Jack’s guest is poet/novelist John Norton, whose works include Posthum(or)ous (1985); The Light at the End of the Bog (1989—recipient of the 1990 American Book Award); Re:Marriage (2000) and Air Transmigra (2010). John Norton graduated from Boston College and the University of Pennsylvania with an M.A. and Ph.D. He taught at the University of California, Riverside, and moved to San Francisco in the 1970s. Soon afterwards, he joined Robert Gluck’s Writing Workshop at Small Press Traffic and his poems and stories began to appear in a variety of small magazines and literary journals. He served as Board President of Small Press Traffic Literary Arts Center and the Irish Arts Foundation and helped organize the Crossroads Irish American Festival. He has worked in Silicon Valley as a technical writer and editor.
This is from The Light at the End of the Bog:
The men in our family had a way for arguing. My brother knitted his words in tight knots and meant the truth in words or not. He hit with his truth and meant to, drunk and not. My father acted smarter as our arguments moved forward.
I admired my father’s embroidery with words. Nothing got directly stated except his anger. He meant that, but if things grew more subtle, the battle turned less pugnacious, my father delighted in retelling how someone misspoke himself. He would recite it for an audience, sometimes directly at the poor individual. He would ramble into a story seemingly lost. This meandering was rehearsed. He had made a set piece of the incident and told the whole story, the day and date, how who said what. His tales skewered some unfortunate, usually not himself. The point was made, perhaps by staring you in the face and then laughing.
Once he demonstrated he could spell then the joke was on someone who couldn’t. He retold the incident by spelling out letter after misspelled letter and matched them to his royally mannered spelling letter by letter.
I learned to work from a third side, weaving my way back into theirs. I learned to spell, knew how to knit and began to embroider. I would stand in the middle of a large prayer rug and face my father.
And these two poems are from Air Transmigra:
Star Irish Bakery, Noe Valley
From behind the counter a soft brogue invites me to sample her bread.
Kindness is context.
Kindness folds the flour, salt, sugar, and baking soda.
Kindness stirs in buttermilk, her ambushed brother, and my father’s drinking.
She adds currants and caraway seeds.
She curses those who killed him and reaches for the packet of
holy cards in her apron pocket.
Kindness prays to her Virgin Mary to ease the sorrows.
She asks me to knead the dough. She is drying her eyes with the apron.
Kindness forms the dough into round loaves, scores them with
the Sign of the Cross to let the Devil out before they go
into the hot oven.
She removes the baked bread. Sets them near the open window to cool.
Kindness breaks off a small crusty corner just for me.
Kindness is texture and smell.
—for Tony Vaughan
I feel the draw of the moon. I must be out. These
teeth he said running the tip of his tongue from one
incisor across to the other these teeth are sensitized.
I dress in black and must be out cruising.
He remembers one winter night in Boston Common.
The snow ice crackled as he walked his girlfriend
to a park bench next to the Frog Pond. Snow
speckled with grime lined the cement crater.
Icy sidewalks pick up the gray moonlight. Nowhere
they can go to smooch and fondle.
They had to be out shivering buried in overcoats.
A hand in through the sweater and down into her
pants. It was cold and hard to warm up Nancy.
The moon at Big Sur seen from the Casita at the edge
of a cliff. The lines of light on the corrugated water.
Stand on the cabin deck look over and down.
Waves smashing. Forces stronger than one lifetime
erode the person. Always here. The surf swirls
through a natural bridge at the base of a cliff.
Its arch outlined in the moonlight.
One of two.