By Matt Hanson
“I’m an anarchist as an artist — I write what I want, however I want. I refuse to adhere to the forms that society hands down.”
Joseph Torra is a writer and professor at UMass Boston whose new memoir, Who Do You Think You Are? Reflections of a Writer’s Life… was inspired by an acquaintance’s sarcastic response at Torra’s literary ambitions. You can almost hear the guy’s derisive Boston honk at a kid from the neighborhood who seemed to be too big for his britches. After spending a desperate adolescence working round the clock in his abusive and irresponsible father’s gas station, Torra gradually emerged from a world that had no interest in art and culture to becoming the author of numerous books of fiction and poetry, as well as editing a magazine and the selected poems of the relatively obscure Boston poet Stephen Jonas, who was published by City Lights. Still, the unintended — but stinging — depth of that question can’t be ignored. If anything, it takes a lifetime to work out.
Torra understands the anguish of living in two very different worlds. “For me, it’s only one generation back to the peasantry of the hills outside Napoli, Italy in the province of Avellino — yet I feel like one of William Carlos Williams’ pure products of America gone crazy. Once you’ve gone there, you can’t go back. In reinventing myself from a kid on the Medford street corner…it’s as if I’ve betrayed those I left behind…I have spent most of my adulthood identifying as an artist, but often I’ve felt like I don’t belong. Yet when I find myself back in the old world, among the working class — I automatically hide my education and erudition. I know I am no longer one of them.”
It’s very easy — especially in a liberal college town like Boston — to airily theorize about how the other half lives without bothering to get your hands dirty. But it makes a difference when someone can write about class and labor and radical politics from the basis of lived experience, knowing both the daily grind and the wish to escape from it. Especially when that person found his own way into what David Lynch once called “the art life.” When Torra observes that class is an under-discussed topic in American life, it rings true because he has experienced just how confining perceptions of class can be.
Torra connects the intricate work of the crew of the Pequod to the guys he knew who worked all day on cars in the gas station, who teased him for reading fancy books around the shop. “I became fascinated by the encyclopedic way [Melville] wrote about ships…Rebuilding an engine with the mechanics as it hung on a hook chained to a block and tackle in that damp, cavernous garage — we were the whalers on the ship’s deck, surrounding the hanging carcass readying to cut in. Theirs the age of the whale. Mine the age of the automobile.”
Torra waited tables for years, found he had a knack for it, and took advantage of the free time it offered to explore books and paintings and music and film. His book Call Me Waiter caught the attention of an agent through a chance encounter in a London bookstore. Torra garnered international recognition while he took people’s dinner orders. The My Ground trilogy is a series of novels which leads the reader through the alleys and the backstreets of ’70s Boston. The middle book, Tony Luongo, plunges into Luongo’s fervid mind, recording, in virtuoso, punctuation-free prose, his chase for the polymorphously perverse. Anyone can do stream of consciousness for a couple of pages or so. Being able to sustain it without narrative strain or embarrassment is a remarkable accomplishment.
At times, Torra’s reflections in Who Do You Think You Are? shed a harsh light on Boston’s recent lurch towards high tech innovation, the allure of the “knowledge economy,” and the consequent jolt in the cost of living. The kind of bohemian life Torra and his friends led as young artists in the ‘70s has become economically difficult, if not impossible. The North End, a key part of Torra’s home turf, was a once-thriving community — it has gradually morphed into a string of touristy restaurants. The unnamed has-been standup comic who narrates his deeply sympathetic novella What’s So Funny loses his cool as he walks through the North End and laments the loss of the world of neighbors that he once knew by name. I’m sure plenty of Boston locals of all kinds feel that way, whether they write books about it or not.
Torra’s open, frank, and quietly moving memoir will reportedly be the last book he’ll ever write. In contrast to artists who rage (and rage) against the dying of the spotlight, Torra takes a page from his beloved Taoist sages and gracefully accepts the mortal ebb. This equanimity is admirable, rare, and hard-earned. It also deftly answers the question posed by the memoir’s title.
