Albert Russo is an acclaimed, award-winning (if not otherwise famous) multilingual author. My personal and professional history of collaboration with Russo goes back to 2006, when I reviewed his poetry collection “Crowded World of Solitude, Volume 2”. In my recent “alternative biography” entitled “Under the Shirttails of Albert Russo” I interview Russo, trace the contributing major influences in his life and in his literary career, and give literary analysis in a subjective manner, i.e. I immerse myself and the Reader of the book directly into Russo’s literature through re-publication of larger illustrative excerpts … and allow myself and the Reader to re-experience the moments of Russo’s initial writing alongside some never-before-published trivia and intimate revelations regarding his personal life, politics, loves etc. I always attempt to approach literary criticism in a creative fashion — usually emphasising the creative impulses of the works that I have read within my own essay-writing. Why so many lengthy excerpts from Russo’s writings? It is a literary device to 1) force impatient Readers to submerge themselves into his texts and thoughts rather than quickly darting from flower to flower without retaining or realising any personal effect; and 2) it enables me as a literary critic and biographer to put the emphasis on Russo’s writing — rather than on my own largely uninteresting and subjective personal perspectives on what I see in a limited capacity, and it allows me to somewhat “escape” the trap of being the “literary expert” — which further distances the Reader from direct experience with the author’s texts. Following a Wikipedia-style (or even a Boswellian-style) resumé of Russo’s life and career is altogether uninteresting to me. I wish to allow Russo to speak directly to Readers, other authors and those otherwise curious — through his works and his interviews. That is — to me — « his story »; or, if you will, his «history») — and the best way to present it. (Mind you, I say «to present it» rather than «to press the critic’s ‘political correct’ perspectives upon the Reader».) Russo has much to share with us all about creative processes, the profession of writing, and about how ideas and writing merge, converge and influence one another in various regards.
Here is a short excerpt from the book (“Under the Shirttails of Albert Russo”) regarding his poetry, and in this particular excerpt, specifically regarding his haiku … of which little has been written about previously.
— Adam Donaldson Powell
Poetry was his first love
Although I know much of his work rather well, Albert Russo never ceases to surprise and impress me. He is very competent as a novelist, and equally so — if not even more — as a poet, short story writer, essayist and photographer. In this chapter I will address his poetry, and then his short stories.
No matter what the genre, Albert Russo is a master storyteller; and his poems, short stories and novellas are — in fact — often stories of varying lengths. While his novels are usually quite detailed in their descriptive qualities, even his shortest poems (yes, even his haiku poems) manage to transport the reader into the intended mindset of the author, even if only telling about a few moments in a larger story in one history of the species of Man. I say this because Albert’s work always has a sense of universality about it, no matter if he uses the first or third person to tell his story; and the stories — although often alluding to a certain time or space in history — somehow echo the repetitiveness of human thought and behavior, throughout the ages.
The versatility he demonstrates across genres and styles of writing is — indeed — unusual, as not all authors manage to master several. Writing novels is quite a different process and requires different approaches and skills than more condensed genres, such as short stories and poetry. The shorter the form, the more important it is to find the correct words, rhythms and multiple-layered meanings within the smaller framework. Even if writing from the context of a single thought within a moment in time the writer must have an understanding of the greater context (the larger story) as well. In this way, poetry is written first in the mind … and then condensed and expanded in written form. I include “expanded” because a successful poem can perhaps be likened to skipping a small rock across a pond — creating ripples and reverberations which both reflect the greater omnipotence of the water and temporarily alter its periphery and identity. And there we have that word again: identity. Also in his poetry, short stories and novellas Russo explores identity in all of its expressions and forms, and in various languages and styles.
ALBERT RUSSO’S POETRY COLLECTIONS: CROWDED WORLD OF SOLITUDE, VOLUME 2 AND GAYTUDE.
On Crowded World of Solitude, Volume 2.
In the book’s preface, Leigh Eduardo writes:
“His work reaches into the very soul of contemporary living. Here, one comes to grips with many contemporary problems, all beautifully crafted and possessing the Russo hallmark of subtle observation. Each poem is a gem in its own right.”
Those words by Leigh Eduardo perfectly describe the intentions and accomplishments of Albert Russo in this splendid edition of poems. I will comment on his longer prose poems a bit later in this chapter but first, Mr. Russo has included many linked haiku poems in this volume — and so many that I believe that they warrant special consideration. Here are some selected examples that typify Albert Russo’s haiku:
there’s a space where
everything is possible
free and timeless
in its vast expanse
men have fought and killed their peers
yet they can’t tame it
it’s in everyone
but many forget about it
and thus wage new wars
i’ve lost myself in
the name of every country
when it’s cold you want it
when it’s scorching you escape it
yet you can’t live without it
they share your life and
they’re your staunchest allies
yet you take them for granted
she had lovely legs
even at an advanced age
and a voice so hoarse
2 (the ocean)
4 (citizen of the world)
5 (the sun)
7 (Marlene Dietrich)
HAIKU FOR THE SOUL
look at your fingers
how complex its geography so much history
when you close your eyes
shooting stars crisscross the dais
your afterlife unfolds
to see the light within
the sun must set all around
night flowers open up
laughter masks great pains
smiles are the masks of laughter
then there are cries of joy
little does man care
about animals’ feelings
nature takes revenge
the death of corals
presages the end of mankind
we use them as jewels
if books disappear
forests might be saved
but we will lose our soul
HAIKU PLEAS TO A CONCUBINE
being swallowed live
is what i feel when you scream
so please let me breathe
ranting against fate
will not do you any good
you are bound to die
why did you kick me?
