Un-ordinary Joe pushes poetry, combats bullying

Marin poet laureate Joseph Zaccardi

I’m ignorant about oh, so many things.

Poetry may top the list.

So it amazed me that I wanted to interview Joseph Zaccardi, Fairfax resident and Marin’s poet laureate.

Joe’s scarcely the only poet in Fairfax. There’s also Kay Ryan, Pulitzer Prize-winner and U.S. poet laureate whom Barack Obama just handed a major medal (along with filmmaker George Lucas, a San Anselmo resident).

Can I deduce poetry’s as popular hereabouts as Indiana Jones and Yoda (who are standing tall — and short — in San Anselmo’s Imagination Park)?

No way.

But down-to-earth Joe Zaccardi could become the antidote for anti-poets.

His tips: “Don’t be afraid of poetry. You have to cultivate a taste for it. Read widely. Try writing free verse — you’ll surprise yourself. You’ll find yourself writing about love, or the death of someone. You’ll remember something someone said. Or you might ask yourself a question, really off the wall, like, ‘I wonder if they ever fried insects.’”

Of his work, the 65-year-old notes, “Every once in a while my sense of humor slips into my poetry and I leave it there. But I’m usually serious.”

He cites as a solemn for-instance, “Arroyo’s Soul,” which emphasizes subject matter “that’s really quite deep — about our not believing in anything anymore.”

Joe’s background isn’t riddled, however, with the snooty posturing sometimes attributed to writers.

For much of his life, after apprenticing as a butcher, he functioned as “a barber, not a stylist, and I used to tell people I do one style — it’ll be shorter.”

He hung up scissors and combs in 2003.

Retirement means he now can take whatever time is necessary, rather than jotting down a word or two between clients. First drafts average 30 to 40 minutes. “Of every 10 of those, I only continue one or two” — and then his editing process “can be another month.”

He’s published 240 poems so far but is “sure I’ve written 1,000.”

“Written” is precise.

Although he utilizes a computer for other tasks, he creates poems in longhand, in a notebook, in pen.

Joe gets $5,000 for his two-year stint as poet laureate, barely enough to buy writing materials. But the meager honorarium isn’t the point: The position enables him not only to promote poetry but use the bully pulpit to stage a panel discussion on “bullying and bystanders.”

He remembers being 13.

“A fat kid was picked on at lunch every day. One day six guys were doing it. I’m not brave, but I stepped in front of him and said, ‘Hit me instead.’ The leader said, ‘Let’s leave them alone.’ And I realized one person could make a difference.”

Also as a teenager, Joe — who last month married his longtime partner, Dave Eng — recognized he was gay.

A teacher concurrently spurred his interest in poetry through William Carlos Williams, a New Jersey native like Joe, and advised him not to worry about punctuation marks or rhymes.

At 25, though, he started punctuating. “Now I love it,” he says, “especially semi-colons.”

Today he’s drawn to Jane Hirshfield of Mill Valley, Pablo Neruda, Gerald Stern “and lots of Chinese poets.” Earlier favorites? Shakespeare, Chaucer and Allen Ginsberg.

Ginsberg, in fact, had hit on him.

“I was in my 20s and I met him. He bought me a Heineken’s beer, put his hand on my leg and said, ‘You have very nice thighs,’ and I said, ‘The thigh’s the limit.’”

Joe laughs at both pun and memory.

The skinny, six-foot poet’s totally animated when speaking. His hands perpetually move, and he occasionally jabs a finger at something invisible. Off and on go his wire-rimmed eyeglasses.

His soulful eyes remind me of actor Steve Buscemi’s.

“They used to be brown, but now they look gray, really strange,” Joe says, noting that as a schoolboy he asked a nun what color Jesus’ eyes were. “The color of yours, I’m sure,” she replied.

Since the early ‘80s, he’s been hanging out at the Marin Poetry Center in San Rafael, which “puts on monthly sessions with visiting poets, an open mic once a month, and a wonderful thing called the Summer Traveling Show, which sponsors about 125 readings in various venues.”

He likes reading aloud: “You can feel an audience when you read a poem.”

When, at his request, I audibly read one — about his father, from his anthology “Render” — I’m overwhelmed by its power.

And I understand why Zaccardi’s a very special Joe, not an ordinary one.

Contact The Roving I at voodee@sbcglobal.net.

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