Friday, June 6, 2014

"My Writing Process Blogtour" June 7th, 2014

The day California Chrome runs for the Triple Crown in the Belmont Stakes.  And yes, I met my bookie this morning over breakfast in a diner.  He had a muffin and I, a greek omelet.  I pick my horses with pure gut, just as I did on my father's knee, 47 years ago.  Yes, I've been picking horses for 47 years.

This blog tour is a barrel of monkeys of one artist asking others to blog on process, and it just may go on for long enough to amass thousands of writers jotting down notes on their habits.  Here we go.

Q: What am I working on?
The truth is I don't like to talk about what I'm working on, not now.  I am working on my third book. I've just published a chapter in the Ocean State Review, thanks to the advocacy of writer Nancy Caronia's scholarship of my work.    Here's the link:

Q: How does my work differ from others in the genre?
My book "L is for Lion" (SUNY PRESS) takes on a vast array of subjects through 40 odd years of my life and three generations.  Other memoirs focus on a theme of life, a slice of life.  Examples:  Michael Klein's "Track Conditions."  Augustin Burrough's "Running With Scissors."  Anchee Min's "Red Azalea."  Reynaldo Arenas' "Before Night Falls."  Honor Molloy's "Smarty Girl"    I think the push in memoir is to focus on a theme.  Burroughs writes serial memoirs.  In the first, his father is a minor character, to be taken head on in the second book.  I am aware that I could have made "L is for Lion" into two or three thematic books of memoir.  Instead, it is structured in five sections.  I took it on with the principles and craft of narrative, and the vastness of autobiography.

Q: Why do I write what I do?
I write everything in my consciousness.  Family characters loom large.  I face family history that is painful and gut-wrenching, and yet I must write these stories.  There is an imperative.  I can joyfully write songs walking in the garden or bicycling along the river.. but the memoir writing requires much more awesome tasks, verification, filing, dealing with family artifacts, and painful truths.  There is no alternative.  It's not the life I imagined as a child.  Perhaps not Oprah's vision of your "A-side" life.  But here I am, making beauty through words out of the memory of shards.

Q: How does my writing process work?
I wrote my heart out for decades.  In the 1980's, I picked up a St. Mark's Place Poetry Calendar and saw an ad for "One on One Workshops - with Denya Cascio"   I liked her name.  I liked the idea of "one on one"  I studied with her for several years.  Her exercises on newsprint with colored pastels and pens and objects and tarot cards unleashed my imagination.  She brought me into her community of writers where I met: Ruth Danon, Michael Klein, and others and began to teach writing and perform at open mics in NYC.

My path goes on from there: to Sarah Lawrence with the writing mentorship of Joe Papaleo, who took me to the Italian American Writers Association....  Joe taught me this about process: "Seat of the pants in the chair.  When you wake up, start writing before you brush your teeth, before anything." And its been brute hours of working class mentality ever since.  A hard road.  No easy breaks. Decades of labor.  Working every connection until a door opened, and by then, having lost all: relationships, housing, health, savings, anything....But a door did open in the form of a book contract with SUNY PRESS thanks to the advocacy of Joanna Clapps Herman and her husband Bill Herman to Joanna's editor James Peltz.

The steadfast peer editing by writer Rosette Capotorto, made the book bloom over our year of editing into 300 odd pages of beauty.  The miracle you see has many friends names along the way. And stacks of books read since infancy.

"The thousand hour pencil" my uncle Stanley Maltzman told me, when I asked him, an artist, what is the best kind of pencil to sketch with?  And so I would say the same.  "The thousand hour chair."

