“I feel the strong pull to speak while I can about the power and beauty of this world we are lucky enough to inhabit for awhile.”
Still Pilgrim (Paraclete Press, 2017)
Could you share with us a representative or pivotal poem from your book? Perhaps a poem that introduces the work of the book, or one that invites the reader into the world of the book?
To Be a Pilgrim
To be a pilgrim is to ring the stones
with the clean music of your best black heels,
each click a lucky strike that sparks a fire
to see by, that lights up the long and level road
you walk with no map, no stick, no wheels
to relieve you when your feet ache and tire.
To be a pilgrim own what you own,
stuff it in your clutch, lug it in your tote,
all the heavy history you’d like to lose
nestled up against your dead mother’s shoes.
To be a pilgrim you must be a killer
of myth, a new invention of desire.
Every pilgrim is a truth-teller.
Every pilgrim is a liar.
Why did you choose this poem?
This is the first poem of the collection and serves as the prologue to the 57 sonnets that follow, detailing the various stops along the Still Pilgrim’s journey. The poem offers the reader a lens through which to see the pilgrimage he or she is embarking on alongside the fictional character at the center of the narrative. It offers a rough and ready description of the key things one needs to set out on a pilgrimage–good shoes, a bag containing your past, and an attitude.
What obsessions led you to write your book?
Several obsessions coalesce in this book.
The first is Herman Melville. The phrase “Still Pilgrim” actually came to me when I was visiting Melville’s grave one day at Woodlawn Cemetery located in the Bronx. A lifelong devotee of his work, I was troubled to find this restless soul who spent a good portion of his life in search of adventure on the high seas buried in the only one of the five boroughs of his native NYC that is not an island. Far from water, he is now become a landlubber, grounded for eternity. So I wrote a poem, “St. Melville,” which begins by addressing him, “Is this what you were called to, still pilgrim / to lie beneath six small feet of earth?” The paradox of that phrase immediately struck me: pilgrimage implies movement towards a destination: can one be “still” and “still” be on pilgrimage? Is it possible we are “still” making progress in our lives towards becoming who we are supposed to become, even at those times when we are stuck and seem not to be moving at all? This, in fact, is the central question Still Pilgrim asks.
The second obsession is The Sonnet. I love writing sonnets, as I find the form to require great compression and discipline, yet at the same time it has an almost infinite elasticity. A good sonnet says what it has to say–like a great love affair, it is brief and intense–and there is an afterburn. It is capable of accommodating a broad range of subjects and tonalities, ranging along the spectrum from the sacred to the profane. I also found the form to be perfect as a means of conveying the Still Pilgrim’s journey in that the form consists of 14 lines–the same number of lines that are in The Stations of the Cross. So, in a sense, the journey of the Pilgrim–like our own journey–enacts the Via Crucis, a path that leads to death, yes, but also, in keeping with the Christian mythos, ultimately, to life.
The third obsession is my identity as a helpless Catholic. There are many elements in these poems that inevitably demonstrate the fact that my imagination has been shaped by my Italian-American Catholic formation. The poems are deeply incarnational, focused on the body and the physicality of being, on sacramental moments that reveal connections between the human and the divine. They are poems that explore the human love of ritual, the strong pull of the communal, and our deep sense of the ongoing relationships we share with one another even after death. The poems are obsessed with the need to look clearly at the broken world and to find ways in which that brokenness can be redeemed–by faith, by art, by love.
What’s the oldest piece in your book? Or can you name one poem that catalyzed or inspired the rest of the book? What do you remember about writing it?
The oldest piece in the book is “The Still Pilgrim Makes Dinner.”
The Still Pilgrim Makes Dinner
It’s Mother’s Day and I have no mother.
She left and took my daughterhood.
It’s hard to lose us both, recover.
A double grief. A day to brood.
I dredge the chops. Fry them in oil.
I slice the onion, wet as tears.
I wear my sackcloth apron, soiled
by meals I’ve made for thirty years.
For ashes, flour upon my head.
For prayers, the rise of scented smoke.
My mother, who is five years dead,
lives in this meat, these eggs I broke,
this dish she taught me how to make,
this wine I drink, this bread I break.
I actually wrote this poem before I had the idea of collecting it as part of a series. It records the experience I had of making dinner one particular Mother’s Day, and realizing as I was making my way through the familiar ritual of preparing pork chops that the dish I was preparing was my mother’s recipe. I become suddenly aware of the deep significance of each item of food on my countertop. Each thing had to be chopped or ground or crushed–and in the case of the pig, slaughtered–in order to be transformed into food for my family. All of this brokenness would lead to a meal–a meal that would, in turn, satisfy our hunger and heal our own brokenness evident in our need for food.
