It is always good to see Joseph Verrilli out with a new book of writing. He is a kind and gentle voice in the small press. Angelica’s Story is a meditation on a kindred spirit Verrilli recently met. It had been a long time since I talked with Joe and since he doesn’t have internet access we corresponded the old fashioned way via US Mail carrier. He wrote me with his distinctive typewriter that punches the M key right through the page. I wanted to know about his new book and how he was doing. Here is what he told me.
CPR: Joe, for those who may not be acquainted with you and your writing, can you give me a brief bio; when did you start publishing SHOES, awards, books, placements etc.?
JV: The first issue of SHOES was published by ALPHA BEAT PRESS during 2000. It came about as the result of some joking around with Dave and Ana Christy, all three of us drunk on the afternoon of New Year’s Day, 2000. I don’t remember the kind of shoes I was wearing that day, but for some reason Dave got a laugh out of them. They started calling me “Shoes Verrilli,” and suggested I start doing a zine. “And you can call it SHOES!” they said. The only awards I’ve actually received were honorable mentions and third place awards from SPARROWGRASS POETRY FORUM and THE INTERNATIONAL LIBRARY OF POETRY during the early 1990’s. I’ve had close to two dozen chapbooks published since then, quite a few of them by ALPHA BEAT PRESS, and included as chapbooks have been two collage-collaborations – with Mark Sonnenfeld, published by his MARYMARK PRESS. The first chapbook to be (self) published by my New Creature Press was the fairly recent ANGELICA’S STORY. My poetry and prose have appeared in a variety of publications since 1993, including CHRONICLES OF DISORDER, COKEFISHING, CHIRON REVIEW, ZEN BABY, THE BROWN BOTTLE and most recently POESY MAGAZINE and Marie Kazalia’s CLARA VENUS.
CPR: When did you start to write? Why? How did you get started? When did you start submitting work?
JV: I began writing during the fall of 1990, less than a year after moving to this apartment building. I’d always wanted to write, but really wasn’t motivated enough, until receiving an angry letter from an old friend (my mentor, initially), chiding me for not doing anything creative with my time. That was how it all began. I first started submitting in 1991, but didn’t have my first poem published until November, 1993, in a magazine in Michigan called POETIC PAGE. The editor was Denise Martinson and the poem was entitled “After Reading Sylvia.”
CPR: Tell me how ANGELICA’S STORY came into being.
JV: Five years ago I began volunteering at a local elementary school as reader and unofficial teacher’s aide. It’s been enjoyable and rewarding. I’m still volunteering in the same second grade classroom, and in 2003 John and Nancy Berbrich published my first chapbook about this volunteer work, PORTRAIT OF A SCHOOL TEACHER. I first met the then seven year-old Angelica DeJesus in October of 2005, and was so impressed and inspired by her gentle individuality and spirituality that I began writing about her. Another side of this is that we formed an emotional connection early on. The result was ANGELICA’S STORY.”
CPR: I loved the poem ‘Angelica: First Impression‘ especially the final half where you say, “A spiritual aura / at odds / with its physical environment? / A series of unseen waves pulling me like ocean tides”; wonderful. While I know this is about Angelica, I also have a sense it is about you. Like so much poetry it is both art and catharsis.
JV: Actually, when I wrote the poem “Angelica: First Impression,” which was published by Ana Christy in her PLAIN JANE zine, I wasn’t thinking about myself, but Angelica’s strong aura and the fact that she stood apart from virtually every other student in the classroom. They say first impressions are important. For the chapbook I was well aware that my initial impression of her would underscore each of the poems and prose pieces.
CPR: You found a kindred spirit in Angelica. Was it your own suffering that allowed you to feel great compassion for the suffering you saw in her?
JV: Yes. When I first met Angelica it couldn’t have been more apparent that she stood apart and was socially isolated, and certainly not as generally aggressive and competitive as the other students. I’d gone through much the same in my own elementary school days, and could definitely relate to her unhappiness, frustrations. If I hadn’t gone through those same kinds of experiences myself I don’t believe my heart would have gone out to her as it did.
CPR: I know you have had to manage your own physical and mental challenges. Can you tell me about that and how is it going?