The Arts Fuse had a Zoom meeting with Torra from his home in Somerville, clad in overalls and flanked on all sides with his own colorful and abstract paintings, to talk about his politics, his friends and mentors, the current state of academia, and what it means to learn how to die.
AF: You grew up in a house without any books around, with working class immigrant parents who didn’t care about the arts. What got you interested in the writing life, and pursuing the world of art and culture?
Joseph Torra: I’m not exactly certain. It wasn’t one specific thing. I also think perhaps it is something you are born with. An inclination towards something. Could be art or math or anything. I remember music got me at a very early age. At 4 or 5 I used to listen to my father’s singles. Perry Como. Cha Cha music. Over and over. I felt something.
I heard ’50s music from the guys that worked for my father at the gas station. They played music too. Chuck Berry, Little Richard, Buddy Holly. Seeing the Beatles on Ed Sullivan for the first time was earth shattering in my 8-year-old life. My mother told stories, sang, and danced. So, there was the storytelling and music. My wife Molly, whom I met at a key time, opened up the world of art and literature and film to me. And lots more. Music came first. Reading and writing came much later. I was already out of high school.
The Beat writers really spoke to me and that was my door to everything. I never looked back: music, art, writing, philosophy — all the way back to ancient times. The Beats also showed me that you didn’t have to conform and live the life that was expected of you from society, even family. It all came in little pieces — over the course of my early life. But once it all took hold, I never looked back and wanted more. It was all a lot more interesting than living out my life working at some job that I hated and a lifestyle that gave me nothing in terms of sustenance.
AF: Anarchism has always been something that’s important to you, which you talk about in the book. Say a little more about the role that anarchism has played in your life and work.
Torra: As I started reading more about anarchists like Emma Goldman I discovered that they were vital people who lived vital lives: working with everyday people and for causes like women’s rights or birth control. That’s what really appealed to me. I’ve always questioned America’s democratic system its two party system: what is it really? Because it’s really corporate America that’s always in power. A very crucial friend, Bob Di Tillio, died last year. He was one of my teachers and mentors, a lifelong anarchist and a scholar of Sacco & Venzetti.
Eventually I realized, I don’t know how practical anarchism is. I don’t trust human beings. That’s where anarchists go wrong. Even from working with the unions I’ve found that radicals will stab you in the back and can’t wait to take over — meet the new boss, same as the old boss. So anarchism has became more of a personal thing for me now, a psychological thing. And it’s become an aesthetic thing.
I’m an anarchist as an artist — I write what I want, however I want. I refuse to adhere to the forms that society hands down. I wrote a book — it was one of my favorites — called The Bystander’s Scrapbook. It’s one of my novels that went nowhere, probably because it’s so strange and a collage and no one wants to read about old Italian anarchists and the history of labor movements. But I put a lot of years of research and study into that book. I’m not naïve about anarchism, but I love the idea. It feeds me intellectually, emotionally, and socially.
AF: A lot of people assume that anarchism means no rules, but I’ve heard others argue that it’s more about evolving society to the point that no one is in charge of anyone else. Do you agree?
Torra: Absolutely. And it is about taking responsibility, not only for your own life but for others around you. One of my heroes, Errico Malatesta, an Italian anarchist of the 19th Century, that’s what he was all about — education. The old Italians in America, the anarchist movements, and there were a lot of them here, until they were deported or defused or thrown in jail or whatever, they would have these anarchist picnics.
They would give inspired speeches and they would teach people to read and give them books to read. There would be music and plays and art that was politically directed. Propaganda, maybe, but it has a role to play: the way to change the masses is to educate them. And that’s why teaching is great place for me. I can’t change the masses, but I can get to a student every now and again. They write to me and tell me: you know I don’t think of things the way I used to now that I’ve had your class. I didn’t make them think like me, but I got them thinking about how they think and what they want to think and how they want to live their lives.
AF: How do you see Taoism connected to Anarchism?