  • The thousand hour chair
  • the emptying of oneself and one's soul
  • the trust of paper 
  • the fast typing fingers trained by nuns
  • the belief that my story can save me and save others
  • the rapture of books on my mind
  • the walking in gardens
  • the hours weeks months years alone at the pages
  • the keeping of files
  • the keeping of errant notes
  • the lugging of 100 pounds of notes cross country to retreats.
  • the letter writing to and from Marc Choyt about our work over the decades.
  • the friendship of other writers and artists of all stripes.
  • the help of my mother putting a roof over my head
  • all I've learned from every lover, every woman is a teacher to me
  • my long partnership with Audrey Kindred, life long in all its manifestations.
  • the companionship of my dog gods Scaramooch and Cherub
  • coffee, chemo, lung meds, anti-depressants, anti-anxiety
  • jobs here and there, paychecks here and there.
  • air
  • trips to the desert
  • hundreds of notebooks filled
  • visits to the Beineke to hold Gertrude Stein's notebooks and Whitman's letters
  • the companionship of books
  • when I dive into the writing, I am submerged, I am scuba diving, I will barely come up for air.  I've never had balance.  Just hard work like cutting stone.
Q: Who is next on the blogtour?
Audrey Kindred, Clare Ultimo, Melissa Sutaris

Wednesday, April 2, 2014

East Side West Side: From the Hospital to the Stage

The other night I pulled the I.V. outta my hand and drove cross-town to perform on Broadway.  My doctor had given me the mandate: "Go do your show.  You don't want them to give the job to someone else."  So I did.  I got into wig make-up and costume, and performed.  I've performed sick and with fevers, sweating many times, so what's the difference?  Laying in bed is not a cure all.  Catharsis cures.  Besides, you gotta live while you're alive.  That's the bottom line.  Otherwise what's all the suffering good for?  You have to go out and have a good giant laugh and cry.  This is ancient.  You gotta dance around the fire and open your lungs.  We all need that.

My nurse observes, "You get pneumonia every three months."  The tests are consistent.  There's one bacteria culture that keeps making it's home in my lungs.  KLEBSIELLA.  Named after Edwin Klebs.  It ain't pretty.  My doctor says, "There's nothing you can do.  You live in a city with 8 million people. It's everywhere.  You can move to the outer desert."

For now, I'm gonna keep going west, to the stage.  To Broadway.  To 44th and 7th Ave.  To the fun.  To "Tony n' Tina's Wedding" where I'm playing Grandma Nunzio.  I'm gonna keep doing the tarentell plus eat garlic and boil ginger and take my herbs and yell and clear my lungs.

As we used to say in the Bronx 60's: "Keep on truckin."

Tuesday, January 28, 2014


Audrey Kindred, treasuring my book
I woke up this morning dreaming I was wrapping my poetry books in Saran Wrap to protect them from dust and aging.  When I say my poetry books I mean my stack of Schistsong my first collection of poetry.  I feel like I'm going on a trip.  I'm waiting for the call from Sloan-Kettering.  Tomorrow I go in to get the schwannoma removed from my armpit.  My throwing arm.  The one place on my body I have always felt strong.  Alas.  The first one-woman show I ever did was in 1993, these words were in the subtitle: "My Throwing Arm."  I had a bucket of fifty pinky balls that I threw over the audience's head at an X marked on the wall behind them.  This was the one skill I was sure of, releasing balls, throwing at a target, and catching on a rebound.  The balls whizzing over the audience were dynamic.  I let many of them bouncing wildly off the brick stage walls of the theater,"Under One Roof Theatre," on Greenwich Street below Canal.  Among my happiest memories are walking to the theatre on show night.  I dressed as a worker.  I bought one of those canvass tool bags with leather handles you see in the windows of upscale tool shops.  I wore a canvass long coat I got at some stoop sale.  My life was an unpainted canvass, and I dressed the part.  I walked from the corner of Bedford and Barrow where I had a sublet to Greenwich Street down below Canal.  It was the walk of my dreams.  I felt I belonged in NYC and in the theater.   Going onto the stage to release my story and my balls was natural to me.