JV: My condition has been referred to as anxiety/depression disorder, but has been under control via medication for quite some time now. It’s been a lifelong condition, but wasn’t diagnosed as this particular disorder until 1990.
CPR: In ‘Oh Precious Child‘ you mention your “deceased mate”. How are you doing in this regard? I think she passed away about three to four years ago?
JV: My wife, Janet, actually passed away seven years ago, in June, 1999. I’m doing fine, happier and more upbeat than I’ve been in quite some time. After her death, I was in an active grieving period for almost three years. But lots of things have changed in my everyday life since then.
CPR: What is your favorite poem / story in this collection? Obviously this experience drove you to write and complete this book. It was important that you did. Tell me about this?
JV: It would be hard for me to pick a favorite story and poem in this chapbook. But I would have to say my favorite story is “A Recognizable Spirit” and the metaphorical “Girl in Classroom Slowly Dissolving into Moonbeam” poem. At the age of fifty-four, I felt a sense of urgency in putting this chapbook together quickly because our emotional bond was so strong. It was as if she were my own daughter, and because I realized I would only be acquainted with her for a relatively short space of time, and wanted to get all the facts down on paper. Our connection to each other transcended every attempt to sever it. And really, despite her age, it isn’t often in this life that we meet someone who not only has an effect on us but also brings about emotional and spiritual changes.
CPR: You recently closed out the very erotic SHOES and opened DRAMA GARDEN. I think you have become a born again Christian; quite a journey. Tell me about this and the impact it has had on your writing and editing?
JV: I decided to discontinue SHOES because of the changes I just mentioned. It served its purpose, but not had it become too restricting and confining, but being born again made me realize that my overall views of life and the world were part of a completely different realm and SHOES no longer fit into the generalized scheme of things for me. During the spring of 2001, I became friendly with someone who had just moved here, an evangelist named Clara Daniels. This friendship turned out to have quite an impact on me, on different levels. Within two years of meeting her, she invited me to attend services at her church, the House of Prayer. Technically it was nondenominational, but the services themselves bore a strong resemblance to black Pentecostal services. I became a member and stayed for two years, until the pastor’s untimely death a year ago. It was an experience that would change my life forever. The first issue of my new zine, DRAMA GARDEN, became a reality this past March and is more of an accurate reflection of the person I am now.
CPR: You quote a few biblical passages at the end of your book. Can you comment on Matthew18: 2-4?
JV: Matthew 18:2-4 was an appropriate Biblical passage to include, where it is stated how Jesus viewed the innocence and humility of children. Too often this rather jaded society views children negatively as incomplete entities who don’t have the “importance” the so-called fully-formed adults claim to have. Jesus said that if we don’t embrace the same kind of humility and openness found in children that we cannot enter the Kingdom of Heaven. For those very reasons Angelica had more of an impact on me than most adults have had.
Joseph Verrilli’s writing exudes reflective kindness. Whether it be sorrow or joy he is focusing on, his tone is consistently kind, thoughtful, tempered. His latest chapbook Angelica’s Story is no different. I was surprised and pleased to read a number of longer prose pieces in this collection. Each is handled with the usual Verrilli ease and precision. I hope those of you who have not met Joe’s work in person will take the time to do so. Angelica’s Story is about a good a place as any to begin.
Note: Submission of poetry for Drama Garden can be sent to Joseph Verrilli with SASE at P.O. Box 1158 / Bridgeport, CT / 06601-1158
About the author:
Charles P. Ries lives in Milwaukee, Wisconsin. His narrative poems, short stories, interviews and poetry reviews have appeared in over one hundred and sixty print and electronic publications. He has received four Pushcart Prize nominations for his writing, and most recently read his poetry on National Public Radio’s Theme and Variations, a program that is broadcast over seventy NPR affiliates. He is the author of THE FATHERS WE FIND, a novel based on memory. Ries is also the author of five books of poetry — the most recent entitled, The Last Time which was released by The Moon Press in Tucson, Arizona. He is the poetry editor for Word Riot (www.wordriot.org) and Pass Port Journal. He is on the board of the Woodland Pattern Bookstore in Milwaukee, Wisconsin. Most recently he has been appointed to the Wisconsin Poet Laureate Commission. You may find additional samples of his work by going to: http://www.literarti.net/Ries/.