some years now. Are Kerouac and The Beats still being read? Taught? I hope so. Their all-encompassing philosophy can aid so much in understanding and perhaps altering the course humankind has set for itself -- a sad return to racial profiling, to economic and social injustices, to discourtesy and widespread disrespect for the planet and for each other. I have never been able to understand blind hatred and intolerance. We are all in the same boat. The Beats taught me that --

How you would spend a day with Lucullus? What would you say to Jack Kerouac?

   Ah, Lucullus! One of my favorite quotes ever -- "What?? Did you not know, then, that this day, Lucullus dines with Lucullus?!!" The giver and receiver of banquets and feasts. A lusty love for life and all it has to offer, A great and searching scholar. I look back in total amazement now thinking that men in history like him and the ancient Greeks and Romans -- Autolycus comes to mind, too -- so captured and fired up my imagination as a young man and that, later in life, I met and was befriended by the great 20th century bon-vivants -- M.F.K. Fisher, Edmund White, Julia Child, Jim Beard. Eternal Connections.

       I knew Kerouac so I would probably say to him, "Where the heck you been, Jack?? What's it like out there??"

Where would you really want to go with a time machine and what memorabilia (books, records) would you put in?

   So many places from the past -- Ancient Greece and Rome, literary Paris in the 20s (Gertrude Stein's salon!), Amherst when Emily Dickinson lived there but --- an insatiable curiosity lives in me and I would climb happily aboard a time machine if it could take me into the future -- not only of this world but of other worlds for truly Earth cannot be all there is -- there are galaxies and galaxies to explore.

I would bring my favorite books and records -- of all the artists, writers, musicians I have mentioned in this interview. Most of all, I would just like to journey on to anywhere. I love to wander...

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