Last week I got a present in the mail.  I opened the box.  There was a handwritten note from the bookseller that read: "A Treasure For You."  I was surprised to find a first U.S. edition of Virginia Woolf's A Room of One's Own.  1929 Harcourt, Brace and Company.  I guessed it was from my friend Suzy, a high school chum, who has been supporting my health and writing.  I texted and thanked her.  What a gift!  Someone who knows me.  The book came on the day I received word I could share my cousin's studio with him in Chelsea, thus getting a room of my own a few days a week, to be back in the city.   I've never had a first edition book.  It was wrapped in tissue paper.  It wasn't as aged as some of my new books, the paper is better.  How to take care of it?  What to wrap it in?  What will become of first editions now in the age of digital books?  I love holding a book.  Like holding a baby.  When readers download e'books instead of getting hardcopies of my writing, I feel they are looking at a picture rather than holding the baby.  "A Treasure for You."  I decided I'd order some of my own first edition books and save them in the wrapping.  By the way, the first word of A Room of One's Own is "But."   I'd forgotten that.

Every September of my youth I had the seemingly gargantuan task of covering my school books.  I took Mom's brown paper shopping bags, cut them open, turned them inside out and wrapped each book in a careful way that the book could open and close easily with the brown paper tucked and fitted and taped to fit the book flaps.  I always made my own book covers, though I remember you could buy them in the store -- white with stripes in the school color and the names of colleges on them.  We never bought those.  We never bought anything we could make from scraps at home.  We didn't have dollar bills that were unaccounted for.  I remember us buying clear plastic to cover my workbooks.  The kind that sticks.  Books were to be protected.  To be treated carefully.  Respected.

I carried my books to school with a blue rubber book band.  Wish I had one today.  Somehow they worked.  And made a nice weapon if you needed it.  Walking home in the Bronx my books kind of bouncing on the band.  And when Johnny Denaro walked me home, he'd take my book band for me.  Carried your books from school was a pop lyric and something we actually did.  Everyone walked to school.  That too was the walk of my dreams.  As the cement blocks passed my black shoes and navy Catholic School girl socks, pulled up to below my knees.

Saturday, January 18, 2014

Annie Lanzillotto: BRONX PHONICSBRONX PHONICS FOR SALE, part 1One ...

Annie Lanzillotto: BRONX PHONICS

One ...
: BRONX PHONICS BRONX PHONICS FOR SALE, part 1 One of my students from Portland, Oregon came to me before his audition in John Patrick ...


One of my students from Portland, Oregon came to me before his audition in John Patrick Shanley's "Danny and the Deep Blue Sea."  This young actor needed a Bronx accent, and not just any Bronx accent, but a 1960's Zerega Avenue accent.  So he came to me.  I am from Zerega.  From the sixties.  This wasn't the first time this happened to me.  Actors had imitated me lots before.   One won a prize in Kentucky - being me.  My accent's on the endangered species list.  I like watching old Cagney movies and listening to that way the New York voice used to be portrayed, "Hell Doll, what's it to ya, seeeee?"   The vowel twirls in my father's speech -- you don't hear that anymore on the streets, the 'earl' in 'oil' -- is gone.  It got educated out of our speech.  I don't mind teaching the Bronx accent, or having actors mimic me, but I do mind when it rings untrue.  I hear it even in celebrated actors.  Nobody says "neighborhood" right anymore, right in the Bronx voice way. What went first?  The neighborhoods or the way to say it.  Actors may drop their voice, get the guttural tone, let the first syllable swallow back in their throat, but the midwestern 'or' always rears its ugly head in the middle of the word.  As if we bastardized that syllable too much for others to bear.
/NAY-bah-huhd/  left when the butchers retired and the boutiques took their places.  The middle syllable suffers from youth watching Mr. Rogers too much.

