Lasting Impact: An Essay

Since the school year is wrapping up, I thought it might be a good time to share a short creative nonfiction story about an influential teacher in my life.

Mr. Lanzi’s sixth-grade class, DeWitt Clinton Elementary School, Rome, New York (1980-81). I’m third from the left in the first row.

Our sixth-grade teacher, Mr. Lanzi, was a towering figure with a swarthy complexion and dark, wavy hair teased high and coated with hairspray. Not a strand seemed out place. Imagine, if you will, a taller, thinner, nattier version of Elvis Presley. That’s how I remember Mr. Lanzi.

I think he had previously studied or worked in the theater, and he wore a hint of makeup to class—light powder on his cheeks—as if he might be called upon in the middle of a school day to fill the role of an understudy and he wanted to be prepared to take the stage and claim his big break.

What I remember most about him were his powerful hands; if my best friend, Billy, and I acted up, Mr. Lanzi would casually walk behind us, the scent of his musky cologne wafting near our desks, place his hands on our shoulders, and squeeze our trapezius muscles. We would squirm in our seats and then cease our misbehavior and pay attention to his instruction.

My best friend Billy and I celebrate our sixth-grade graduation.

Mr. Lanzi’s passion for learning was contagious, and he made education a rich, interactive experience for students. He expanded our imaginations with projects and activities that surpassed textbook knowledge.

Our class hosted special events like Italian Day, when we cooked an Italian supper and learned about Italian culture. I remember trays of food spread out on red and white checkered tablecloths, and our menu included spaghetti, breadsticks, cannoli pastries, and even small cups of espresso (which we sweetened with heaping teaspoons of sugar).

Mr. Anthony Lanzi, our sixth-grade teacher.

Mr. Lanzi’s class produced an annual stage play; during my sixth-grade year we performed a version of Charles Dickens’s A Christmas Carol, and I played the Ghost of Christmas Present, dressing up as Santa Claus for the part. I was disappointed Mr. Lanzi didn’t cast me in the lead role of Ebenezer Scrooge, but he expressed confidence in me that I could make the Ghost of Christmas Present memorable.

He encouraged me to shout “Ho, ho, ho” when I entered the auditorium through the back doors and then sit on the lap of a strict fourth-grade teacher, Mrs. Stocknick, who sat in the middle of the audience. His direction led to rousing laughter and applause, and a jolt of energy and excitement rushed through my body as I climbed the steps to the stage.

The lessons Mr. Lanzi imparted have stuck with me to this day. He instilled a love of the arts in me and showed me the importance of taking pride in your work.

Mr. Lanzi never had a “dress down” day; instead he wore clean, dark suits devoid of wrinkles. He never went through the motions or watched the wall clock—wishing the seconds would tick down and the school day end.

And as a firm but compassionate teacher, he served as strong role model, someone for all students to admire and emulate.

But what I respect most about Mr. Lanzi was that he demanded excellence from the students of DeWitt Clinton elementary school, even though the school was situated in a poor section of Rome, New York, and many of the kids came from low-income families. He expected us to succeed. He didn’t accept our excuses and his faith in our abilities gave us confidence that we could achieve high goals.

DeWitt Clinton sixth-grade graduation, 1981.

I remember during one of our last classes, after we held our end-of-the-year picnic and before our graduation ceremony, a girl named Aimee and I were talking about starting junior high school in the fall. Because Aimee and I were both short, we felt nervous about making the jump to seventh grade and feared getting “swallowed up” in the larger school and getting picked on by the bigger kids.

Mr. Lanzi overheard us and said, “Don’t worry. You’ll both be fine.” After we thanked him for his kind words, I think he smiled and said something like, “Remember, we expect great things from you.”

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Resplendent Vincent

In taking out the garbage this afternoon, I snapped a picture of a tree in bloom set against the blue sky, and the beauty of nature reminded me of an entry from The Letters of Vincent van Gogh.

Tree in bloom. Not the greatest picture, but it does capture the glory of spring.