our hearts have dried long ago
bleeding makes a mess
switch off the bed lamp
aren’t you tired of seeing me?
you’ll be my nightmare
god bless daytime thoughts
that’s the only time you are dead
remember how we met
you were looking for your dog
and i for a friend
o, to be lonely
and to fight with one’s shadows
instead of with you
read my lips, she would hum
sending out a potent fragrance
which blindfolded me
skin against skin
every pore becoming an eye
the core of desire
was this love
infatuation or the taste
stray rose petal
severed wing of a butterfly
why have you left me?
a dried daffodil
in your book of hours
a stain in my life
switch off the light
your beauty is aglow
else i suffocate
the last time i saw you
there was no moon to witness
you had goose flesh
gazing at a tree
i saw the shadow of your profile
grinning back at me
a heart full of knots
unable to cry out
love turned to venom
what’s it all about
this friendship, this soul mating
when you can’t even smile?
calls himself a friend
yet doesn’t hear your pain
so busy with his
wait till it stops bleeding
you’ll then have ample time
to count the lost cells
it’s the rage inside
so much unfinished business
to fill those sleepless nights
pretend you’re happy
and the world smiles back at you
it’s empathy I need
this ethnic cleansing
this most beastly sentiment
no animal would stoop to
I wish I could fly
and trade humanity
for a loftier race
violent mood swings
darned chemical imbalance
one, two, six, five, three
eyes cast towards the sky
searching for the primeval
wishing, wishing so hard
that ledger of life
floating across the horizon
which you dread to open
jet explodes in midair
souls escape their ribcage
without so much as a sigh
did it really happen
or was it just a nightmare
drawn by Jerome Bosch
sad thoughts cross your mind
meltdown of our planet’s gun
just your fists to fight
mysterious and beautiful
they claim there’s always hope
that happens when your mind flits
from a wound to a dead leaf
is the glass half empty
or is it half full
the space of a blink
gliding on ether
wisps of air tickle my loins
the snake points up its head
dew drops on the skin
it’s Chopin playing again
rending my heart
crying with a smile
butterflies in the stomach
taming the pain
talking of ego
is the soul expandable?
is there redemption?
the eye throbs
caught in the crossfire
dancing on embers
a toe in the door
skipping a heartbeat
the ghost of a grin
leaping from nightmare
to the surreal images of war
is life just fiction?
clash of emotions
the din inside my head
spills over the globe
berries glowing like ripe boils
a witch’s delight
spike of spring bells
hailing an angel
brushes past a spiderwort
dreams in deep blue
hydrangeas stand guard
around a cluster of roses
a splash of purple
busy-lizzy from Zanzibar
friend to epileptics
rugged and fragrant
when everything else wilts
count on the rock cress
feathery water lilies
pungent roquefort smell
suave and sensual
As noted before, Albert Russo is a great storyteller — even in his short literary works such as haiku and longer prose poems. He is also a poet who puts his own personal spin on well-known literary styles, ranging from narrative prose poetry to lyrical haiku art.
Russo’s love for haiku is not surprising. A man with so many thoughts, and who uses such an extensive palette of words in his novels, also knows the importance and value of both understanding and practicing the power of written words at all levels and in all literary forms. Haiku often lends a “sharpness” to the mind — challenging both the right and left sides of the brain to interact with the workings of the emotional body. But, of course, Russo did not invent modern haiku. Haiku art has gone through some revolutionary changes in its development. It is perhaps not really possible to understand any form of new expression — literary, or otherwise — without some basic understanding of the history of what has been before, and the need for new movement, new directions, new language, new concepts … and, sometimes, even, radical change. Therefore, I will briefly trace the historical developments of Japanese poetry and haiku; and then take a closer look at Albert Russo’s own modern haiku.
A short historical synopsis — the early roots of short Japanese lyrical poetry.
In its traditional form the haiku has existed for almost five hundred years. However, its roots stretch back to the Heian period of Japan (seventh century to eleventh century); and originally in the form of “uta” (short and lyrical poems/songs) which comprised part of pre-Buddhist or early Shinto rituals. These poems were inspired by various celebrations, prayers and eulogies, courting, planting and harvesting. The most practiced and recognized of these poetic forms — the “waka” — was characterized by 31 phonetic units (“on) which were broken into five lines with a 5-7-5-7-7 syllable count. Waka quickly gained in popularity, and the most proficient writers gained considerable notoriety. From the ninth century it further developed into what is today known as tanka, which is characterized by three lines with 5-7-5 syllable counts followed by two lines of seven syllables. These short lyrical poems gained preference over longer poetry forms (choka).
The popularity of writing and reciting short verse spread to all socio-economic levels of Japanese society once linking of verses became a common pastime, in the forms of “renga” (linked verse) and “kusari-no-renga” (linked verse in chains). The popularity of poetry amongst the lower classes in the mid-sixteenth century prompted a renaissance whereby less rigid forms gave way to lighter ones (“haikai”, or “renka”). Characteristic of “haikai” was an initial three lines (“hokku”), which had to include a seasonal word (“kireji”) as well as a “cutting/exclamatory” word. The first three lines of the “hokku” were of utmost importance.
