The 5-Minute Interview: Alessandro Porco

[31 January 2008]

By Nikki Tranter

Alessandro Porco’s latest book of poetry is Augustine in Carthage, and Other Poems, published by ECW Press in April. Re:Print caught up with Alessandro for a brief chat about the book, the poet’s career, and his busy-busy life. Porco is currently at the State University of New York at Buffalo, where he is working on his dissertation. His poetry has appeared in Matrix, Grain, and Queen Street Quarterly. He blogs here.

Tell us about your latest book:
My latest collection of poetry is Augustine in Carthage, and Other Poems (ECW Press), which will be officially released in late March / early April. It’s been four years since I finished writing The Jill Kelly Poems (ECW Press)—my book-length ode to the adult-film star affectionately referred to as “the anal queen.” I’m suspect of teleologies of progressivity and enlightenment, meaning you’re not likely to catch me telling you how I’ve “developed” over the four-year publishing interregnum (though, I guess, four years ago I wouldn’t have used the term teleology on account of it’d likely make me sound like a douchebag! I’m comfortable with that now). In fact, the collection’s title long-poem, “Augustine in Carthage,” deals with this very suspicion of progressivity, amongst a variety of other things.

What’s it all about, really?
Ultimately, “Augustine in Carthage” is a trans-historical re-imagining of Book III of St. Augustine’s Confessions in present-day Montreal. It includes picaresque scenes and interludes involving, for example, philosophizing strippers (who apparently like to quote Whitehead while giving lap dances), Tampico bombers (my homage to Ed Dorn), drug-induced hops down rabbit holes, coprology (what can I say, I’m a fan of Pasolini!), and even some comic-book heroism (in the form of that adroit character Plastic Man). But for all its bombast “Augustine in Carthage” examines, quite seriously, ideas related to the experience of experience, the morality of poetry, and the hypocrisy of spiritual conversion. Of course, perhaps the most famous allusion in modern poetry to Book III of the Confessions takes place in Eliot’s The Waste Land: “To Carthage then I came” (“III. The Fire Sermon”). There he quotes directly from Augustine; the passage from the original reads, “To Carthage then I came, where a cauldron of unholy loves sang all about mine ears.”

Basically, think of Carthage as Vegas and you get the picture (and, to boot, Augustine wasn’t yet a saint ... all the better). Indeed, Eliot serves as a Tiresias-like guiding presence over and above the poem. (One other key literary text against which a continuous parallel is established is Petronius’s Satyricon.) But all this makes it seems way more highfalutin than it perhaps actually is—I mean, the first page and a half or so includes a length description of strippers at Montreal’s famed Club Super Sexe ...

That said, it is a difficult poem and one that I—and my reputation, such that it is—have much riding on. In that sense, the impending release of the collection is very nerve-wracking and frightening (not feelings I felt initially with my first book, to be honest). Of course, I should admit, however, that the nerves and frights are also associated with the other conspicuous poem in the collection (hopefully not so conspicuous though as to be the overwhelming focus of critical reception): the book ends with a 21-part series titled “We So Seldom Look on Nantucket.” Basically, as the title would suggest, it’s 21 limericks—but not of the anaesthetized Edward Lear variety. These are 21 of the filthiest limericks I could think to write (in the words of limerick scholar G. Legman, who, referring to his anthology The Limerick, wrote: “This is the largest collection of limericks ever published, erotic or otherwise. Of the 1700 printed here, none are otherwise.”)

Basically, these little artifacts began as a dare and evolved into something quite lovely (albeit, depraved, too). As a whole, these limericks make The Jill Kelly anal-sex poems seems like a rather Victorian G-rated affair—hence, my nervousness. While I certainly don’t want to spoil anything (here’s my pitch: by the book to read what I’m talking about), I can give a hint of what I’m describing: e.g. the Holy Mother Mary satisfying Jesus and, maybe, just maybe, there may be some sexual intercourse involving amputees. If that sounds like something you’d be into, please do pick up the book (and, then, maybe you should see somebody)!

There’s plenty else, of course, that exists in between these first and last poems. Things I’m very proud of: some translations (loose translations a la Robert Lowell’s Imitations) of 20th century Italian poets Ungaretti, Campana, and Quasimodo. There are what I’ve dubbed as “remixes” of classic English poems. Also, there’s a couple performance pieces. Hell, even a love poem or two. Overall, to borrow a formulation from Paul Muldoon, the collection’s “much of a muchness,” if you know what I mean—though that “much of a muchness” is compressed into a tight little punch of beautifully designed book (17 poems over 60 pages).

It’s an exciting time for me these days. The book’s release looming, I have a series of readings I’ll be doing in the spring and summer months. That should be fun, allowing a little travel time for me, catching up with friends in various cities (including Montreal where I’d f!@#$% love to bring the book into Club Super Sexe! That seems fitting, given my early mention of the joint.). Hopefully the book’s release will inspire some heated debate, some positive reviews, some negative reviews—either way, I just hope that it sets discussion about things into motion.

What else is keeping you busy?
In March, I’ll start my tenure as the official hip-hop columnist for the online supplement of Maisonneuve Magazine, Montreal’s city magazine. I have free reign with the column, open to everything from standard reviews to interviews, hot topics and all that good stuff. The column’s a nice compliment to my current Ph.D. dissertation work on hip-hop poetics at the State University of New York at Buffalo. It’s moving along, slowly but surely.
I’m desperately trying (usually in bars) to convince some of my more esteemed and mature academic peers and colleagues that Dodgeball: A True Underdog Story is one of the best films of the last 10 years (slowly, I can feel them coming over to my side on this!).
I’m busy teaching a course this term on the subject of Sports Literature at SUNY-Buffalo.

Any Current Essentials we should look out for?
Repeated viewings (and I mean over and over and over again) of the first three seasons of It’s Always Sunny in Philadelphia, which, quite frankly, is one of the best thing I’ve ever seen on TV.

I’m excitedly looking forward to the spring-time releases of Jason Camlot’s The Debaucher (Insomniac Press) and R.M. Vaughan’s Troubled: A Memoir in Poems (Coach House)—both examples of Canada’s finest literary artists.

Published at: http://www.popmatters.com/pm/post/reprint-5-minute-interview-with-alessandro-porco/