An Interview with Dennis Callaci

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by Stephanie Barbe Hammer

Stephanie Barbe Hammer recently interviewed Dennis Callaci about his newest collection, Lost Reflection out now from Bamboo Dart Press. Here’s the link to his book: Lost Reflection.

Image of Dennis Callaci’s book

Writers who can’t play an instrument or do anything musical are fascinated by writers who can. Does it annoy your to be asked to talk about how your career in music has influenced your writing or is it a a completely stupid question because the two practices are so different? If the latter, what is your writing brain like? What gets the writing brain going? Something you see? Dreams? A conversation? What makes writer-you get rolling with a story? And if music does enter the narrative picture, as it does with the Manuel and Lara story, how do you use it?

Most artists are fascinated by areas in the arts that they have some ability or next to no ability to do. I am in this gallery. I would love to paint, but cannot. I marvel at painters and their ability to dress a canvas from out of the ether. I started writing short stories three years ago, it dovetailed into my turning fifty. Some of my first short stories were extensions of lyrics or poems. They were stanzas that I put into paragraph form and fleshed out from there. I could see that lyrics and poems were getting restrictive in what I could do on paper. As writers, the two of you know that writing comes from both our waking and dream life. Anything can birth a story. I fear that music is present a bit too much in my short stories. Often times, for the sake of economy when my writing or iconography fails me, I will let music stand in where I think it needs to be.

In “We were Always this Way,” you create a narrator who keeps on implying that he doesn’t know what he’s doing, but who somehow manages to do it anyway,. How did this story come into being, and what attracted you to this character? Do you like him?

Like a number of writers, characters that I am writing can have components of myself or those I have known, but I never start a story defining anyone or anything. I get an idea and I write and write and write until the moment is gone which can sometimes mean a few sentences or in this case nearly the entire story. In the process of rewriting, I flesh out and define the concrete aspects of the story. I might revisit a lyric or a poem once after I have written it, but I do not labor over them. Short stories take me months, sometimes a few years, to complete. The character Gene is in vessels or stations for most of the story, but he is never steering or at home. I cannot relate to the make-believe him or living life in that manner.

In this collection as a whole, you write about people living on the edge of being able to make it financially, psychologically and spiritually. What draws you to characters like this? Why do you want to tell their stories, and what do you think is important or valuable about their perspectives for readers to try to understand?

I hesitate to release music to the public. I more than hesitate to issue collections of my writing. I never think of an audience when I am writing music or lyrics or stories, for a number of reasons. My instinct has always been to try to protect these idiosyncratic weird little things I do of this nature from being encroached upon by economics or audiences or validation. The act of the work is the import to me, not any of the work I do. I have stacks of books, records, films, to do list…. that I am forever trying to get to and the mountain continues to grow as my curiosity never ceases. If my work is never seen, there are a myriad of other works that not only attain what I am after but far exceed what I have written. I know, because I have seen, and read, and heard them!

It is important to me to not spread poison, shine light on darkness, glamorize cliches. I work harder the older I get to find a lift in even the most sorrowful tune or story that comes out of me. I think this is illuminated to a better and larger degree in the work by others that I have issued on Shrimper or that Mark and I are fortunate enough to have been entrusted with on our Bamboo Dart Press imprint. That is an area that I excel in, collaborating with others on work and seeing it through with as few fingerprints on it as possible.

Talk about the death of Jerry and the way his friends remember him. This is your longest story in the collection. Is this the kind off send of you would like to have? What made you decide to go for a multiple point of view structure?

I walked by a house in my neighborhood one day, a house I had walked by for twenty years, seeing the occupants here and there, but never knowing them. A middle-aged woman was bringing out to the curb nearly all the contents of the house for pickup, as donation. I knew it by the pink bags. Furniture, paintings, bags of clothes, boxes et al. She was stoic, unemotional. It really struck me. I thought about it for a good forty minutes or so before getting home at which point I sat down to write that story.

At larger funerals, we learn details, aspects about even our closest that we could not have been privy to because these gatherings are reflections from so many that walked in the life of the one that is gone. Those that speak are speaking of themselves, ourselves, our selfishness, and our want for those that are gone that made our lives lighter. I wanted to look at that via messy conversations and in the middle of life happening as it does in this story.

“32 Red” goes in some surprising directions,. What do you think the protagonist learns — if anything — about winning and losing?

I battle back the pessimism of the world by looking for silver threads in the storm after it has passed. What came of the suffering? The sorrow? What can be gleaned from the losse?. I was grifted at a gas station that I worked at when I was sixteen, I paid back the cash out of the till that greenie me had given to a slick talker after it was apparent that the cheap knockoff watch he gave me as collateral was a fake and that he did not, in fact, know the manager that he name-checked, that the business card he gave me was a fake, etc. That shows up a little here. It taught me so much about the world, about myself. This possible sinkhole that I did not sink into in regard to losing my faith in strangers.

The collection begins and ends with a baby! And with a poem! Why are babies important in your stories? What about poems?

The stories in this book mirror one another in several ways. I spent an inordinate amount of time sequencing the book, and then fine-tuning the stories once more from there even though I had considered them completed before I put them in any order. All of the wasted energy and dead ends of the first story are flipped with a song of joy, a song, in the last story that everyone knows but which is rewritten to mean something altogether different in this piece. Love, true love, is the most difficult thing to capture in a story. I worked and worked to delete and edit as many details, sentences, whole paragraphs from the final story in the book that were not necessary in an attempt to translate what love looks and feels like to me. The final poem plays on the first as well, us as curators or auteurs of our lives. We tell and retell stories about our lives nearly every day. The intent is to communicate how we felt or feel, report on our experiences. I do this in my writing as well, and I try to get as close as I can to those simple acts. In telling my oldest child about that time I got grifted at the gas station I know it didn’t mean as much to him as it did to me, but it was a defining moment in my life and I wanted to share that with him. A warning about a few things to try to avoid full well knowing that my telling him of this experience would lack breath, heartbeats and those moments of heart in mouth real time dread that two minutes of my orating would not capture.

Stephanie Barbé Hammer’s new novel Pretend Plumber and her new poetry chapbook City Slicker appeared this past summer. Originally from Manhattan, Stephanie lived in Southern California for 30 years and now currently resides on Whidbey Island, Washington State, where she keeps on trying to walk to coffee.

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