I started reading this 500-page-plus book about a year ago, and I still have about 100 pages left to go before I finish it. I skim a few passages at a time, and for me the book is similar to the Bible—in that I can close my eyes, open it up at random, point my finger to a page and start reading. There’s no plot you need to follow, and you don’t have to read Vincent’s letters in sequential order. In the Bible, I discover Christ at random in the action scenes of the New Testament. Vincent’s collection reveals the artist’s creative progress and his struggle to connect with other people.

In this entry to his brother Theo, dated September 17, 1888, Vincent is working in Arles in southern France, where he has set up his Yellow House. He describes being inspired by the scenery.

The Yellow House (The Street), Vincent van Gogh, September 1888 Van Gogh Museum, Amsterdam (Vincent van Gogh Foundation)

“You see, I have never had such luck before, nature here is extraordinarily beautiful. Everything and everywhere. The dome of the sky is a wonderful blue, the sun has rays of a pale sulphur, and it is as soft and delightful as the combination of heavenly blues and yellows in Vermeer of Delft. I cannot paint as beautifully, but it absorbs me so much that I let myself go without giving thought to a single rule.”

Gogh, Vincent van, and Ronald. Leeuw. The Letters of Vincent van Gogh. London: Allen Lane, Penguin Press, 1996. Print.

Passage from The Letters of Vincent van Gogh.

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Inspired by Vincent

I am continuing to work my way through the book The Letters of Vincent Van Gogh. I am reading it from beginning to end, but I haven’t been consistent with reading it on a daily basis.

The Letters of Vincent Van Gogh, Penguin Classics.

Yesterday I came across a passage worth sharing. To set it up: the time is July 1885, a few months after Vincent painted his master work depicting peasant life—The Potato Eaters (April 1885).

The Potato Eaters by Vincent van Gogh (1885).

However, Vincent is still having trouble selling his work and his financial situation appears bleak. He writes to his brother Theo:

“I find myself faced with the necessity of being that most disagreeable of people, in other words of having to ask for money. And since I don’t think that sales will pick up in the next few days, the situation seems rather dire. But I put it to you, isn’t it better for both of us, après tout (after all), to work hard, no matter what problems that may entail, than to sit around philosophizing at a time like this?

I can’t foretell the future, Theo—but I do know the eternal law that all things change. Think back 10 years, and things were different, the circumstances, the mood of the people, in short everything. And 10 years hence much is bound to have changed again. But what one does remains—and one does not easily regret having done it. The more active one is, the better, and I would sooner have a failure than sit idle and do nothing.”

Gogh, Vincent van, and Ronald. Leeuw. The Letters of Vincent Van Gogh. London: Allen Lane, Penguin Press, 1996. Print.

What inspires me about this passage is Vincent’s willingness to press on with his art, undeterred by his lack of success. The fire in him to create burns too intensely for him to abandon his avocation.

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Alphabet Expression: Verbal Juxtapositions

I have completed a new project—a mixed genre book that is a medley of poetry, vocabulary and conceptual art.

I possess an obsession for vocabulary, and I spend time each morning looking up the “Word of the Day” on the following sites: thefreedictionary.com, merriam-webster.com and dictionary.com.

I created Alphabet Expression: Verbal Juxtapositions as word play—an attempt to use unusual word combinations to create new associations and imagery in the mind of the reader/viewer. The word pairings were formed according to alliteration, appearance, randomness, rhyme, sound and similar or opposite meaning.

I hope to publish the work in book form (most likely in a self-published format), and I am also interested in collaborating with a designer or visual artist to develop a selection of large-scale, text-based artwork, using some of the pairings from the book.

Here are some sample combinations. You could call the hybrids “voetry” or “poecabulary.”

Autistic

Artistic

Collision

Collusion

Diffident

Different

Lonely

Lovely

Perfection

Perception

 

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A Compulsion to Create: Reflections for 2020

Here are a few thoughts as the calendar flips to 2020. I hope these musings do not seem like platitudes. I am giving in to reflection as a way to maintain perspective during this season of transition.

