Recently, Zoetic Press was pleased to premier Christopher E. Grillo’s newest poetry collection, The Six- Fold Radial Symmetry of Snow. Christopher is an education professional and recent graduate of Southern Connecticut State University’s MFA program, his poetry having been featured in Extracts, Up the River, Young Raven’s Literary Review, Drunk Monkeys, Noctua Review, Lunch Ticket Press, Referential, The Elm City Review, and more. Christopher is Noctua Review’s Connecticut State University’s Poetry Prize Winner and the Elm City Review’s editor’s choice award winner. He moonlights as a high school football coach at his alma mater, North Haven.
Christopher spoke to Kolleen Carney about The Six-Fold Radial Symmetry of Snow, his writing process, sports themed poetry, and what’s important to have an adult.
KC: The Six-Fold Radial Symmetry of Snow is a narrative collection; did you draw any of these poems from your own life? Is there any aspect of confessional writing in these poems?
CG: Absolutely. I don’t believe a poet can effectively convey a message through subject matter he or she knows nothing about. I was a small town kid and an athlete. Many of the poems are some of the most distinct memories I have of my adolescence. That is not to say that they aren’t embellished and altered in a lot of ways, and certainly there are “moments” implanted for continuity’s sake. Those moments, the ones that are more fabricated, in my opinion, are the weaker poems in the collection.
KC: In these poems the speaker is almost haunted by memories of his youth. I think this is a theme most of us struggle with; the wish to still be young, the wish of having done more (or differently), the reality of being older with our glory days behind us. Any thoughts on this aspect of your book?
CG: Yeah. I think for me it is less of a reflection for remembrance’s sake and more of a comment on growing up and losing some of the “innocence” (though I wouldn’t describe any of the characters as innocent) of those adolescent years.
When I frame it that way it sounds depressing. But I would like to think the book actually has a hopeful ring to it. That Frankie’s dreams, and the speaker’s dreams for Frankie, and his idealism, kind of crumble is totally gut wrenching. But the characters persist and learn to lean on each other more than ever.
That’s what it’s all about when the smoke clears. In adulthood, they have loyalty and friendship, and while it seems a small victory, it is much more meaningful than the fantasies of their youth.
KC: The poems are a beautiful blend of athleticism and masculinity paired with introspection. I will admit I have not read a lot of sports- themed poetry. Was this a difficult balance to achieve? Were you afraid of it not being well received?
CG: Thank you! I’ve been asked this many times in one form or another, and I think for a while I was defensive to what I felt the implication was, the old meathead trope. I recognize now that I am one of a very small sample size living in the overlap on the sports/literature Venn diagram, and so I am more understanding of the questions raised by the phenomenon. To answer directly: no it was not difficult, because I am myself an introspective AND physical person. For me, as a football player, the game helped me to become more introspective. I was an overachieving athlete, a wannabe hanging on at a level of play far above my physical capacity. By their very nature, athletics test a person’s physicality, but the mind and the body are so interconnected and so you are constantly examining your strengths and self-inflations versus your weaknesses and self-doubts. If you are not honest about whom you really are you will be exposed. What’s worse, you will let people down. I think that is true of life as well.
KC: I understand this book connects with another work by you. Could you tell us about that? What made you focus on this particular narrative?
CG: Sure. So this collection is one half of what was my MFA thesis and is now a full-length collection called Heroes’ Tunnel (Anaphora Literary Press.) The poems in the full length alternate in focus from the speaker’s relationship with Frankie to the speaker’s relationship with his love interest, Charlene. During my thesis defense a reader praised the work for its braided narratives. I tried my best to look as though that was the intention, but it really wasn’t. I left the defense and blew up the order of the poems so that there was a Frankie section and a Charlene section, and it became clear that I really had three books. The Charlene section was published early last year under the title When Rain Fills the Chasm, by Finishing Line Press.
KC: What is your writing process like? I am always fascinated with how writers, you know, write.
CG: For me it usually starts with a phrase or a piece of description that the world around me offers up. From there, the poem starts to take shape and I get a basic idea of what I would like the reader to take away. The revision process is when I tighten the language and the extended metaphor so that my intent is clear. This is the most natural way to write, I think. I have written with a collection concept in mind, as with Heroes’ Tunnel, and it is a really tough process. I think this is why you see a lot of poetry collections out there that are loosely held together by abstraction. I don’t think this devalues the writing in any way. A good poem is a good poem, but I personally feel like I am wasting my time if I am not writing towards a clear narrative collection. That’s just me. I must have been a novelist in my past life. In my current incarnation though, my ADD is too aggressive for prose.
KC: Tell us about the title, which is beautiful. Amidst all the sports imagery, this snow is a gorgeous stand- out.
CG: I really struggle with titling. In the early drafts the majority of the poems had titles like “Driving with Frankie, Winter.” A lot of the feedback I received was focused there, so I went on a titling binge. Towards the end I was really losing steam. The poem the collection is named for features Frankie and the speaker driving home from the bar in a snow storm. I Googled “snow”, “snowflakes”, etc. One of the first things that popped up was that phrase, six-fold radial symmetry. I don’t know how it contributes to the collection, but I’m sure if you brought it to an AP lang class somebody could figure out the connection. If I’m being honest, I just think it sounds awesome.
KC: What do you do when you are not writing?
CG: I am a middle school teacher in New Haven, so that is usually the thing that pulls me away from writing (in the most positive way possible). I love my students and the work I do on the achievement gap. They are my heroes. At this point in my life, being a teacher is so much more central to my identity than being a writer.
I am also an assistant high school football coach at my alma mater, which is so much fun. I like to work out though I’m not super outdoorsy. I’m more of a gym/free weights guy. I’ve recently started golfing a bit. I play with my old man who is retired and plays like twice a week. It’s one of those full circle experiences. He’s helping me with the mechanics through the guise of trash talk. It’s like little league baseball all over again. I love it.
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The Six- Fold Radial Symmetry of Snow is available through the Zoetic Press website.
Kolleen Carney is a poet and Associate Editor for Zoetic Press.