Towards the end of the seventh century a poet named Bashō (the pen name for Matsuo Chūemon Munefusa, born 1644, in Iga province, Japan—died November 28, 1694, Osaka, Japan), developed his own style by simplifying the form to consist solely of the “hokku” (the main three initial lines). This became known as the “haiku”. Bashō is known for other aesthetic and conceptual changes such as promotion of “karumi” (lightness) and spontaneity. Lucien Stryk writes in “On Love and Barley: Haiku of Bashō”, Penguin, 1985:
“Bashō’s mature haiku style, Shofu, is known not only for karma, but also for two other Zen-inspired aesthetic ideas: sabi and wabi. Sabi implies contented solitariness, and in Zen is associated with early monastic experience, when a high degree of detachment is cultivated. Wabi can be described as the spirit of poverty, an appreciation of the commonplace, and is perhaps most fully achieved in the tea ceremony, which, from the simple utensils used in the preparation of the tea to the very structure of the tea hut, honours the humble.”
While the haiku has undergone many changes since that time, today’s haiku still has remarkable similarities to the form developed by Bashō. Other notable haiku poets who worked in the tradition of Bashō included Buson (Yosa Buson, original surname Taniguchi, born 1716 in Kema, Settsu province, Japan—died Jan. 17, 1784, Kyōto) and Issa (Kobayashi Issa, born 1763 in Shinano province, Japan—died Jan. 5, 1828), as well as the rebellious Shiki (Masaoka Shiki, born as Masaoka Noboru on October 14, 1867, Onsen District, Ehime province, Japan—September 19, 1902, Tokyo, Japan). While Bashō was a “wandering poet” and is known for his travel “diaries”, Buson (like Bashō) was little concerned with the great universal questions and delighted in painting colourful pictures and (sometimes) the simple state of loneliness, and Issa is to some referred to as both a poet of fate and a poet of the mundane — often resulting in a sense of cathartic personal engagement … whereas Shiki (the literary theoretician and haiku innovator) is known for his introspective realism … and he is also known for his criticism of Bashō (and his insistence that it was Buson, not Bashō, who was the greatest haiku poet of all time).
The characteristics of traditional haiku today.
As with all art forms, haiku art explores personal expression through a lens of subjectivity vs. concreteness, and within a framework of genre characteristics, practices and accepted formats. Through the course of time various trends and approaches may be subject to new ideas, if not major innovations. In classical music centuries-old practices and the composers’ notational directions — as well as historical ways of approaching older musical forms — provide guidelines which must be adhered to for accepted interpretation and performance. And yet, every now and then, an accomplished performer — perhaps a pianist, a violinist or another composer — may add his/her own “personal touch” through interpretational freedoms not generally associated with the classical ways of performing the work(s) in question. Some are considered to be interesting and successful, while many others are not. It is not always clear what a particular artist can expect to “get away with” (i.e. gain audience/reader acceptance for) at any particular time in history, or why. And it is not unusual to hear “critics” or “experts” dismiss innovations as improper as regards style, or possibly because “it just does not work for me”; and the most conservative (or, if you permit the rather judgmental expression “closed minded”) are often those of persons who know a bit about classical art forms and history but who are not themselves accomplished or self-secure enough to understand the possibilities and expansiveness of art beyond “the restraints of traditional guidelines”, or who may be otherwise threatened by experimentation and change. Art is a powerful medium — and new ideas expressed and presented through art are both celebrated and feared, by academics, non-academics, rich, the not-so-rich, the politically-powerful and those who would question their power. Haiku — originally an art form whose successes were attributed to and enjoyed by a small elite — has been “socially-decentralized” over recent centuries in both appreciation and practice —not only in Japan, but in other countries as well. Today, haiku is still enjoyed both as entertainment and as “high-art” (and often even as a first approach to art and poetry-writing for the “common man and woman”; and novices), but there also remain those who — for whatever reasons — would emphasize tradition over artistic new-development. Is it not possible to embrace and allow for both; and to have perhaps two thoughts in one’s mind at the same time? Is critical assessment of “good vs. not-so-good” haiku strictly determined through adherence to guidelines associated with traditional practices, or do the most accomplished haiku artists possess an extraordinary insight and vision which permits them to bend, expand upon and give new life to traditions — perhaps even while challenging technical limitations and “truths”? And is not re-invention and re-interpretation of art a necessity for the very survival of the various art forms — in order to maintain relevance in a changing world that is subject to fast-paced developments influenced by technological advances, globalization as well as changes in political-cultural perspectives, and linguistics? Well, haiku has not only survived and evolved, but it has developed worldwide into a mainstream art form that is far more than a Japanese curiosity. And yet, achievement of true mastery of this art form today is dependent upon the same combinations of genius, technique and expanded vision as in other great accomplishments in art, philosophy and science. The art of haiku — like abstract painting — is dependent upon both planning and spontaneity, an understanding of internal rhythm and dynamics, and communicating an overall feeling of lightness and ease, in ways that are different from large paintings and larger genres within prose-writing. Reductionism in art demands the ability to not only synthesize ideas into smaller canvases, but also to express and intimate artistic and philosophical expansionism well beyond minimalism — often employing simplicity and introspection to approach complexities.