I am working on multiple side creative projects—in the genres of poetry, film, theater and memoir. Some may bear fruit in 2020; other may die on the vine.

With advancing age, declining health and the combination of full-time work and family responsibilities, I realize I am limited in what I can accomplish as an artist. And quite honestly, I wish I were not so driven, so fueled by ambition to write and attempt—yes, only attempt—to create art. I wonder: How many hours have I spent trying to attain my creative goals, and what have I sacrificed along the way?

But I have learned some lessons in pursuing my side projects, and these can be applied to anyone working toward a challenging goal—whether the person is an artist, entrepreneur or business owner.

Kitchen Garbage Can. Photo by Francis DiClemente.

This is just my opinion, but I believe effort beats intelligence and discipline is more important than talent. You have to show up and do the work every day. And it’s important to appreciate the process, to pause and acknowledge minor achievement as you inch toward fulfillment of your ultimate goal.

The biggest lesson I have learned is that desire does not dictate success. Striving does not always equal triumphing. In this life, your wishes will get trampled and your dreams denied. Accepting this reality means pressing on despite the inevitability of failure, while realizing you can’t control your fate. It means being okay with who you are in the moment and not who you need to be to consider yourself worthy. That’s the fallacy. You are already worthy. You have already achieved—even if your painting does not hang on a gallery wall or your product appear on a Walmart shelf.

Slanting Desert Tree. Photo by Francis DiClemente.

I guess that’s it. At nearly 51 I see the truth of my latter years—I won’t achieve my childhood dreams. But the adult here recognizes the goodness of this mundane life—the opportunity to live and work and spend time with family. How lucky I am to just be here. To be an entrant, to earn a participant ribbon in this race.

I wish you much happiness and success in the new year.

And I will close with a couple of new, reflective poems related to the above topics:

Syracuse

This is the city where I learned to be an artist, waking at 5:30 a.m. every day to write—pecking away at poems that remained tucked inside the electronic hearth of my computer, never traveling the world, never finding an audience. This is where I learned that sometimes ambition and discipline are not enough, that there is no magic recipe for success. This is where I learned that you have to accept rejection and bear the shame of failure without getting deterred, rising again each morning to face the blank page—fully aware that your words may never be seen by other eyes. This is where I learned that although I may not be good enough, the compulsion to create demands that I write—no matter what. This is the city where I learned that for me being an artist was never a choice.

Shift in Thought

At some point
you have to
deal with the
Who you are
instead of the
Who you want to become.
By now the
form is fixed.
You are
complete as is.
Don’t expect
anything else.
Don’t hope
for anything more.

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Books Arrive

I’ve been tied up with post-production on a work-in-progress documentary project (more about this at another time), but I wanted to share the joy I received today when I found this literary inventory amid the pile of Amazon packages strewn in the lobby of my apartment building. Dreaming of Lemon Trees: Selected Poems is available from Finishing Line Press.

This full-length collection of poems is a combination of three previously published chapbooks—Outskirts of Intimacy (Flutter Press, 2010; second edition 2017), Vestiges (Alabaster Leaves Publishing/Kelsay Books, 2012) and In Pursuit of Infinity (Finishing Line Press, 2013). The work covers many years of my life and is comprised of narrative, confessional and philosophical poems, written in free-verse style, with a focus on identity, masculinity, family, romance, illness and death.

And I must admit it was fun to rip open the box, pull out a copy and thumb through the pages. It gave me a feeling of accomplishment to see all those poems bound in book form.

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Expressions by Vincent

In remembrance of Vincent van Gogh, who passed away at age 37 on July 29, 1890, I wanted to share some profound words from the great Dutch painter, written in letter form to his brother Theo. Through these words, we feel the heart and spirit of an artist who would not be denied his destiny to create master works of oil on canvas.

Self-Portrait, 1887. Art Institute of Chicago.

This letter is dated July 21, 1882, and it appears in the collection The Letters of Vincent van Gogh.

Vincent writes:

“What I want to express, in both figure and landscape, isn’t anything sentimental or melancholy, but deep anguish. In short, I want to get to the point where people say of my work: that man feels deeply, that man feels keenly.