I also was struck that as I was making the dish, I was not alone. She was there with me, as I made it–and she always is, whether I am aware of it or not. This is what it means to belong to the Communion of Saints. The dead don’t really leave us–they just show up in different forms. Our relationship to our beloveds does not end with death–it simply changes.
This poem did catalyze the book, in some ways. The pilgrim (myself, in this case) pauses in the midst of her activity–making a meal she has made 100 times–and suddenly understands it in a new light. This is what the book is about–the epiphanies and revelations that come to us during the pauses in the journey.
How did you decide on the arrangement and title of your book?
As I mentioned earlier, I have to thank Melville for the title of the book. I also had some encouragement from The Psalmist who wrote, channeling God, “Be STILL, and know that I am God.” T.S. Eliot also helped, as his lines from “Ash Wednesday” have long haunted me, “Teach us to care and not to care / Teach us to sit STILL.”
Stillness is a theological virtue, a state we should cultivate–yet even as we are “still” (as in motionless) we are “still” (as in continually) on pilgrimage. The paradox of the title captures the paradox of our existence and of the poems.
As for the arrangement, I chose the sonnet for the reasons mentioned above–I love the way the 14-line structure echoes the 14 station journey to the cross. To further underscore or body forth the power of the number 14, I designed the book to be four sets of 14 sonnets, for a total of 56. I then added a prologue and epilogue poem to provide an introduction and conclusion. My hope is that this symmetry suggests there is a providential order and beauty to the Still Pilgrim’s journey–as there is in all of our lives–even if we are not capable of seeing it.
Which poem in your book has the most meaningful back story to you? What’s the back story?
“The Still Pilgrim Hears a Diagnosis” is a poem that is especially meaningful to me. It is a simple narrative, uncharacteristically understated, that recounts the events of the day I was told by my grown son’s physician that he has MS. The poem does not go into great detail. It does not reveal a lot of emotion. It tries to accomplish a very hard and a simple thing—to convey the deep interior grief of a mother who is confronted with a sure sign of her child’s physical vulnerability and mortality. Every parent knows, intellectually, that his or her child is going to get sick and die–but we find ways to fend off that terrible knowledge on a day to day basis. This was a day when that knowledge presented itself to me full flush and real, and I suddenly knew a new kind of grief.
Which poem is the “misfit” in your collection and why?
“The Still Pilgrim Hears a Story on the Feast of St. Sinatra.” Most of the other poems have companion poems or correlative poems in the collection, but not this one. It’s the account of a story the Pilgrim hears told by another pilgrim–who, himself, is telling the story of his mother’s pilgrimage–and the single source of connection in all of these people and pilgrimages is Sinatra, whom we all love (or loved).
In addition, the poem harkens back to a previous collection of my poems, Saint Sinatra, a book that explores the elements of sainthood evident in artists of the beautiful, of whom Frank was undeniably one. That book proposes the idea that if there is room for Sinatra in the Communion of Saints, there is room for all of us. This little poem in this book has him canonized, a process that took place in the intervening 6 years (at least in my imagination). So the poem is a tender joke, alluding to the Sinatra project.
What were you listening to when you wrote these poems? Did you have any rituals while writing these poems?
Not really. Because I compose out loud, I need silence when I write. I can’t hear my own rhythms when I am listening to someone else’s.
What was the final poem you wrote or significantly revised for the book, and how did that affect your sense that the book was complete?
The final poem I wrote for the book was actually the first poem, “To Be a Pilgrim.” It’s the only poem that doesn’t have “Still Pilgrim” in the title. When I wrote it, I did not intend for it to be the prologue, but as soon as it was finished, I knew it had to be the introductory poem, and I knew I was finished.
Did you read straight through your book out loud during the revision process or while finalizing revisions? If so, how was your experience of the poems different? How were your ideas about their individual meanings changed?
The most significant thing about the revision process for this book is that I wrote many more Still Pilgrim poems than I needed for the collection. I sat down, counted them up, and found I had about 150 sonnets for a book that I knew was going to contain only 58 poems (for the reasons cited above). Thus began the hard, slow process of weeding out the ones that didn’t fit, for one reason or another, and finding the “Golden 58” which were somehow and for some reason the keepers. Granted, some of the poems I eliminated because they were weaker than others, but most of them were reasonably well made. (The junk had already been jettisoned.) So quality was not the determining factor. It would have been much easier had this been the case.
What I realized during that process is that there are many, many possible versions of Still Pilgrim. I’m reasonably satisfied with the one that is out there in the world–but I’m also very conscious that the book is just the tip of the iceberg of the Still Pilgrim project–or a snapshot, to use another metaphor. This also made me realize that this is likely true for many collections of poems by other writers that are out there, and it got me to thinking about the many different possible versions there might be of books I’ve come to love.