Let us take a look at these generally-accepted characteristics of traditional haiku today — in Japan, and outside of Japan. Haiku are often “reflections” expressed through a single moment, but encompassing much more. Traditionally, Japanese haiku employs reflections on nature, or the seasons (time of year). The Japanese language is particularly rich as regards the number of “Kigo, or season words” available, but these are very often implied rather than expressed in a strongly-overt manner. By avoiding writing narratives in the first-person as well as similes, metaphors etc., then the focus upon the universality of the specific moment is by many perceived as more effective — aided by visually descriptive references to nature — and often leading to a better-written traditional haiku. Other universal “guidelines” to successful haiku-writing often include writing about a particular place, writing in the immediate present, showing action/activity rather than describing one’s feelings about it with adjectives, avoiding employing needless or redundant words, and avoiding obvious rhyme. While most contemporary haiku artists and “experts” would resist the notion of “rules and regulations” in haiku-writing, there do exist guidelines which are widely accepted. Haiku form in classical Japanese haiku is generally based upon a system of employing seventeen “on” (or sounds) which follow a 5-7-5 pattern over three lines. The Japanese language is perhaps more inclined towards expression with 5-7 rhythms than other languages (as in English), in which this is not as “natural” or free-flowing. As a result, haiku-writing in some non-Japanese languages allows for less syllables than the seventeen “on-based” haiku. Nevertheless, many non-Japanese haiku artists often still adhere to using seventeen “syllables” in their haiku. For them, achieving a simplistic and natural flow can become complicated purely because of differences in language structures and rhythmic patterns. These challenges can, in turn, also make it difficult to achieve another Japanese tradition in haiku-writing: to limit the “cutting” (the number of real “breaks” or pauses) to just once in an otherwise natural and unrestricted flow or words and meaning, and generally at the end of either the first or second line of the haiku (often expressed in English with a long dash or a colon).
Author’s comments on Albert Russo’s haiku:
Here Albert Russo evokes sentiment that howls from his spleen — sometimes an elegiac lamentation crying out for a better and more reasonable world, and at other times a voice despairing over loneliness and the difficulties of communication and love relationships. And then there are haiku poems that sparkle — like dewdrops in the sunlight — and merely allow the reader to dive into the magic that he creates with his beautifully descriptive imagery, as in HAIKU INFLORESCENCE. These small works are truly well-polished gems that have retained their spontaneity and freshness. They have a wonderful lyrical quality that is occasionally mumbling or humming to oneself, and that — at other times — sings out with a full voice. There are also hints of stream of consciousness-writing, adding an extra layer of introspection, which make for a magical journey inside oneself.
Russo’s haiku poetry adheres to the traditional 5-7-5 format but clearly breaks away from many of the above-mentioned, perhaps somewhat restrictive, guidelines which typify classical haiku. He manages to create a narrative form through linked verses, which at times approaches a stream of consciousness style of writing. For him, the infamous “haiku moment” is more-or-less non-existent, as he extends the “moment” to include the poem in its entirety. In addition, Mr. Russo’s subject matter and themes mirror those of his novels, short stories and novellas in that they directly link personal (first-person) introspection with questions of a universal nature — be they of human relationships, political or social ideologies etc. He manages to achieve an “internal rhythm” in his haiku that extends the pulse from stanza to stanza but yet allowing the reader to appreciate each individual haiku as a poem in its own right. Nature plays a role in his haiku — just as in his descriptive longer texts — but that role is more descriptive rather than essential to haiku interpretation. Is Albert Russo’s haiku style modern? Yes. Is it innovative? Again, yes. Is it revolutionary? Perhaps not, as non-Japanese haiku art has advanced and developed significantly over recent decades and surely Albert Russo has been influenced by this “artistic liberation”. However, his adherence to the 5-7-5 format in English-language haiku suggests that Mr. Russo preferred to find alternative ways to break those “rules” — rather choosing to extend the traditional practice of employing seventeen syllables into a larger presentation of linked haiku where several of the haiku work together to express a more complicated and descriptive “moment”. Thus, I have posed several questions to Mr. Russo regarding his haiku style, his love of haiku, the role and function of haiku in his literary process etc.
Questions to Albert Russo regarding his haiku-writing:
Poetry was your first love, and you often seem to desire to challenge yourself with complicated or difficult themes and style experimentations within various literary genres. Do you, yourself, see a link between your haiku-style and that of your larger prose? What is the role and function of haiku in your literary process? While it is clear that you are poetic in your longer and shorter prose, I would ask you whether (or not) you consider your approach to novels, novellas and short stories to be that of a poet, or if you (perhaps) assume a different writer frame of mind / identity if you will, when you write poetry? How do you “break down” these stories/narratives into short poetry? Do you go into an intuitive “literary trance” while thinking about a larger theme and then accentuate the various thoughts/elements into linked haiku, or is the process entirely planned? What is your background and relationship to haiku-writing … have you studied traditional Japanese haiku, and have you been influenced by recent developments in contemporary Western haiku? You sometimes efficiently create abstractions in your short poetry through usage of various descriptive details which you pit against one another, resulting in multi-layered complexity. In your longer, narrative literary works you stretch these abstractions out over several paragraphs/pages. Does the “speeding up” of time to tell your story in haiku give you extra excitement in terms of finding the word combinations and associations that give the most appropriate meanings on various levels of comprehension? What is it about haiku-writing that you love so much?