I think I know what I sound like.  I know what my friends sounded like.  All those tough girls sitting up in the tree.  DiMella, Spota, Cardascia, Colosimo, all of them.  To my softball buddies!  To how we used to tawlk!  To our Bronx Italian paesans!  Our lost tongues!  To our high school janitor Enrico Caruso!  To our uncensored selves for better or worse!  To 'playing' Italian American!  To 'playing' Bronx!  To teaching Bronx accents!  To being born into a sexy creamy culture!  Madonn!  So few ever know what I'm talking about.  To being imitated!  To imitations of imitations!  To making a career of authenticity!  To playing Italian American and to sell tickets to the show.  Come one Come all.  Hear the accent that's been captured in film and television.  Come see the real people first hand, who have been imitated for your entertainment pleasure.  Say neighborhood.  Say water.  Come learn how to sound authentic.  I'll give you a private lesson in authenticity but you better hit your syllables right.  Bronx phonics for sale.

copyright Annie Lanzillotto 2014


After my heroic student from Portland, Oregon got  a drive thru the Bronx with me at the wheel, speed narrating the 60's and 70's, the fires, the gangs, the empty lots, the new "SoBro", race, ethnic enclaves, NAY-ba-huhds, from the West Bronx to Orchard Beach, from Soundview to City Island, horses and green paths, boats, and a pilgrimage up and down Zerega Ave where he wanted to walk, and get his picture taken with the street sign.…   he recited some text from "Danny and the Deep Blue Sea" - he didn't understand why Danny expressed the sentiment of -- to get home, I know I'm gonna get in 20 fights along the way -- the feeling of having to battle everything in life.  This was harder than a Bronx Phonix lesson.  This was years of metabolizing attitudes.  This was growing up with Bronx rough housing fighting abuse the world bashing against you.  This felt impossible to explain or translate or transmit to this open Oregon soul at home in the world, in the woods, in his body.  I grew up always ready for a fight.  Even looking in the mirror, I say "What!  Whaddyoulookin at?"  This may be hardest to explain to white people of the middle classes who ascribe to conciliation and 'non-violent communication.'  This is alien to my Bronx Italian upbringing.  I fight.  I am loud.  I yell.  I shake it out.  I take lessons from my dog; let the anger rise up and down my spine, then shake it off.  Bark and shake.  Regather myself.  Walk it off.  I was brought up by a PTSD father who was paranoid.  I was taught to not smile at strangers in the street, to not say hello, to not leave myself vulnerable to outsiders, strangers, even 'family.'  Family could be the worst offenders.  Fights were daily.  I grew up in a culture of violence.  I was trained from the earliest age that the world is hostile, that people say "hello" when they want something.  This upbringing is a lot to transmit to a young loving actor.  In a session anyway.  I guess that's the director's job.  It might be fun for me to try to do that.  To teach Bronx Phonix and Bronx Attitude.  We fight over nothing.  Nothing at all.  Most fights, it is impossible to remember how it started or why or how it escalated, how everyone ended up getting involved and blowing up.  The fight is already in the rooms we live in.  All it takes is two or more of us to enter the room and the fight inhabits us.  And outside the house, as early as little kids, if someone, anyone looked at us, we'd yell, "Take a picture it lasts longer!"  In other words, don't look at me.  I am writing this to you, reader, as if all this is a foreign concept, as if you didn't grow up like me, and don't have a context for it.  I am the daughter of a traumatized Marine and his battered wife.  Violence and the values of war were imbued in me, as was the concept of 'enemy' and 'sacrifice' and 'duty.'   I think that's enough for now.  Meditate on a five year old Bronx girl, yelling across the street, "Take a picture - it lasts longer!"  And try to understand what that constant hostility is like...
Tony Chiappelone (RIP) reading the last book of his life,
my memoir "L is for Lion"
 L: Grandma Anna Cianciotta Lanzillotto, and Grandpa Carmine Lanzillotto, their wedding photo, and later, perhaps their anniversary or a wedding.  I remember them dancing, with her thumb in his fist.  They were from Bitetto, Bari.  Italia.
Review of my book in "Fra Noi" by Fred Gardaphè