“… What am I in the eyes of most people — a nonentity, an eccentric, or an unpleasant person — somebody who has no position in society and never will have, in short the lowest of the low.

“All right, then — even if that were absolutely true, then I should one day like to show by my work what an eccentric, such a nobody, has in his heart.

“… Though I am often in the depths of misery, there is still calmness, pure harmony and music inside me. I see paintings or drawings in the poorest cottages, in the dirtiest corners. And my mind is driven towards these things with an irresistible momentum.

“… Art demands dogged work, work in spite of everything and continuous observation.

“… I am not without hope, brother, that in a few years’ time, or perhaps even now, little by little you will be seeing things I have done that will give you some satisfaction after all your sacrifices.”

Gogh, Vincent van, and Ronald. Leeuw. The Letters of Vincent Van Gogh. London: Allen Lane, Penguin Press, 1996. Print.

Wheatfield with Crows, 1890. Van Gogh Museum, Amsterdam.

 

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Dreaming of Lemon Trees

Dreaming of Lemon Trees by Francis DiClemente

I am pleased to announce that Dreaming of Lemon Trees, a full-length collection of poems, is slated to be published by Finishing Line Press on Nov. 8. Advance sales are underway and will continue until Sept. 13.

Dreaming of Lemon Trees is a combination of three previously published chapbooks—Outskirts of Intimacy (Flutter Press, 2010; second edition 2017), Vestiges (Alabaster Leaves Publishing/Kelsay Books, 2012) and In Pursuit of Infinity (Finishing Line Press, 2013).

This book is comprised of narrative, confessional and philosophical works, written in free-verse style, with a focus on identity, masculinity, family, romance, illness and death. These poems are accessible to all readers and address issues that people deal with in their daily lives.

Pre-publication sales will determine the press run, so if anyone is interested, you can order the book online. Thanks for taking the time to read this. I appreciate it. Below you’ll find some excerpts from the collection.

Outskirts of Intimacy (2010; second edition 2017)

Stanwix Street

A vanilla ice cream cone
covered with sprinkles of dirt,
a handful tossed by small grimy hands
across a chain-link fence.
A blond child’s whine—
flat, constant and eerily melodic.
The girl then turning away,
screaming upstairs to her mother,
sound asleep in the mid-August heat,
the lime-green curtains fluttering in the
second-story window of the adjacent brick building.
The child just standing there, scraping off the grit
and licking the melting residue
trickling down her forearm.

Post-Op Image, 1984

Sprawled out on my mother’s bed,
I hear chunks of ice falling from the roof,
and a city snowplow rushing past our house.

I tilt my neck to glimpse at the wooden crucifix
perched above my mother’s head,
and feel my putting-green hair and
surgical scar meandering from ear to ear.

I then pester her with a flurry of questions,
diverting her attention from a Danielle Steel book.
She delivers no rebuke, though,
but merely clasps her nut-brown rosary beads,
and brushes them gingerly
against the disfigurement.

St. Peter’s Cemetery

I extend a hand to touch an angel trapped in marble.
Its face is cool and damp, like the earth beneath the slab.
I pose a question to my deceased father,
Knowing the answer will elude me.
For his remains are not buried in this cemetery,
But instead rest on a shelf
In my sister’s suburban Ohio house.

Vestiges (2012)

Streetlight Paradise

Chalk marks on sidewalks,
fireflies stalking the night,
creaky porch steps,
chain-link nets and
the crack of the bat.

Sour-puss lips break a smile,
then sneak a kiss.
It’s cool to hold hands with
the girl of your dreams,
the one who says she’ll
love you forever.

But forever is too far away.
Our time is now—a passing moment
when our parents look the other way.

Summer fun in the springtime
of our lives, sucking it all in
under this streetlight paradise.

Father’s Day Forgotten

Daddy and Christi parted ways at a bus depot
In the early morning hours.
No big scene, just a kiss on the cheek,
Then she turned around and was gone for good—
Hopping aboard the Trailways bus
Headed westbound for Chicago.
And she never looked back.