And here is his response:
As far as haiku is concerned, I experimented with the style by chance and I enjoyed it so much that it became a natural addition to my more ‘conventional’ poetry. With haiku, I feel free to tackle any subject, on the spot, without much reflection, which is not the case with my ‘regular’ poems. That is now what I write more easily when I’m waiting for my turn at a doctor’s office or at the bank – here in Israel, and I appreciate that system, you always take a ticket and have a seat, until your number is called. When the list is long, you can wait up to half an hour or more, quietly, for unlike what I knew in France, nobody here pushes or shoves. Also, with haiku I am capable of writing humor, or even nonsense, of which later on I try to make some sense. Blessed be Matsuo Bashō for inventing it. I even once wrote a whole sequence of haiku – three pages long – about the food I favor, from all corners of the world. Something I never thought of doing before. Sometimes I even try to play with geometric or figurative forms, assembling verses in pyramidal and other shapes, such as a question mark or a balloon. I also write some Tanka, but seldom.
Here is another excerpt from the book (“Under the Shirttails of Albert Russo”), regarding his non-Haiku poetry … and featuring my iconic review of Russo’s “Crowded World of Solitude, Volume 2”.
ALBERT RUSSO’S PROSE POETRY: CROWDED WORLD OF SOLITUDE, VOLUME 2
Albert Russo’s prose poetry (in both Crowded World of Solitude, Volume 2 and Gaytude) are rich in narratives, descriptive imagery and his ideologies/socio-political ideas.
Albert Russo and I have since collaborated on several projects, including “Gaytude: a poetic journey around the world” (Winner – The National Indie Excellence Awards, Gay/Lesbian Non-Fiction Category 2009).
Here is my introduction to the book:
— The first study for the man who wants to be a poet is knowledge of himself, full knowledge: he searches for his soul, he inspects it, he puts it to the test, he learns it. As soon as he has learned it, he must cultivate it ! I say that one must be a seer, make oneself a seer. The poet becomes a seer through a long, formidable, and reasoned derangement of all the senses. All shapes of love, suffering, madness. He searches himself, he exhausts all poisons in himself, to keep only the quintessences. Ineffable torture where he needs all his faith, all his superhuman strength, where he becomes among all men the great patient, the great criminal, the great accursed one and the supreme Scholar! For he reaches the unknown ! . . . So the poet is actually a thief of Fire !
Gaytude is a poetic study of both the universality and the diversity of gay experience . . . an experience of confluence whereby individual love, lust and identity are constantly in tandem and conflict with collective mores, customs, codes and trends. In a sense, we are all gay . . . inasmuch as we all seek the right to be different, as well as to be the same. For some, the pot of gold at the end of the rainbow is recognition and acceptance ; and for others it is perhaps the excitement of covert intimacy and adventure. This book is dedicated to all gays, including those who flaunt their sexual orientation freely and those who still remain secretive or inactive due to still ongoing risks of abuse, harassment and execution. One day, men all over the world will be able to proudly quote from Catullus 16—this time with pride and loving spirit: “Pedicabo ego vos et irrumabo” (I shall bugger you and you can blow me).
This book is so “realistic” that even some book reviewers can erroneously assume that it is non-fiction, as did one “reviewer” from a well-known US-based book readers’ website. Another reviewer from France complained that many of the poems in “Gaytude” had appeared some years previously in another book. It may seem difficult for the present younger generation of gays to believe, but in 2009, when “Gaytude” was published, many Western-country gays were still looking for “confirmation” through global gayness — which the book both presents and provokes with. However, all persons and events in the book are fictional. Sorry to disappoint you guys!
Nonetheless the book garnered acclaim when it (upon publication) was pronounced the Winner – of The National Indie Excellence Awards, Gay/Lesbian Non-Fiction Category.
Some reviewer comments on “Gaytude” follow:
The poems by Russo and Powell are marked by outsiderhood, the sense of being different from a fashionable or ‘straight’ mode of writing. –Dr. Santosh Kumar, Allahabad University, India
These topics will hit home especially for like-minded individuals but anyone with compassion will understand the beauty and heartache these issues bring to mind. –Rainbow Reviews
The authors are two very accomplished writers who tackle a wide variety of subjects and themes that affect gay men with surprising depth and meaning. –Rainbow Reviews
Gaytude remains a remarkable piece of literature crossing infinite barriers and taboos to reach the ultimate poetry, the ultimate destination of mind and immortality.
–Dr. Amitabh Mitra, Poet’s Printery, South Africa
The book’s first review was by an online reviewer “Kassa”, who wrote the following:
Gaytude is a collection of poetry that appears in English in the first half and then translated into French for the second half of the book. There is also a collection of pictures depicting homoerotic images throughout history as well as personal images of Albert Russo. The timelessness of these pictures is repeated as a theme within the elegant and often poignant poetry collected. The authors are two very accomplished writers who tackle a wide variety of subjects and themes that affect gay men with surprising depth and meaning. These topics will hit home especially for like-minded individuals but anyone with compassion will understand the beauty and heartache these issues bring to mind … Taken together this is a look into the lives of any and every gay men and the issues they deal with that create an aura of “different” around them. This celebration of gay life spans globally and encompasses all aspects proudly and openly. Gaytude is a wonderful collection by two powerful authors that have offered thoughts on timeless themes.
