Friend of the Chickens, Jeff Weddle, hangs out with poet Dominic Albanese at the intersection of life and art.
Dominic Albanese: The Real Deal
Interview by Jeff Weddle
You can call Dominic Albanese a lot of things, and some of them he’ll answer to. Things like ex-con, ex-soldier, ex-fighter are fair game. These days, you can mostly call him a poet, and a prolific one. His distinctive and brutally honest work deserves serious attention from anyone who prefers poems with the true rhythms of life to the polished vapor of workshopped verse.
He’s traveled the world and known some of the greats. As a kid in the 1950s, he hung around NBC Studios in New York, where his father worked as the nighttime building supervisor for the famed Rockefeller Center. Albanese was friendly there with celebrities of the day. Dorothy Kilgallen and Arline Francis were always nice to him, and Rosemary Clooney watched out to make sure he got a big plate of lasagna on nights his Aunt Celia brought it to the studio. Later in life, he became friends with Ted Berrigan and Robert Crumb, and once met Charles Bukowski, whom he loathed.
He did his time in Vietnam, in Catholic school, and in the pen. He’s wrestled with faith and art and come to his own conclusions. He brooks no bullshit. It’s tempting to compare Albanese’s poems to hand grenades, but that’s not quite right. It’s an easy comparison, in that the poet frequently writes of his experiences in Vietnam and of the moments of before and after that offer his memories their full grace. But hand grenades destroy, and are indiscriminate in their violence. Albanese’s poems sometimes do violence and frequently explode, but all they kill is complacency. Mostly, he writes fiercely about small moments and memories, friendship, even the vagaries of love.
Reading his work is like reading a giddy beat angel who somehow escaped a death brokered by fate and doesn’t have a single fuck to give if you can’t handle the glow of his joy at still being here or his swirling sorrow that the world is often a shitty place.
As of this writing, Albanese has eleven books to his credit, each a testament to survival and the healing power of art. He is a serious and gifted poet with the visceral talent to wield the word like lesser men might wield a knife. He has fed that talent with voracious reading since early childhood and it shows in the rhythms of his work. Each poem seeks its own form, like water perfectly fitted to its cup. A lifetime of reading and writing makes his work appear effortless in its flow.
In introductory material to Poets + Jugglers, Alicia Young calls him “a trickster with a monkey wrench,” and reminds us that Albanese “waxes fantastic about the sirens of Coney Island, the jungles of Vietnam, and the sub-cultures of twentieth century San Francisco. Rife with the imagery of love, loss, religion and drugs, you will smell his mother’s alcoholic breath, you will see the callouses on his father’s hands, you will feel the bullets and bay breezes rocketing past your head as you ride along with this firecracker.”
And there is this from Shane Douglas Keene: “His words are concise and unpretentious, his thoughts bleeding onto the page in a natural flow that is at once beautiful and painful, making the horrific realities of the things he’s been through seem all too real, even to those of us who haven’t experienced them.”
Matt Borczon, a poet who also takes war and its aftermath as primary subject matter, praises Albanese for his poetry and even more so for his humanity: “I met Dom after reading his book The Bastards Had the Whole Hill Mined. It was a tight, powerful look at the war he survived. I was moved by the book, but moved much more by the compassionate and solid advice he had for me about surviving life after a war. He used to comment on my early poems with validation on how I felt and the promise that it would get easier if I continued to work at it. I will always be grateful to him for his kindness and I am convinced his advice has made it easier to continue to work my way towards home.”
Dominic Albanese is working his own way towards home, and anyone who reads his work can tag along, maybe find their own path a little easier to endure.
What was your childhood like?
I spent the first five years in Hell's Kitchen, lived on West 47th tween 8th an 9th. My parents moved to Merrick, Long Island with my mother's family. I stayed with my Aunt Cilia because I had bad eye trouble and had four operations at New York Eye Ear and Throat Hospital. My dad worked at Rock Center and he would sometimes take me to work with him. I got to run around the NBC studios and meet some very famous people. They all called me Little Patsy -- my dad's real name was Patsy. My dad taught me to read at about four years old, thinking it would be good for my lazy eye. I could indeed read the New York Times before I ever went to grammar school.
