2021 Passager Poet

posted in: Interview, Poetry | 0

Highlighting the 2021 Passager Poet Gail DiMaggio with two of her contest-winning “mettas.”
6 minutes


Passager’s 2021 Poetry Contest issue hit the stands recently. A couple weeks ago, we played work by four of the contest’s honorable mentions. This week, we’re highlighting the 2021 Passager Poet Gail DiMaggio.

Gail started out writing short stories. But she said she noticed that all her stories—quote—ended in a passage that left the narrative behind and indulged in a kind of “riff” of associations and images. She said, “It finally dawned on me that those sections were my attempt to write the poem of the story, which apparently was what I really wanted to do. So I quit short stories and just accepted that whatever I intended, I was a poet.”

The five poems of Gail’s that Passager published are mettas. She said that the Buddhist practice of metta involves choosing one person, dog, star, grain of sand or Bismark palm, maybe, and focusing on the hope that they will find peace or joy or compassion or any other condition that might lighten their suffering. A metta poem tries to mimic that experience.

She said Metta is not a prayer addressed to God. She said, “In metta, I’m not hoping to change anything but my own heart.”

One of the things Gail DiMaggio remembers about her grandmother was her gardens. “My grandmother’s gardens were breathtaking,” she said. Here’s her poem “Metta for Pia Ramini.”

forced to marry my grandfather,
that mean gambler, that hulk
shouting from the upstairs bedroom. Metta
for the girl before the wife, before the woman
who nursed two babies through influenza,
watched them die, who spent
thirty years of precious somedays
waiting for the 5 a.m. bus, for the factory whistle,
for the iris to bloom and the orchard to fruit.
Once, I heard the night wrangle, her wife-rage
untranslatable, then his fist at the wall
then the door in its frame, and he slept
that night in the unheated garage.
She could make him. She hated
old age, and the priest,
and the son-in-law who wouldn’t visit.
Her final year, she and I
stood at lawn’s edge, my mother’s iris
royal at our feet. Your mother,
she said, why don’t she dig ‘em
before the middle goes brown?

For maybe an hour, I sat beside her
on the sun-warm stone
in somebody else’s garden, in April.

“Metta for Pia Ramini” by 2021 Passager poet Gail DiMaggio. She said, “I am deeply interested in the question of how art and creativity relate to the human struggle to live with and survive suffering.”

Here’s her poem “Metta for Judy who Loved a Biker.”

briefly. Also, an accountant,
the Friday night drummer, two guitar
guys, the man her sister wanted
but couldn’t keep. Nancy,
known among us for toxic intrusions,
asks, How many? and Judy answers,
Twenty-three if you don’t count Ted
No one, not even Nancy,
asks why we shouldn’t count Ted, and Judy
toasts the four of us, lifting
her glass in both arthritic hands.
She wouldn’t recognize metta.
She’d think it some flimsy kind of prayer
and pointless since all on her own
she escaped her mother’s Sunday organ,
that rugged cross, that mighty fortress.
These days, she’s the woman who won’t
tolerate the landlord, mother her grown sons,
ever again walk straight ahead
on those warped legs.
But she does have that gift
for men — three of them
51 willing to climb steep stairs for her
under a quarter ton of baby grand.
I’d say, May she know peace, but what
would Judy want with peace? So instead,
I’d just give her this dream: her hands,
young again, smooth again and
once more supple. And then, all night,
every night, she’ll make
that baby grand boogie.

“Metta for Judy Who Loved a Biker” by 2021 Passager Poet Gail DiMaggio. Gail said the poem gave her a chance to — quote — enjoy my experience of Judy who is pretty much the way she appears in the poem — funny, uncompromising in a crazy way, and a really great jazz pianist. I got a chance to be sad with her that she can’t play anymore and celebrate with her what it felt like to be there when she could still make that baby grand boogie. “My husband was a jazz musician,” she said, “so that’s in there a bit, too.”

Gail said, “Writing during COVID gave me a way to examine the question I was struggling hardest to answer: how to endure all the suffering — in me, around me — without shutting down my heart.

To buy Passager’s 2021 Poetry Contest issue, to subscribe to or learn more about Passager and its commitment to writers over 50, go to passagerbooks.com. You can download Burning Bright from Spotify, Apple and Google Podcasts, and various other podcast apps.

For Kendra, Mary, Christine, Rosanne, and the rest of the Passager staff, I’m Jon Shorr.