What has the editorial and production experience with the press who picked up your book been like? To what degree did you collaborate on the cover image and design of your book?
The editorial process has been graceful and gracious. The people at Paraclete Press are very devoted to what they do and are very considerate of their writers. From the submission, through acceptance, through the timing of the book’s publication, through the design for the jacket, through the advertising and sending out of books to readers and editors, all culminating in the book’s arrival on my doorstep, a beautiful artifact to hold and be-hold, the process was smooth and easy and delightful. I could never ask or hope for a better collection of human beings to work with.
As for the cover image of the book, after much searching and pondering, my eye lit on Edward Hopper’s “Morning Sun,” and I knew it was the perfect visual representation of the spirit of Still Pilgrim. I love the vulnerability of the figure, who is only partially clothed, the skin of her thigh showing. Her feet–always a powerful symbol of pilgrimage–appear naked, vulnerable, used. These are not pretty feet, they are athlete’s feet—they have done a lot of walking and will do a lot more. The painting captures an intimate moment, as the woman awakens in her solitary bed and looks out at the day breaking over the landscape. The world she ponders outside her window is not pristine or pretty—it is a city, an industrialized, ruined world. Her expression and attitude toward that broken world is ambiguous—at times she seems to me to be meditative, almost prayerful, her gaze compassionate and concerned. At other times, her expression strikes me as one of desolation and alienation—this is not a world she chooses to be part of but one she must endure. Both of these possibilities (along with many others) capture the range of tonalities and emotions expressed in the poems.
Once I decided on the image, I called the Columbus Museum of Art, and they generously gave permission (in exchange for a small fee) for me to use the image, and then I let my editors at Paraclete know. We had been engaged in a collaborative search and had not yet come up with a suitable cover image, so they were delighted at the idea. The design team immediately went to work and created a beautiful cover, choosing the perfect fonts, then delicately shading Hopper’s lovely colors (shades of green and gray, touches of smoky blue) inside the lettering so both word and image seem to be of a piece. When they were finished, we were all amazed, I think, at the power and beauty of the cover. Of all the covers of my books (this is my 10th), this one is my favorite—at least for the moment!
What are you working on now?
I am currently working on a collection of sonnets that channel the voice of Flannery O’Connor, a writer whose work I have been obsessed with for years. Each poem begins with an epigraph taken from O’Connor’s letters, essays, or stories, and then imagines her expanding on the idea expressed in the outtake, digging a little deeper, exploring some of the nuances of her statement. As O’Connor readers know, Flannery says the darnedest things, and it is great fun to try to look through her eyes and try on her persona for a while. I definitely see the world differently as a result. I’ve written about 50 of these poems, and the tentative title for the collection is Andalusian Hours: Poems from the Porch of Flannery O’Connor.
What advice would you offer to students interested in creative writing?
Find the writers that speak to you and challenge you.
Write every day.
Find a community of writers to share your work with. You don’t have to do this alone.
What do you wish you had been told as a writer? What wisdom have you arrived at?
I wish I had been told as a young writer to seek out the friend- and fellowship of other writers. I spent many years working in a solitary state. My writing really began to grow, I think, when I found writing friends, engaged in informal workshopping with them, met up with them at conferences, and discovered the vibrant writing communities that make one’s pilgrimage as a writer a joy.
Whose work helped you in the writing of this book? What inspires you? What gets you to the page?
So many people helped me in the writing of this book–friends and family members who read early drafts, the editors who published them in journals and (finally) in book form, people who showed up at readings and responded to the poems. This gave me the confidence to believe that the idea was worth pursuing, that the poems spoke to people.
What inspires me is the work of my friends and of poets and writers whom I admire. They stir me, they move me, they challenge me, they call me to keep up with them. I feel blessed by this gift of language we’ve been given and I feel the strong pull to speak while I can about the power and beauty of this world we are lucky enough to inhabit for awhile. I think of Czeslaw Milosz’s powerful statement of what it feels like to be a poet in his wonderful poem, “Blacksmith Shop”:
I stare and stare. It seems I was called for this:
To glorify things just because they are.
Angela Alaimo O’Donnell teaches at Fordham University and is Associate Director of Fordham’s Curran Center for American Catholic Studies. Her fifth collection of poems, Still Pilgrim, was recently released by Paraclete Press. Previous publications include two chapbooks; four collections of poems, Moving House, Saint Sinatra, Waking My Mother, and Lovers’ Almanac; a memoir, Mortal Blessings, and a critical biography, Flannery O’Connor: Fiction Fired by Faith. O’Donnell’s work has been nominated for Pushcart and Best of the Web prizes, and her biography and memoir have won awards from the Catholic Press Association.