My first few years were at Cure Of Ars, a Dominican Catholic school and the Nuns tortured me. They really did. And, being able to read already, I was a kind of kid now they would call AHDD or some shit. Finally, after one of the nuns threatened to hit me, .I told her, “I will pick up this chair and hit you with it! You will never hit me again!” That led to me being expelled. We then moved to Coney Island, and instead of going in the 6th grade, they put me in junior high, where I met Ms. Arline Berkowitz, who had a profound effect on me. She and I would sit outside the school by Gravesend Bay and talk about Mark Twain and John D MacDonald. By then I was in my lifelong habit of reading about three or four books a week. This was now like 1959, and I have not stopped since.
Well, come time I am 14, I am no longer interested in school at all -- and I mean at all. I told my dad, “I am done.” He went and saw Miss B, and they both agreed, I was not gonna ever do well in school because I was already a big thorn in the “just accept this” system and I would say, “No, I will not....” Anyway, I went to work for my uncle at a gas station on Neptune Ave., and that was a real blessing.
However, I am now almost 16 and in trouble -- stealing cars, my first sexual adventures with a buddy of mine's older sister – and, yup, my other cousin the cop catches me in a hot car. Him, my dad, and the priest forge my birth certificate and send me to volunteer for the draft. I am going to be 16 in November, and this is May. The Army thinks I am 18 and that whole part of my life is pretty much told in Bastards Had the Whole Hill Mined.
When I came back from Vietnam in ‘66 I was a complete mad man...I did not give a fuck about anything or anyone. I was a threat to myself and anybody who made me mad. I got addicted to cocaine and started a one-man crime wave of safe cracking and stealing motorcycles and cars and got sent to prison. It was the best thing that ever happened to me, up until then.
My first cellmate was a major con man and paper hanger who was a really smart guy and told me clear, “You have to learn how to not abuse or confuse yourself.” I also read Andrew Vachss’s books and “Prof” was my guide -- get schooled or stay stupid!
I got on the books big time and did nine correspondence college courses, one of them with an Orthodox seminary and they took a big interest in me. I got out in late ‘84 and got sober and got serious about being a productive guy. Got a job in Oregon at a Ferrari dealer and started to really write...a lot. What the real effect was, I no longer was afraid of myself or of anyone. I spent 20 years as an Orthodox Church groundskeeper and buried myself in metanoia, a Geek word meaning change of heart. I retired in ’06 and moved to Florida, but got an offer to be a Mercedes roadside guy for stupid money. I did that for four years. All I did after is what I do now: read, write, eat, sleep, kayak, keep myself in shape and try as hard as I can every day to be a better ,poet and writer...anything that takes.
You’ve been a voracious reader from an early age. What books did you especially love as a kid? Any that you hated? Who were the first poets who inspired you?
Funny enough, the first book I really remember carrying me away was Ian Fleming’s Casino Royale. I loved Harold Robbins, Rex Stout, Earl Stanley Gardner, and John O'hara. The first poem to ever knock me for a loop was Emily Dickinson's “I am Nobody.” But again to mention Miss B., she had me reading Donne, Rilke, Williams, and others. I did a front of the room “Charge of the Light Brigade,” and the whole class was spell bound.
I’ve always been a big ham and not shy at all to say I loved Nancy Drew and the Hardy boys and Mad Magazine, and I read, I bet you every, EC comic ever printed. I was not a fan of Marvel or Superman, but was of Conan, Tarzan, and more...esoteric…stuff. And as I recall, I had a bad, bad crush on Edna St. Vincent Millay. I really did. And I also was pretty much aware that there were things I did not understand, and don’t to this day.
No matter the trouble in my family, and there was a lot of that, I could always catch my dad and ask him things about books. He had an office under the first floor of the RCA building with a wall locker full of books. He was a prodigious reader. He never drove a car -- something happened he would never talk about -- and he rode the bus and the subway and read or did cross word puzzles all the time. He got me going on Ross and John McDonald and he also got me big into history. Mary Renault and Joseph Campbell and all that. I also was a Conrad and Hesse fan long before the hippies were. But now, I just happen to be friends with some really good writers, and we share with each other what is hot and what is not.