AUTHOR’S COMMENTS ON RUSSO’S LONGER PROSE POETRY:
Albert Russo’s longer prose poetry — in both Crowded World of Solitude and Gaytude — is fascinating because he manages again and again to transport the reader very quickly into “his world” of thoughts, images and stories. It is almost like being a passenger on a metro and making up one’s own stories about what one supposes other passengers’ lives to be like. I will surely ask Albert: “Where do all these stories come from, Albert?” But I suspect that he finds his stories in his mind, in the faces of strangers he passes on the streets, in the personalities of known and unknown persons — wherever. No one is safe from this “dangerous man” — with his sharp mind, drilling vision and ability to spin a tale out of loose threads that otherwise seem meaningless and unimportant.
Poetry was Albert Russo’s first love; and it was through his poetry that he and I first met. Several years ago (2005) I took contact with him because I was enthralled with his poetry book “Crowded World of Solitude, Volume 2”, and wanted to inquire as to whether he might be interested in my writing a book review. This was to be my first book review ever, and the beginning of a wondrous collaboration between us that has spanned many book projects and years. My review of his 349-page book follows:
The Crowded World of Solitude, vol 2 , The Collected Poems, reviewed by Adam Donaldson Powell
In an age where blatant shows of superiority are often considered a provocation, Albert Russo presents the ailing world of literary criticism with several challenges of mammoth proportions. His mastery of several literary genres, his indefatigable literary output, his command of several languages, his intellectual breadth, and the scope of his cultural and sub-cultural personal life experiences alone outclass the qualifications and/or capacities of many literary critics of this century.
Albert Russo is truly on the fast-track to becoming “famous” in his own lifetime, and indeed shows much courage and self-confidence in publishing such a formidable and challenging volume of collected poems non-posthumously. Perhaps even more so considering that poetry is not his only genre of acclaim. We live in an era where informed (and uninformed) critics often insist upon categorizing artists and artistic genius within a specific discipline, genre or art form; and where he/she who attempts to be too multidisciplinary is often considered to be “lightweight” or a “jack-of-all- trades”. Albert Russo is an exception to all of the above-mentioned society-imposed and self-imposed restrictions, and clearly recalls a multidisciplinary usage of talent more particular to previous eras.
To publish one’s collected poems to-date in such a large volume, spanning some thirty years of life experiences and literary development, is a very bold statement in itself. Such a collection of poems – like any other serious literary work – is expected to be even in quality, hopefully diverse in content and form, and appropriately polished (the degree of polish being both intentional and commensurate with the desired expression). In addition, writing a bilingual volume of collected poems further adds to the complexities of such an endeavour, giving rise to many questions and solutions regarding choice of original language versus translation, idiom, culture, visual communication etc.
Mr. Russo does not disappoint, and he does – in fact – both deliver substance, and an undaunted and relentless display of consistency in terms of excellent insight and craftsmanship. His collection of poetry, at times biting and hard-hitting, is both thought-provoking, amusing, intelligent and contemporary in style and subject matter.
This collection of poems denotes a clear and masterful demonstration of quality, breadth of content and form, political and social awareness, mastery of storytelling, a touch of the “bad boy”, a combination of the highly-polished and the “intentionally- raw”, and visual, musical and philosophical expressions indicative of the author’s rich multicultural and experiential personal history. I find in his poetry the same literary achievements which characterize his novels and short stories: balance of intellectual rationalism and emotional presence, a solid command of the full palette of language(s) used, descriptive colour, clarity, intentional usage of abstractions, entertainment and theatrical/performance value, humour and occasional irony, and an overall sense of when to use poetic economy versus poetic rapture. Mr. Russo’s poetry proclaims an almost haunting sense of musicality and visual portrayal on a subjective level. Most importantly, I find that his poetry has the power of arousing within the reader a sense of personal identification, emotion and engagement – evoking a pas de deux between author and reader, all the while challenging the “poet” in the reader.
The poems in Crowded World of Solitude, Volume 2 are collected, and are not presented in chronological order. In fact, Mr. Russo never dated any of these works, and possibly never gave a thought to an eventual edition of his collected poems at the time of their writing. That suggests to me that poetry-writing to him has perhaps been a meditation, a way to organize his thoughts, a reprieve from longer writing genres, and perhaps sometimes also an escape / a short holiday break. Nonetheless, many (if not all) of these poems reflect the greater ponds of dormant or developing stories, many of which may one day aspire to skip like rocks and converge — thus forming the foundation of a short story, novella or novel. Nonetheless, they are irrefutably expressions, thoughts, feelings and ideas that all together form Albert Russo — dancing, sobbing, ranting, raving, dreaming, reflecting, sometimes complicated and detailed, and at other times glistening with simple exuberance.
I have several questions for Albert Russo regarding his prose poetry. They include:
When did you first begin writing poetry? What / who were the influences in your life that resulted in your exploring poetry as an art form? Would you consider your poems to be a diary — of your ideas and thoughts, if not your “real life”? Did your parents encourage and/or discourage your desire to become a professional writer/author? Tell us about that. Many poets publish smaller poetry collections. You have published individual poems in several literary journals but many of your most striking poems were saved for two big collections of your poetry: CWS2 and Gaytude. Please explain why. Which famous poets have inspired you, and why?