My high school softball team.  Roosevelt Indians.
Top: Veronica.  Top Right: in hat and shorts, Me.
Top Left: Diane Ricci.  Below her: Maryann Solecito.
Center in the tree: Susie Strassberg
Bottom from Left: Angela DiMella, Sandy, Joan Spota, _____, Whitney in glasses,
_________.  c1981
My dog Cherub who teaches me how to shake off anger.
I found out his name by watching him run in the park.
His ears flapped like Cherub wings on his stout barrel body.

Thursday, January 16, 2014

Villanella 1: 
Tip the Pallbearers

Tip the pallbearers and the grave diggers and the priest.
Away from the grave walk last
Hallelujah soul's released

Bow your head when the casket is lowered then go to the feast
Drink to the dead! To all who have passed!
Tip the pallbearers and the grave diggers and the priest.

Laugh with the living as if your days will never cease
Answer all the childrens’ questions whatever they ask
Hallelujah soul's released

Laugh for the skeletons wearing their favorite hats in peace
Pray for those left standing their hearts’ pain vast
Tip the pallbearers and the grave diggers and the priest.

Nights say thank you, I’m sorry, I love you, forgive me please
Applaud setting suns, free souls paint pastel constrast
Hallelujah souls released

Head impetuous into the wind, pursue caprice
Laugh. Cry. Love. Breathe deep to the last.
Tip the pallbearers and the grave diggers and the priest.
Hallelujah souls released

copyright 2013 Annie Rachele Lanzillotto

published in 2014 Philadelphia Poets

It must have been in November of 2013, just a few months ago, that I got up onto the stage at Cornelia Street Cafe and read this villanella.  It is the first villanella I'd ever written, and was based on an experience I had at my Aunt Laura's burial.  She was my father's sister.  Had the most calming voice and presence in all the extended family, and the most sanity, in a family plagued by hypochondrias, manic depression, paranoid schizophrenia, hyper religiosity - it's own form of neurosis.  Aunt Laura was the ballast.  She gave birth to nine children, and her one baby who died at birth, just minutes after he was born, was all the talk at her funeral.  "Now she is holding Charles" I heard from my cousins.  

In November, to a packed crowd, I got up to walk to the stage when my name was called on the open mic list.  In the audience was my friend Joanna who's husband Billy had just passed away.  Billy and I had been mystical buddies.  He was exactly my mother's age.  They were born hours apart in 1926 in the Bronx, within blocks of each other.  Both home births.  One day when I popped in on Joanna and Billy to say hi - - Joanna said "Billy isn't dressed."  I said "Tell him not to bother."  I took the elevator up to their apartment, and stripped down to my underwear and socks.  Joanna got out her camera.  As the two of us, Bronx survivors in many senses of the word, posed with Spaldeens, naked enough, on the couch.  Billy and I both were celebrators of life.  

And so as I walked to the stage, on this first night that Joanna had come out socially with me with us since Billy's passing…  and I heard the overwhelming cheers of the crowd, something happened.  I said, "The way you people are cheering, you'd think I was gonna take off my clothes."  "Do it!" someone shouted back.  And others followed.  The crowd got raucous and bated me.  I stepped up on stage and asked "Do you want nudity or poetry"  "Both" came the yells.  

Getting naked is absolutely nothing for me.  I've been stripping for doctors since I was 18 with Hodgkins' Disease.  I got through the "dehumanizing" stages.  Now it is quite natural.  My clothes come off easier than a banana's.  The harder thing for me personally is dressing nice and grooming.  

I delivered this poem.  I dropped my pants.  I said the lines.  "Hallelujah souls released."  I felt quite warm with the stage lights hitting my bare skin, being naked.  I left my socks on.  And delivering this poem, so connected to death, and to living life while we have this brief chance.