What was your dad’s job, and who were some of the famous people you met when you were growing up?
He was the nighttime building superintendent for all of Rockefeller Center, and up until about the age of 10 or so I would go with him. I sat in the back while What’s My Line? was on and both Dorothy Kilgallen and Arlene Francis were very nice to me. Bennett Cerf was a close pal of my dad. They did crossword puzzles a lot. Dave Garroway, and Frank Blair, and the monkey J. Fred Muggs all let me hang around, and Big Wilson, the radio guy, would let me have coffee. I got to know a lot of the news people, but they were always busy and my deal was I could tear off ticker tape copy and bring it to the desk. They give me quarters. But the real copy boys put a stop to that. The big deal was Toscanini, and he and my dad were good friends. He would love it when I’d bring him a demitasse and he, too, called me Pico Patsy. My Aunt Cilia was Rosemary Clooney's best pal, and the rehearsals Aunt CC would bring lasagna and other big plates of good Italian food and the band guys would make pigs out of themselves. But Rosemary always made sure if I was there I got a plate full. Good memories, I tell ya.
How did your reading and life experiences lead you to becoming a poet? Also, how did you meet Charles Bukowski, and what was that like?
I think it was Robert Penn Warren who said “All poems are part autobiography.” The first poem I ever wrote was “The sea / the sand / and / Rebecca’s / footsteps in the hard sand surf line.” I have always read this or that and then encapsulated the poem, story, or just one line to get my view, response, or reaction to it. Behind me where I sit is a collection of about 400 books of poetry, plus five big shelves of books, as varied as history, religion, and crime fiction. And many about Vietnam.
I really do not know if indeed I am a POET. I am just someone who writes four or six poems a day. It does go back to that teacher I mentioned. After she died, her daughter sent me about 50 letters I had written to her from my Army days, and there was a note on the bundle: "He was my student. I recognized his raw talent and he adored me."
Well, Carter Monroe and Seb Doubinsky and Alicia Young and Christina Quinn -- all better poets than me -- have said my work is good. It is real and they can feel me.
As for Bukowski, he was in San Francisco and I cannot for sure say ‘69 or ‘70 but Robert Crumb, a good friend of mine, was illustrating for him and he came into Spec’s and Mooney’s...both bars where I used to go in, and at one point in Spec’s, he made some really crude remarks to a lady who was a good friend of a good friend of mine. Richard, the owner, saw my face and said, "Don't Dom, please for me don't. Okay?" And I got up and left. When I told that good friend of mine about it, he went looking for that slimy bastard, but did not find him. At that, alone, I have no use for the guy, his work, or his fawning fan base. As both an alcoholic and an addict in recovery for a long time, I say live and let live. I don't judge any one, less I be judged. Him? I just find it hard, only for me, to separate him from the kind of low bottom drunks and sloppy people to find in him any reason to either admire or follow his clan. That said, Ted Berrigan was a very close friend of mine back in ‘66 –‘67 and he is a poet I follow and admire. May he rest in peace. He gave me my first intro to St. Marks and to the world of NYC poetry. And I am blessed today to know some really good craft-involved poets and writers -- I do think there is a difference -- who encourage me and support me.
What was it like to be in the service, and to go to war? Did these experiences help shape your growth as an artist?
The most difficult question yet. Being so young, and still full of WW 2 hero fodder. Two fisted tales and war movies, lousy Nazis and sneaky Japs. Never once did I question the reason or the fact. Back then my political and historic knowledge were, at best, limited. War? Well, as I have mentioned, the letters I wrote to my Jr. High English teacher are a reminder now: "I am not afraid all the time, but a lot of the times I am, and there is no way to be an Airborne Ranger Green Beret and act scared. There is some really scary stuff going on. Thankfully, I have some teammates who are very good at keeping me alive."
