M.J. Arcangelini on a Humid Night Under a Half Moon
An interview with M.J. Arangelini, from The Write Stuff series:
M.J. Arcangelini was born 1952 in western Pennsylvania, grew up there & in Cleveland, Ohio. He’s resided on the west coast since 1973. He currently lives in Sonoma County. He began writing poetry at age 11, stories in his teens and memoirs in his late 40′s. His work has been published in a lot of little magazines, small newspapers and 8 anthologies. His collection of poems With Fingers At The Tips Of My Words was published in 2002. Arcangelini maintains an occasional blog with memoirs and poems.
When people ask what do you do, you tell them…?
That depends on the context. When I’m in a museum with my friend who is an art photographer and we meet a pair of film makers who ask what I do the answer is “poet.” But out in the mundane world I know most people don’t want to hear that, so if I am asked there what I do I respond, “paralegal.” I help injured workers navigate the workers’ comp system. It keeps the bills paid while I practice my art and I get to feel like I’m one of the good guys fighting the evil insurance companies.
What’s your biggest struggle—work or otherwise?
To not sink into unproductive, spiraling depression.
If someone said I want to do what you do, what advice would you have for them?
Immerse yourself in poetry and write something every day, even just a diary entry. Unless you want to be a paralegal, then go to school like I did.
Do you consider yourself successful? Why?
Yes. I have a body of work of which I am proud.
No. My publication history is spotty at best, I don’t submit work very often. I am a writer not a publicist or a promoter so my work hasn’t gotten out the way it could have if I were more aggressive. I do have a chapbook coming out in August from Night Ballet Press, maybe that will help.
When you’re sad/grumpy/pissed off, what YouTube video makes you feel better?
I don’t really watch YouTube unless someone refers me to a specific video. When I am feeling sad/grumpy/pissed off I prefer to walk in a forest or on a beach but if I cannot do that I wrap myself in music.
Do you have a favorite ancestor? What is his/her story?
Granpap, Michele Arcangelini – he came to this country after fighting for Italy in WW I. He worked digging sewers in Cleveland and then found his way to the coal mines of southeastern Pennsylvania. When he’d saved enough money he brought over his wife, my Nana, and his oldest son, my uncle Joe. I carry both Granpap’s and Uncle Joe’s names. He fathered six more children, including my father. Uncle Joe was killed in WW II, I never knew him. When I knew Granpap he seemed to be the oldest man alive, although only in his 60s. He had a glass eye, a white moustache, and a full head of white hair. He tended to a large vegetable garden, a big yard bordered with flowers, a grape arbor which seemed to stay cool all summer, and more chickens than I could count. He made his own wine and dug his own wine cellar. He was gruff and gentle to us grandkids. I thought he was the greatest man alive. He died in 1964 at age 67.
Who did you admire when you were 10 years old? What did you want to be?
Astronauts, movie stars and my Granpap.
An astronaut and/or movie star. Age 10 would have been a year before I started writing poetry. After that I wanted to be a writer.
Describe your week in the wilderness. It doesn’t have to be ideal.
I’ve spent time in wilderness more than once. Much of each day was spent hiking with a heavy pack, stopping from time to time to enjoy the view, take photos, sketch out a poem, or jump in a cold mountain lake. We’d set up camp in the evening, eat dinner and sit around the campfire talking. After retiring to my tent I would read and write by lantern light, listening to the owls in the trees and the call and answer of coyotes on a distant ridge. It can be really wonderful, but about five days is all I can reasonably enjoy. After that it becomes a matter of endurance which is not as much fun. Searching, trowel in hand, for the right spot to dig a small hole after that 1st cup of coffee in the morning gets old pretty fast.
Would you ever perform a striptease? Describe some of your moves. Feel free to set the mood.
At my age, I don’t think so. In fact I don’t think I’d have done a striptease at any age. Although I suppose I got close one time, about 20 years ago, when I performed poetry in front of 120 people wearing nothing but a black leather jacket and matching jockstrap. No one complained.
How much money do you have in your checking account?
What’s wrong with society today?
Things in general just feel too cynical these days, including me. I suppose what I think is most wrong with American society today is economic stratification. As though the early 21st century wants to return to the early 20th century. There is a sharp division, a widening gap between the upper and lower classes in our allegedly classless society. The rapid and relentless erosion of the middle class seems to be irreversible. I do not envy young people today. This country feels like a much tougher place to get through than it was when I was young. There seems to be less cause for hope than there was in the psychedelic part of the 60s when almost any dream seemed possible. But look where that dreaming led us.
Are you using any medications? If so, which ones?
Too many. I take more drugs now than I did in the 60s and they aren’t nearly as much fun.
What is your fondest memory?
That’s a tough one – choosing just one. Maybe sitting on the porch swing on a summer day in Pennsylvania with my grandmother when I was eight or nine years old. Or one particular night of sex with one particular ex-boyfriend. Or standing on a Sierra ridge at 11,200 feet howling like a fool with the joy of having climbed up that high.
How many times do you fall in love each day?
I haven’t fallen in love in years. I do fall in lust from time to time, but love has become a foreign country I can no longer afford to visit.
What would you like to see happen in your lifetime?
A real single-payer, national healthcare system in the United States. Everybody covered for everything, cradle to grave. There is no reason that can’t happen.
What is art? Is it necessary? Why?
For me art is the alchemizing of experience, emotion and intellect into something which operates entirely according to its own rules, which I appear to be spending my entire life trying to uncover.
For some of us it is as necessary as air, food, and sex.
There is no “why,” it just is.
When you have sex, what are some of the things you like to do?
Are you serious? Is this a proposition?
What are you working on right now?
A memoir about the riot at the Newport Jazz Festival in 1971.
A cycle of poems about open-heart surgery.
A chapbook of poems about life in West Sonoma County.
What kind of work would you like to do? Or: what kind of writing do you most admire?
I’ve always wanted to write a book length narrative poem like Robinson Jeffers. Maybe someday I will.
If there were one thing about the Bay Area that you would change, what would it be?
More free parking in the cities, especially for out-of-towners who don’t know how to navigate traffic-clogged, narrow streets on an endless quest for a place to plant one’s vehicle.
A night on the town: what does that mean to you?
A good dinner followed by good music. I recently had dinner with a friend in Petaluma and then we saw Rickie Lee Jones perform in a local club. That was a good night on the town for me. As I get older a good night on the town gets calmer, involving more sitting down and fewer mind altering substances.
What’s the strangest thing you’ve ever seen?
This current presidential election campaign.
What can you do with 50 words? 50 dollars?
Fifty dollars ain’t much. How many tubes of paint will it buy? How many books? How many cds, how much music could I squeeze out of fifty bucks? Maybe dinner with a friend in a reasonably priced restaurant or a concert alone. But fifty words, that can really be tough.
What are some of your favorite smells?
Jasmine flowers, vanilla, pizza, coffee being ground, orange & almond orchards in bloom on a warm, humid night under a half moon.
If you got an all expenses paid life experience of your choice, what would it be?
I would like to learn how to swim and then snorkel/dive along the Great Barrier Reef.