Daddy went home to his beer bottle and sofa seat,
And he drew the living room curtains
On the rest of the world,
Letting those four eggshell walls
Close in and swallow him up,
Wasting away in three empty rooms and a bath.

And the memories can’t replace his lost daughter and wife.
So he tries not to remember his mistakes
Or how he drove them away.
Instead he recalls Halloween pumpkins
Glowing on the front porch,
Training wheels moving along the uneven sidewalk,
Little hands reaching for bigger ones in the park,
And serving Saltine crackers and milk
To chase away the goblins that haunted
Dreams in the middle of the night.

Now Christi has a life of her own,
And she lets the answering machine catch
Daddy’s Sunday afternoon phone call.
She never picks up and rarely calls back.
So Daddy returns to the green couch
Pockmarked with cigarette burns.
He closes his eyes, opens the door to his memory vault
And watches the pictures play in slow-motion.
He rewinds again and again
Without noticing the film has faded
And the little girl has stepped out of the frame.

Revelation

A courtship of contempt,
filled with swirling fury and churning angst,
not halted by the hands of God.
Zealous rituals express unwavering faith,
and outstretched arms set hearts aflame.

Trees topple under a crescent moon—
a gleaming scythe that carves the frost-burnt night,
invoking stones to crush the gnarled root,
as fragments of identity rupture
into paralyzing self-hate.

In Pursuit of Infinity (2013)

Dreaming of Lemon Trees

I dream of words
I strive to recapture
When I awaken in the morning.
I dream of stories with endings unknown,
Vibrant scenes imagined in my sleep—
A Degas ballerina alone in her dressing room,
A wagon train backlit on the horizon,
A hummingbird dancing on the windowsill,
And a lemon tree in the church courtyard
In mid-afternoon.
Wherever I go in my dreams,
The air is balmy and sunlight abundant.
Trees sway and the scent of evergreen
Finds its way to my nose.
I dream because when this tired body hits the mattress,
It relaxes, then releases and gives up its earthly weight.
My eyes close and I sink to the deep recesses of my mind,
Setting the subconscious free.

The Shed

Independence Day, Late 1970s (Rome, New York)

Whipped-cream clouds smear a powder blue sky,
while Grandpa nurses a carafe of Chianti
and dreams of waltzing down Bourbon Street.
The DeCosty family gathers on the patio,
with Uncle Fee roasting sausage and peppers
and Nana dribbling olive oil over fresh tomatoes,
then adding alternating pinches of basil and parsley.

Inside the backyard bordered by overgrown hedges,
the rambunctious cousins wham Wiffle balls
with a thin banana-colored plastic bat,
evoking the hollers of Grandpa . . .
who watches out for his mint-green aluminum shed,
situated perfectly in left-center field—
serving as our own Green Monster.

And when we get ahold of that little white ball,
it smacks up against the aluminum obstacle,
clashing like two marching band cymbals
in a halftime show.
And with sweat coursing down his neck,
Grandpa barks out his familiar line
under the patio awning:
“Son of a bitch . . . keep that goddamn ball
away from my shed.”
But Nana is always on our side,
and cancels out his power and keeps him in check.
“Fiore, you let those kids play and mind your mouth,”
she says.

Grandpa abandons his no-win cause,
turns up the volume on the Yankee game
and pours himself another glass of red wine.
He watches quietly as the shed stands erect
in the late afternoon sun,
sacrificing its facade for our slew of ground-rule doubles.

The Bridesmaid

The most adorable pregnant bridesmaid ever
Waddles down the church’s center aisle,
Unable to hide her protruding belly.
And with her feet swollen,
Her lower back sore and forehead warm,
She endures the ceremony standing
On the altar beside the joyous couple.
But she nearly passes out while
Posing for pictures in the lakefront park.