Torra: When you read about the history of Anarchism they’ll mention Taoist monks and priests who would leave society and go and live on their own and meditate all day, and write poetry. At that time in China education was reserved for a small political elite, a tiny fraction of the population. You had to have a government job and you were tested for those positions. Scholars and intellectual were forced to follow that path.
But there were were Taoists who said ‘I don’t want this life.’ They were either exiled because of his or they exiled themselves. I connect deeply with this commitment to personal liberation and autonomy. Taoists would desire that others have as little control over you as possible. The Taoists would agree with the Anarchists on the value of independence.
AF: In the memoir, you talk about how academia is becoming increasingly corporate and safe, run by people who feel entitled.
Torra: Years ago, when I was a student in higher education, it wasn’t about making a profit. Once the corporations and businesses took over they began cutting departments (which is why they’re cutting out the humanities). They want fewer teachers to teach more students. And it’s all because they want to make more money. It’s happened at UMass, plenty of times over the years. Certain departments are dumped while money is poured into science, which ultimately benefits the war industry. Some tenured professors complain about coming in three days a week, while there are adjuncts coming in five days a week making a third of what they make. That’s entitlement.
They run public education like a business, which is not what it was intended to be .For example, UMass is selling off property. They just sold off one of their big parking lots. They are going to build a boutique shopping mall there. The school made a huge amount of money off of the sale. UMass Boston is a commuter school. People need places to park.
When you make public services like health care and education for profit, everybody suffers. And the only people who don’t suffer are the higher-ups in the universities, who make more and more money. Fewer janitors, teachers, adjuncts, less security. Instead of opening up a tenured position, let’s bring in two adjuncts and have them teach at five thousand dollars a course. Tuition is almost twenty thousand dollars a a year at UMass Boston. When I was a student it was three hundred a semester. Now, I realize there’s some inflation, but do the math — someone’s making money.
They see public education more as job training. Even if you’re going to be a businessperson, why shouldn’t you read some Plato or literature? But the administration doesn’t want that. The school sees education, especially public education, as job training for the lower classes.
AF:You have some criticisms of MFA programs.
Torra: The idea of sitting in a classroom and having classmates critique your poem is horrible. I teach creative writing and I have been trying to do my workshops differently. The current writing workshop is an old form, stagnant, dead, useless.
We need to have new forms if we want to bring young people into classrooms and help them write. They should hang out, they shuld read each other’s work, they should talk about life, drink, read philosophy, and talk about writing. That’s what you do. They shouldn’t sit around and say “oh, I think there are three good parts of this poem.”
I believe in apprenticeships, like with the old jazz players. You know, you hang out with the greats — if you were lucky to get in that circle — and to learn from them.
AF: Bill Corbett was a good friend of yours and you talk about him at length in your book. I didn’t know anything about him until after he died. What made him important?
Torra: He was a great poet. He was a master of his craft, and he wrote beautiful, clean, seemingly simple poetry about life. His work was very projective, in a sense, very cinematic. It was very musical; he had a great ear. You had to look closely, but he had a way of collaging everything — he might start talking about a moment from his childhood and then the next minute talking about some movie star or something. He really had a way of layering and folding and opening up these poems so that if felt as if you were almost watching a movie unfold in front of you.
Bill had a great mind. He knew literature and music and art and that informed his work. He was an underappreciated Boston poet. People love Robert Lowell, who kind of bores me. John Wieners is a great Boston poet. Stephen Jonas, too. He was great at bringing people together. All these different people would come over to his place at 9 Columbus Square: Pulitzer Prize winners, great jazz musicians, you name it.
He cared for me when I was really young, he liked my work. when I wrote Gas Station he said ‘boy this is really something you’ve done, Joe.’ And I couldn’t have written it without him. He was the one who said be true to yourself, Joe, write what you can write. Don’t be afraid of it. Be true to your vulgarities. I always kept that in my head — who would want to read this book about a gas station, about car parts, and guys who don’t even read? He opened up a lot to me, supported me, and gave me a belief in myself. You need that when you’re young. I’d never had anyone talk to me like that before. Bill taught, but he was never a tenured professor. He never fit in — the experimental poets thought he was too mainstream, the mainstream poets thought he was too experimental, because he was very original. He just wrote what he wanted to write. He used to say, “let the chips fall where they may.”