I do not see myself as an artist at all. It took me over 50 years to write Bastards Had the Whole Hill Mined, even though I had some poems I wrote from my Vietnam and Okinawa days. The ensuing madness that my life became – drugs, crime, a crazy ass motorcycle club, in an out of jail, fights, and just all the symptoms of PTSD that they had not named yet. What really changed me was getting sober and really getting on the books and finding out what real empirical and empire bullshit it is. I got very sullen and remote.
As odd as this is going to sound, going to prison saved my life. That is where I really got serious about history and religion and the thinking of either power, or resisting power. There was a 20 year period, where I was a devout Orthodox Christian, groundskeeper for the Church, and spent nine years researching the lives of early saints. Behold my second book, Iconic Whispers.
See, the whole thing about me and poetry, is really just journalist effort, to record and to express how I see things. My work has been called Spartan, colloquial, and just today, at the bookstore, I learned a title for how I write. It is called “conversational.”
See, I am telling me. When I try to tell you, it doesn’t make sense, this daily deluge of random facts and slanted truth, to serve an agenda that is based again on getting and keeping power. Step one: "we admit we are powerless." There is a part in there about unmanageable lives. What war really did for me, even if I was there early and didn’t engage in any of the major battles, I learned close up and quick how fragile and how slim the line is between up and breathing or in a body bag. That alone keeps me every day trying to manage, trying to keep my poems and my other work coming.
I am not a professional veteran, but I am also not now a full-time drug addict or madman. Vietnam did not make me a drunk or dope fiend, but it did not help. The entire effect and affect of that is still being digested. Breaking my neck in a car wreck last March only reminded me how fast it can all end. So now, ever onwardinto the fray, or into the fog, barking, snarking, making noises and acting like...? I may be nobody, but I got some somebody shit to say.
Books by Dominic Albanese: (Follow the link to his page on Poetic Justice Books and Arts)
Poets + Jugglers
By Some Happenstance
Bastards Had the Whole Hill Mined
Love is Not Just a Word (with Seb Doubinsky)
Only the River Knows
The Wizard and the Wrench (with Ambika Devi)
Poetic Justice Books and Arts Publisher Kris Haggblom on Dominic Albanese:
How did you meet Dom?
I met Dominic while working at one of those big box so-called "book" stores. He would come in looking for a specific book (the store was the only game in town at that time) and we would end up talking about literature and poetry and how very little of worth comes through the commercial channels. His observations and recommendations were always spot on and I think he appreciated my rather eclectic and esoteric tastes. Plus, we both REALLY liked one of my co-workers
As his primary publisher, what are your thoughts on his work? What is it about his poetry that speaks to you?
Dominic's poetry is straight forward, pull no punches storytelling. His voice is thoroughly his own. Sometimes that makes it a tad strange to edit and format - but definitely worth the effort. One of the keys to his work is indeed that voice. Reading Dominic is like having him sitting next to you. Even though he doesn't touch the stuff, I swear we're sitting at a bar swapping tales and swilling ales (or stronger).
Do you have a favorite among his poems?
Favorites are always hard to pick from anyone as prolific as Dominic. But one that just sticks around the top of the list is:
To Cook a Pot of Rice
such a simple, elegant food
feeding the body
mining the soul
after the water boils away
reminds me of what is
left after a dream
awake, haunted, memories flash by
what was she singing
That's from his collection "By Some Happenstance"
What’s it like hanging out with Dom?
LOL- he's a trip; the stories just keep coming, each more interesting than the last. His ability to tie disparate threads together - the history of Byzantium with an incident from the Vietnam War somehow mixed in with the valve settings on a Ferrari and it all makes sense. You never want him to stop talking, which is kinda his plan I guess. And then poof where'd he go? And he's off somewhere writing a new piece.
There really is no one else like him. My description of Dominic to customers in the store is "He's...ummm...Dominic."
Jeff Weddle is a poet and writer living in Tuscaloosa, Alabama. He won the Eudora Welty Prize for Bohemian New Orleans: The Story of the Outsider and Loujon Press, and has also received honors for his fiction and poetry. Jeff teaches in the School of Library and Information Studies at the University of Alabama.