Here is Albert Russo’s response:
I may be repeating myself, but it is with poetry in English, that I started writing, and that goes back to my NYU years, in the beginning of the 1960’s. Why poetry first? Because, not having any writing experience, except for a few dissertations I penned in French during my high-school years in Ruanda-Urundi (now two separate nations: Rwanda and Burundi, both having the same ethnic diversity, with, originally, the same percentages, i.e. about 79%, 19% and 2%, respectively: Hutu, Tutsi and Twa – pygmies), I felt like a sleeping volcano, and the words would erupt like simmering lava, in other words, nothing was premeditated. It was like an exorcism. All my pent-up anxiety, fears, rage, or whatever you may call it, burst out erratically. It all started thanks to a woman-friend painter and designer who introduced me to the artistic world of Greenwich Village. She gave me ‘new wings to fly’ into new and – to me – unheralded spaces. I had a strange feeling, both of vulnerability and exhilaration. If I was influenced – certainly – it must have been by the classical poets I had read and learned in my English, French, German and Dutch classes. So, no I have no specific poet in mind for that first period.
Nowadays I still write poetry erratically, but with a thought or a subject in mind. For instance if I have seen something that disturbed me while watching the news, or if I have witnessed an incident in the street, or even a pleasant occurrence, I have to jot down words about the things that have either pained or troubled me, as soon as I get back home. If, knowing that I have to wait a long time at the doctor’s waiting-room, I carry a small note-book and a pen and write whatever passes through my mind at that moment. This seldom happens, for the presence of people around me is distracting. I could never create in a coffeeshop or a brasserie like some other writers do. Poetry remains an exorcism, I don’t consider it a diary, even though it always revolves around my emotions and the reality that surrounds me. A diary has chronology, my poetry doesn’t.
My mother always supported me, actually her favorite literary genre was poetry, and she was one of my most loyal readers. I wouldn’t say, best, since she could only be subjective. Her love of poetry was meshed with her love of her son. And this was a tremendous boon. My father, on the other hand, could not comprehend that writing was something to be taken seriously. And he did everything to discourage me from pursuing what he deemed to be a mere hobby. Yes, in spite of all his human qualities – he was a good, straight and generous man, loved by most people, no matter what color or creed; I owe him that side of his character, for in that way he was my mentor – I suffered my whole life because of his attitude, and this suffering continues, 35 years after his death, through nightmares, where he still reprimands me. Being an Agnostic, I may sound inconsistent, but I have the impression that he is somewhere and that he shows his disapproval by harassing me during my sleep.
Before seeing my poems printed in the large CWS 2 volume – spanning 35-odd years of writing – and in ‘Gaytude’, and after having published in hundreds of literary and little magazines worldwide, I had maybe a dozen chapbooks that came out with small presses, mainly in the US, Canada and Great Britain, but also in France. Then, with age advancing and not knowing how long I would live, like everybody else who isn’t suffering from a terminal disease, I felt the necessity of collecting my poetry and my prose in two big books. Going back to ‘Gaytude’, which I co-wrote with the excellent poet Adam Donaldson Powell, I should mention the fact that I had published previously, in French, ‘Tour du Monde de la poésie gay’ (TMPG), Editions Hors Commerce, Paris. Adam Donaldson Powell’s contribution was new, whereas, I rewrote (not simply ‘translated’) in English all the poems included in TMPG. We then presented to the public a large bilingual book (in English and in French), accompanied by some of my own black and white erotic photos.
The list of famous poets whom I love – does it mean that they have inspired me? Most probably yes – is so long that I can only cite them randomly, inasmuch as I read and continue to read them in their original English, French, Italian, Spanish and German native tongues. I still read, with more difficulty, Dutch-speaking poets. Whereas the other great poets who wrote in Russian, Chinese, Polish, Japanese, Korean, Tagalog, Hebrew, Arabic, Greek, Turkish, Persian, creole, the numerous Indian and Nordic languages, etc. I have discovered in translation, in the five above-mentioned languages. Horace, Homer, Sophocles, Virgil, Ronsard, Shakespeare, R.Tagore, Apollinaire, Fray Luis de Léon, Chaucer, Dante, William Blake, Luis De Camoens, Malherbe, Robert Burns, Victor Hugo, Péguy, Lamartine, Beaudelaire, Rimbaud, Verlaine, Aleksander Blok, Maïakovski, Ossip Mandelstam, Fernando Pessoa, Nazim Hikmet, Paavo Haavikko, Emile Verhaeren, W.H. Auden, Walt Whitman, Allen Ginsberg, Pablo Neruda, Léopold Sedar Senghor, John Keats, Constantin Kavaphis, Stephan George, Goethe, Rainer Maria Rilke, Georges Seferis, Borges, Pavese, Anna Akhmatova, William Wordsworth, Lord Byron, Shelley, Yeats, Emily Dickinson, E.E. Cummings, Robert Lowell, Edgar Allan Poe, Rudyard Kipling – I deem his poem ‘If’ to be one of the most meaningful and beautiful, anywhere -, Edward Lear, T.S. Eliot, the German poets of the romantic ‘Sturm und Drang’ movement, Federico Garcia Lorca, Reinaldo Arenas, James Baldwin, John Cheever, Juan Goytisolo, Langston Hughes, Chinua Achebe, Umberto Saba, Charles Simic, Werner Lambersy whom I nominated for the prestigious Neustadt International Prize for Literature (which often leads to the Nobel Prize), reading 50-odd of his poetry books, etc… and I am still rereading classical or modern poets and discovering new ones. Inspiration is like delicious food that your taste buds remember, or a perfume you have long forgotten and whose whiff suddenly brushes your nostrils again, giving you pangs of nostalgia.