AF: You talk reverently about the poet Stephen Jonas. You did the introduction to the selected poems for the edition published by City Lights. What should people know about him?
Torra: Have them read my introduction. That is probably all they need to know. And enjoy the poems! They’re not conventional. To place him contextually: mid twentieth century America, he a member of the generation featured in the great New American Poets anthology by Donald Allen, which was published in 1960. It contained all the Black Mountain poets, the New York school, SF Renaissance, Beat poets. He was in that school, although he wasn’t a part of that anthology.
Jonas was very brilliant, self-educated, taught himself. He was steeped in the classics, steeped in the streets. And his stuff is a beautiful hybrid of these influences “Exercises for Ear” is made up of marvelous short poems — short, quick, bursts of energy, of music and sound and experience. He was an amazing writer, and he made his own way.
Steve was not big on politics. He did have some racist views at times. I’m not making excuses, but he was crazy — I mean he was admitted to hospitals, fell into paranoid rants and stuff.. My wife worked in mental health for years, and she said that’s what people who are paranoid and in mental health units do, they talk about groups of people they designate as the enemy.
I had to edit him and believe in him and love the work despite some things about his personal life that I questioned and didn’t understand. But I also spoke with people who said he’d taken care of their kids when they were strung out. He was complicated, a really complicated guy.
He was Black, he sometimes passed for white. He was openly gay before Stonewall, back in the ’40s and ’50s when sexuality could get you thrown in jail. He had a great sense of humor, he wrote beautifully about Boston and the neighborhoods, back when urban renewal was a big thing. When I realized that his papers were lying in some boxes that my friend, poet Gerrit Lansing, had. I’m proud that, if I hadn’t taken up this work, it wouldn’t ever have been published by City Lights, which is where it deserved to be.
AF: You talk very movingly about parenting in the book. You didn’t really expect to be a parent, right?
Torra: No I didn’t. I owe that to my wife, Molly. Two reasons: we waited a while and I was getting older, and I had this great fear that I wouldn’t be able to write, that it would interfere with my life as an artist. And I had a great fear that I wouldn’t be able to do it because my father was ineffectual, abusive. I still hate my father.
It’s simply the greatest thing I ever did. I loved seeing them, I loved seeing the people that they grew to be, the adults they became. They’re beautiful, brilliant women, empowered and independent. I owe a lot of that to my wife. And the overall experience — nothing compares. Even the tough stuff. Nothing compares. It was even better than writing or becoming a writer.
Torra: Inside it feels like the best thing I could have ever done for myself, and for the world. To think you gave these babies a life and see them go out and experience the world. I really believe in love. The love you give and the love they give back. To me, it’s undefinable, I can’t describe it. It has brought me greater joy in my life than knowing that I got to be a writer. It just has.
I was an addict for a long time, even when I was trying to keep it in check, I was using. It’s a source of great shame for me. But even when I was using, the kids always came first. They were never neglected, and they never went without. I’d take them to kung fu or to their music classes, doctor appointments. I worried about them, all that stuff, endless. While in recovery, I told my daughter Julia how sorry I was. She said “Dad, you were always there for us, even when you were high.” It took my breath away.
AF: In the book you explain how you tell people who ask what you’re up to these days, that “you’re preparing to die.” Can you talk about that?
Torra: I mean that I want to die a good death. I’m not wishing for death or anything. I’m not afraid of death. I just want to be ready. I don’t believe in an afterlife or anything. Or reincarnation. But I think a good death is part of a good life. I’m thinking a lot about who I am, what I have done, what meaning, if any, it all has. I want to value every single day. My yoga practice is very important to me. Liberating my mind and body, and the possibility of unifying it with the void.
Matt Hanson is a contributing editor at the Arts Fuse whose work has also appeared in American Interest, Baffler, Guardian, Millions, New Yorker, Smart Set, and elsewhere. A longtime resident of Boston, he now lives in New Orleans.