An Interview with semi-finalist Joseph Lisowski

We recently released our list of 2015 Negative Capability Press Book Competition semi-finalists. During May we'll be posting interviews with each of the candidates.

Joseph Lisowski

Joseph Lisowski

Joseph Lisowski, From Death's Silence

From 1986 to 1996, Joseph Lisowski was Professor of English at the University of the Virgin Islands. He taught at Elizabeth City State University in North Carolina from 2002-2014. He is now retired. Some poetry chapbooks include JB, a dialogue in poem form between John the Baptist and King Herod (PoetryRepairShop), Stashu Kapinski Strikes Out (Rank Stranger Press), Fatherhood at Fifty (Tamafyhr Mountain Poetry), Sketches of an Island Life (dpi press), Art Lessons (Tamafyhr Mountain Poetry), Stashu Kapinski Gets Lucky (Pudding House Press), and Stashu Kapinski Looks for Love (erbacce-press, UK).

After growing up under the shadow of Heppenstall Steel Mill in Pittsburgh, Pa., Joseph Lisowski has spent much of his life near the sea, including 10 years in St. Thomas, VI., which serves as the setting for his three published mystery novels, Full Body Rub, Looking for Lisa, and Looking for Lauren. 

He has lived many lives: as a wide-eyed boy, a keeper of keys, a beach comber… (There are poems somewhere commemorating them all.) He recently won the University of North Carolina Board of Governors Teacher of the Year Award (2013). His most recent full length book of poetry is Stashu Kapinski Dreams of Glory (Sweatshoppe Publications, 2013).

SW:  I notice that you have lived in a number of places – and that St. Thomas, Virgin Islands figures as the setting for three of your novels.  If we could be conducting this interview in person, where would we be? What time of day would it be?  Create the scene.

JL: This morning the view from my Richmond, VA living room is lovely. Practically overnight, yellow roses have bloomed from the bushes lining the front of our house.  Nearby a bush of red peonies starts to bud.  Morning sun is streaming through four front windows, and we sit in opposite chairs facing them.

SW:  These are dark poems that seem to address despair, almost a treatise on grief. Is this a work of catharsis? 

JL: These poems were sketched in notebook form after our daughter Chrissy had suddenly died under suspicious circumstances while visiting her new “boyfriend” in New Hampshire.  She left our St. Thomas home in January, flew north and on February 29 we received a call that she had died in a single occupant driving fatality.  No evidence of alcohol or drugs in her system.  It felt like her mother Linda and I died too, except our bodies were still moving, bouncing from one thing to another, like mosquitoes testing the walls.  Prayer, therapy, medication, counseling did not help.  At night, often in the middle of the night, in the dark, I would scribble notes, “letters” really, to Chrissy.  Catharsis?  I guess so.  It took some time before I shaped them into poems.

SW:  I note that you are an award-winning teacher.  Congratulations.  Can you tell us about a favorite class you have taught?  What was the course?  What was the syllabus? 

JL: Thank you.  I’m reminded of the zen master (and poet) Basho wandering unfulfilled, when he overheard the following conversation:  “I want the best piece of meat you have!” shouted an irate customer, slamming his first on the counter.  “Why,” the butcher responded with arms spread apart, “every piece of meat I have is the best!”  At that Basho was enlightened.  All of my students have been the best.  How can the classes they’ve taken from me not be the best?

SW:  What / who are your literary influences?

JL: My first serious lengthy love affair with poetry was with the prophetic writings of William Blake (along with his illustrated manuscripts).  My next serious long term involvement was with T’ang Dynasty poet, painter, musician, and high court official Wang Wei.  (My first published book was The Brushwood Gate (Black Buzzard Press), a translation of his poems along with original calligraphy and illustrations).  Of course, I’ve had many flirtations and friendships with the works of numerous writers.

SW:  You  write both poetry and fiction. What are the advantages of writing in more than one genre?

J.L: It’s kind of like the yin/yang of the I Ching.  Poetry and prose can complement/ the writer’s full expression of art.  In writing poetry, I like the slow, lingering over words, space, line, sound, and compression.  And then, if lucky, the sudden quickening.  In writing prose, I love creating dialogue, the different voices. And see what direction then the characters will develop. 

SW:  Do you keep a journal – and is it useful to you as a writer?

JL: For decades, I’ve kept journals.  Are they useful?  You bet.  Unless you lose them, which I have done more than once in the many address changes I’ve had.

SW:  You have a book, Fatherhood at Fifty?  Is that autobiography?  Memoir?

JL: That work is about the birth of my young son Jozef and the time shortly thereafter when I was a stay at home dad.  I believe it resonates with joy.

SW:  Have your views about writing / education changed over the years?

JL: My views about writing have definitely changed over the years.  This is a more recent example:  When I last lived in Richmond, for a few years I took Chinese calligraphy lessons from Mrs. Chin (Sin Ying) whose husband, an architect who designed the new buildings at the College of William and Mary, claimed she was among the  best 200 calligraphers alive.  As a discipline/ritual every morning before dawn, I'd rise, get my ink stick and stone, take the weasel-tipped brush Mrs. Chin gave me, face the whiteness of the page and practice making one character for about an hour.  A good way to start the day.  After a while I started paying attention to how the whiteness of the page resonated the meaning of the character. 

More recently, in reading/revising the poems I've written in the past 15 years and abandoned, I saw that many attempted to capture the energy of the whiteness of the page when I was doing characters.  The work is more than spare.  As a result, I'd been writing tercets, with 3 or 4 syllables a line, and heavily enjambed.

Views on how I teach and my teaching

Philosophy, maybe not.  I always believed that to create a learning environment where individual can wonder, explore, engage with others in thoughtful, provocative conversations would have the most lasting effects.  In a sense I approach teaching as a subversive activity where the students can develop confidence in their being, in who they are and are curious about others and world.  And that they will seek knowledge with skills to do so independently.

SW:  Will you give our readers a writing assignment?

JL: Look at a thing/person/view long and lovingly.  When words surface, write them in a notebook, set it aside for a while.  Then read them with fresh eyes and see if they can be crafted into art.