J O N R I C C I O
i n t e r v i e w
COMP: What are the formal elements (if any) of these prose poems? Are they parts of a sequence, intended to be read together, or would you prefer we read each as a standalone poem?
Jon Riccio: Thank you, Jaydn and everyone at COMP, for twice giving my work a home. I was thrilled when you published my manifesto on The Confurreal or Confessional Surrealism (“The Florist’s Crossroads”) in your first issue. The questions you asked of its earlier version led to answers that strengthened my aims; your inquiries helped me move The Confurreal from posturing to legitimate treatise. The hope is that this springboards into an anthology, COMP serving as the movement’s incubator.
I am especially grateful for the acceptance of this prose septet. The poems take their formal cues from Zachary Schomburg’s Fjords Vol. 2 (Black Ocean, 2021) which I read last fall. Schomburg’s projects find their way into my reading life at opportune times: Scary, No Scary and The Man Suit in the months leading up to my MFA program at the University of Arizona, Fjords Vol. 1 and The Book of Joshua during the MFA (I also benefitted from Matthew Schmidt’s critical work on TBOJ in The Volta Online), and FV2 at the height of a seven-course teaching semester. Schomburg’s ability to snippetize the ridiculous while ever-so-briefly gliding into film ekphrasis made for manageable and memorable literary jaunts between grading, emails, and lesson prep.
I decided to try my hand at writing something Schomburgesque during October and November, drafting about two dozen pieces. The goal is to revisit these over the next few months, gussying them into a chapbook that explores the Bee Gees, floral deliverymen, and fire eaters, among others. For now, they simmer.
The pieces appearing in COMP are standalone poems, individual violas that comprise the alto-clef section of poetry’s orchestra, viola being off-kilter’s go-to.
COMP: Your work is chockful of wonderful juxtapositions: mundane objects (toothbrushes, Velcro) alongside the Voynich Manuscript; emblems of pop culture (“Erased-VHS”) alongside “a lecture on Gilgamesh”; and so on and so forth. Why are you drawn to these juxtapositions? What’s their intended effect(s)?
Jon Riccio: The juxtapositions in my work stem from an “everything but the kitchen sink” approach. Curiosity led me to uncovering this idiom’s origin, which appears in Dictionary of Forces' Slang, 1939-1945 (Eric Partridge editor, published in 1948). I was dismayed that it grew out of aggression—the phrase is rooted in bombardment—but I have a smidge more knowledge than I did two minutes prior. Eric Partridge (1894-1979) goes on the back burner; he’ll end up as an epigraphic reference in a poem down the road. He gave us eight editions of A Dictionary of Slang and Unconventional English, the final one appearing five years after his death. Another curiosity search resulted in Isabel Sepulveda’s stacker article, “Popular slang words from the year you were born.” Partridge exits and “Catch you on the flip side” births. “Wastoid” arises as edition eight goes to press. Sepulveda’s work is a gift that results in not only more juxtaposition opportunities (1922’s “know your onions” meets 1958’s “passion pit” . . . desirous shallots ensue; and, lest we forget “Hi sugar, are
you rationed?” from 1941), but think of the prompts lying in free-write wait.
From Velcro to Voynich, Tom Cruise’s olive acrobatics to Ishtar’s temple being the last location (giving the marriage-spurned goddess roundabout final word), the space between kitchening and kitsch is champion and challenging, which is where juxtaposition excels.
The more a poet’s referential (pop culture, history, any of the sciences) and sonic juxtapositions surprise and/or activate the nostalgist in me, the more I love their work. Will Alexander, Mei-mei Berssenbrugge, M. Soledad Caballero, Jordan E. Franklin, Brandi George, Heller Levinson, Rebecca Macijeski, Joyelle McSweeney, Lo Kwa Mei-En, Rachel Mindell, Shawnte Orion, H.E. Riddleton, Sandra Simonds, Kailey Tedesco, Natalie Louise Tombasco. Your “GRID” projects.
Heading into musician territory for the remainder of this answer, with each juxtaposition, the denser my work gets. Think B Major and its five sharps, like pound signs crammed into the coatroom on take your hashtag to work day. B Major is how Elgar’s and Walton’s violin concerti end, Borodin’s Second Symphony, Dvořák’s Cello Concerto too. Honoring juxtaposition, I include Jason Mraz’s “I’m Yours,” Dido’s “Thank You,” and ABBA’s “Take a Chance on Me,” the song that singlehandedly saw me through 2012-13. With these ingredients I throw together
Enigma gratitude . . . Referring to Elgar’s most famous composition, paraphrasing a song title, g alliteration, 3 + 3 syllable counts.
Mrazian pegbox . . . Singer + where we tune a stringed instrument.
Swedish Borodin . . . A national near-impossibility but oh, the d alliteration, long e and i that masquerades as long e sounds!
Mental wandering nets me three phrases. Blank-page problem solved.
COMP: We’re very excited about your debut full-length collection, Agoreography, forthcoming from 3: A Taos Press. Can you tell us about this book, and perhaps how these prose poems extend or deviate from that book’s aesthetic?
Jon Riccio: Thank you again, Jaydn. Your questions were the highlight of my day. I am quite excited about Agoreography as well. Andrea Watson, Founding Publisher and Editor of 3: A Taos Press, has been a gem at all stages of the process, beginning when we met at AWP in 2019, at which time I expressed my awestruck-ness for Robert Carr’s 3: A Taos Press collection The Unbuttoned Eye. My strongest writing happens when I’m posed with questions that put the work under a microscope, equal interrogation given to the microscope. Andrea has perfected this to a tee. Eduardo C. Corral is also brilliant at dual lines of questioning—I am fortunate to have worked on another manuscript with him at Vermont College of Fine Arts Postgraduate Writers’ Conference (thank you, Ellen Lesser, for your encouragement since 2013, not to mention work-study ‘crew’ support). His input stayed in my notebooks and head, guiding Agoreography’s revision.
The book addresses my experiences with trauma, Obsessive-Compulsive Disorder, phobias, and the years I trained as a violist. It weds my MFA and PhD projects, acting as a spokescollection for The Confurreal. The inclination to juxtapose runs through the work similar to the poems appearing in COMP; there’s a piece called “Life Reckoning with Lineage and Viola” where I fit Anne Sexton, the Death Star, and Gregorian chant under the same roof; Fiestaware, Bastille Day, and the Suzuki method find themselves terceting things out in “Bach Fugue State.”
Agoreography has five years of classroom workshops in its corner, give or take. The COMP works were a.m.-drafted—fifteen minutes here, thirty there—writings for the vised times that were my Fall 2021. A leaky pipe, a flaring of staph, inward the life elements crept. Classico splatters. We poetize. The Voynich Manuscript stays a velumdunnit.