Inside the reception hall,
She almost vomits at the sight
Of shrimp cocktail and chicken Florentine.
She orders hot tea and lemon from the top-shelf bar,
And dines on rolls and garden salad.
This single-mom-to-be, though not merry,
Offers a smile when others turn to stare,
And bobs her head to the music
As the guests hit the dance floor.

She nibbles on a sliver of white-frosted wedding cake,
And asks for guidance from her parish priest,
Wise old Father Meyer.
Then the bride overthrows the eager females huddled
Near the dance floor and the bouquet lands
Softly in the expectant mother’s lap.
Her face turns red as everyone looks at her.
So she just grabs the bouquet and throws it back.

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Wisdom from Vincent

This summer I am reading The Letters of Vincent Van Gogh. I had discovered the book when I was in graduate film school at American University in Washington, DC in the early 1990s. A woman from the Deep South who was pursuing her MFA in painting suggested I read it. It consists of letters Vincent wrote to his brother Theo, a Dutch art dealer.

The Letters of Vincent Van Gogh, Penguin Classics.

And although the book was written in the 19th century, Vincent’s words never seem dated. In fact, I could pull inspirational quotes from the book on a nightly basis, and if Vincent were alive today, he might be the host of a motivational podcast.

Through his words, we see that despite his financial, romantic, mental and emotional struggles, Vincent persevered, sacrificing everything to express his creativity and to paint works of art that will endure as long as humans walk the earth.

This passage is dated September 24, 1880. Vincent has made the decision to become a full-time artist and he addresses Theo with this opening line: “Your letter has done me good and I thank you for having written to me in the way you have.”

He describes some art studies he is working on based on prints and etchings that Theo had sent him.

He writes, “These studies are demanding & sometimes the books are extremely tedious, but I think all the same that it’s doing me good to study them.”

The following passage then caught my attention and stirred my heart:

“So you see that I am working away hard, though for the moment it is not yielding particularly gratifying results. But I have every hope that these thorns will bear white blossoms in due course & that these apparently fruitless struggles are nothing but labour pains. First the pain, then the joy.”

Gogh, Vincent van, and Ronald. Leeuw. The Letters of Vincent Van Gogh. London: Allen Lane, Penguin Press, 1996. Print.

The words inspired me because as someone who works full-time and writes in my off hours, I rarely see progress; I often get discouraged because I spend hours working on projects that are rejected in the end. But still I press on.

And Vincent’s words are universal—they could be applied to people attempting to achieve a dream, as well as to anyone trying to survive the challenges of every day. I think about artists, actors, singers, students, teachers, entrepreneurs, couples and parents.

And fortunately—for both Vincent and for art lovers around the world—Vincent’s white blossoms did bloom in later years.

Almond Blossom by Vincent Van Gogh, 1890

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Built-In Inspiration

One of the great things about working for a university is the opportunity to explore iconic buildings on campus.

Crouse College exterior. Photo by Francis DiClemente.

Today I had to go to Crouse College—home of Syracuse University’s College of Visual and Performing Arts—to pick up a check from the BBC that was mailed to the wrong office.

I stood on the steps outside the wooden doors, admiring the exterior archways and the designs on the reddish-brown columns. Stepping inside the building, I noticed sunlight pouring through a stained-glass window above me, while one floor up, someone was playing the organ inside Setnor Auditorium.

Stained-glass window inside Crouse College at Syracuse University. Photo by Francis DiClemente.

An artistic ambience enveloped the place, punctuated by warm tungsten lights illuminating the hallways and panels of medieval artwork hanging on the walls. I walked past the Winged Victory statue as I looked for the business operations office, which was occupied by cheerful employees sitting in cubicles. Large windows framed a postcard winter scene with snow falling on a row of evergreen trees. A woman handed me the lost check and I went on my way.

Winged Victory Statue at Syracuse University. Photo by Steve Sartori.

But before I left the building, I wondered if I could get transferred to an office in VPA or at least do a three-month rotation.

Railing and staircase inside Crouse College.

Then I thought, would such a stimulating environment spur my creativity or would I fall victim to sensory overload, viewing and consuming art every day but not producing any work? Too bad I won’t get the chance to find out.

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