And I also posed some questions about “Gaytude” specifically:
Please tell the readers the story of how “Gaytude” came to be — both in its previous form — and later. Has the publication of “Gaytude” underscored your reputation as being a “gay author” in the literary world? If so, has that been positive for you?
And here is his response to those questions:
As I mentioned previously, I first wrote ‘Tour du monde de la poésie gay’ in French. In that first version, I presented a world tour of gay people talking about their lives, the difficulties of coming out, even in developed countries. Some of them spoke with rage, others affirmed their difference in a strong tone, still others concentrated on their sexual encounters, romantically, or with joy. As it was revealed, in the English / French edition published in the US with co-author Adam Donaldson Powell, all those people, with foreign names and varied experiences, which I ‘translated’, were in fact written by myself. I believe that in this book I used as many pen names as the great Portuguese writer Fernando Pessoa. It was an exhilarating exercise, close to what psychoanalysts call ‘transference’.
The reviews were excellent, and that made me happy, for I had really entered the soul of each of these men, women, transvestites and hermaphrodites. Was it a hoax? No, I wanted to measure myself with the LGBT minority in all kinds of situations. I hear some excellent authors say that we lie when we write. They can speak for themselves, I don’t have the impression of lying, on the contrary, a part of me is revealed in each one of these ‘transferences’, whether it is in poetry or in fiction, inasmuch as I am incapable of writing a conventional, chronological autobiography. The moment I start doing that, I get ‘seasick’ and I want to throw up. So, what kind of a liar am I?
I also wish to acknowledge an important fact – and it is not a mere detail: when I chose to publish the American edition of ‘Gaytude’ together with Adam Donaldson Powell, it wasn’t just because he is a good friend, it is because his voice complements mine, and because I deem him to be a poet of superior quality. I have other friends who write and I would never invite them to share a book with me just because I like them. So much said for slanderers!
Here too, I want to thank Delphine Lebensart of Editions Hors Commerce, in Paris, for having allowed me to tackle all the genres in which I write. She was the only publisher who saw my entire literary persona. Unfortunately, her outlet folded a decade ago, and I miss her and her vision of literature in all its aspects.
I was proud to publish ‘Gaytude’ with Adam, and yes it was a very positive experience. I have nothing to hide, but again, if someone wishes to call me a gay author, then he or she is free to do so. I really don’t mind, though I still prefer to be referred to merely as an author. I never liked labels, but in our society, people need references. I do understand that some gay men and women, and especially adolescents, have to hold onto something that they can recognize, for a lot of them suffer from rejection within their family or their immediate environment.
I must admit though that it is only through the great number of laudatory gay reviews and articles that I understood how my books reverberated, and by the constant sales of my gay novels. No one approached me personally. Would young French gay people be more timid than their American or British counterparts? I often read their questions addressed to these journals, but they were mostly anonymous. Yes, they were scared to come out, and I understand them. Don’t forget that LGBT suicides are four times as numerous as suicides of non-gay youths.
UNDER THE SHIRTTAILS OF ALBERT RUSSO — an alternative biography.
Comment from the author:
My latest “experiment” with new forms of writing for our contemporary age moved beyond language challenges (in both English, French and Spanish), structural challenges of combining prose and poetry, and more, to challenge the rather strict academic adherence to the “Boswellian biography” model, which I personally find outdated and cumbersome. In my own “alternative biography” I discarded all notions of writing a slavish detailed version of Albert Russo’s Wikipedia page and curriculum vitae, and I instead used the maximum 200-book pages at my disposition to redefine and modernize biographical approach. In my book I chose the most significant of Russo’s almost 100 published books (including novels, short story and poetry collections, essays, photography books and more) and the most pivotal life experiences in his almost eighty years of living and working on three continents on the planet to serve as the foundation of a journey inside of (and under the shirttails) Albert Russo. All the while I provide somewhat lengthy passages from some of his best books as illustrations of both his writing themes, techniques and styles, but also as the framework for interviews and questions to the author (often of a most intimate nature) which allow the Reader to personally know “what makes Albert Russo” tick as a personality and author/artist by sitting in the back seat on a ride through the countryside of Russo’s life memories. At times it is I who is driving, and at other times Russo himself seems to be behind the wheel with his opinions and rantings which I challenge only to gain more insight into the whats and whys of his meanings, but never (as one critic of the book has desired) to pass any judgment or opinion of my own. By the end of the book the Reader has an incredible knowledge of Russo and his work, as well as the most important events in his personal and professional life; i.e. according to Russo himself — and not to any academic or Wikipedia editor that insists on a year-by-year listing of all events and details from birth onwards. This book was an incredible feat with an unusal approach and writing techniques, including interviews, epistomology, reprints of Russo’s literary works etc. No literary form should be sacred and rigid forever. In our fast-paced digital age we crave entertainment, knowledge, personal involvement, the ability to leave a book and return to the story easily whether we find reading time on a metro, a bus or lying in bed waiting to fall asleep … and we want a book that is easily read and to-the-point when necessary without literary masturbation or grandstanding by the author.
— Adam Donaldson Powell, 2018