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  • Writer's pictureLammergeier Staff

Featured Poet Interview | Jendi Reiter

Issue 16's Featured Poet is Jendi Reiter, author of Kill Your Darlings and Commendatore! Join us as we discuss ekphrasis, Tony Soprano, and the communities keeping us going.

Jacqueline Boucher: Your poems are ekphrastic interactions with The Sopranos. How did you arrive at The Sopranos as source material? What drew you to this as a poetic project?

Jendi Reiter: Where else is a short, balding, oversexed trans man with a hot temper and mommy issues going to find himself represented on television? Every one of those New Jersey goombahs is a dad bod style icon.

I had watched the first three and a half seasons in the early 2000's on bootleg VCR tapes from a friend of a friend, and then on DVDs from the video store. I stopped because my life at the time was too dark to handle any more fictional trauma. The show still left a powerful impression on me — in fact, "Self-Portrait With Pastry Box," the first poem in my latest collection Bullies in Love (Little Red Tree, 2022), draws imagery from the devastating Season 2 finale where Tony and his henchmen execute one of their best friends for being an FBI informant.

Then in 2021 I read some online article titled "The Sopranos Belongs to the Gays Now." Apparently these mafiosi have become meme-ified like the Babadook and other monstrous characters whose style appeals to the "be gay, do crimes" set. The grimness of the endless pandemic somehow propelled me to binge shows that unsparingly examined intergenerational trauma and American cultural sickness. 2020 was the year of BoJack Horseman, 2021 would be The Sopranos.

Photo Credit: Ezra Autumn Wilde

Meanwhile, I had signed up to write 30 Poems in November, an annual fundraiser for the Center for New Americans here in Northampton, MA. CNAM is a great nonprofit that offers literacy instruction and job training for immigrants. With no one else to discuss the show with, since it was old news, I used the poetry project to ruminate over Sopranos themes and to probe why I identified with various characters.

Mafia stories are a more colorful, but not really exceptional, illustration of the idolatry that permeates human society. Every institution, if we're not careful, ends up perpetuating itself at the expense of its members' souls and happiness. That institution could be religion, the family, the nation, the workplace — anything we mythologize in order to justify sacrificing people to it. I like to say that The Crown is just The Sopranos with posher accents.

Before I transitioned, I thought I would be a David Bowie gay or an Errol Flynn as Robin Hood gay. As testosterone did its work, I turned into George Costanza from Seinfeld instead. Is it terrible to say I learned how to perform masculinity from The Sopranos? Not the sexism or violence, but a certain aesthetic, flamboyant without being effete, not young or pretty but confident in my power. Walk like Tony, dress like Silvio, be as loyal a husband as Johnny Sack. And try not to get pushed overboard from a yacht.

JB: How does your interaction with the source material affect the choices you make in terms of language, structure, or other elements of craft?

JR: All of the Sopranos poems contain "Easter egg" references to scenes involving their central character, and sometimes also contain verbatim or adapted quotations. For instance, the raven in "Kill Your Darlings" frightens Christopher during his Mafia initiation ritual; the doe with damaged womb is a reference to his girlfriend Adriana La Cerva (Italian for "female deer") whom he castigates for becoming infertile from an abortion. Tony's horrible mother, Livia, does laugh at him when he falls down her front steps. And so on. (Now watch the show and see if you spot more references!)

I wanted to capture the same abrupt juxtapositions of humor, beauty, vulgarity, and shocking violence that make the show so consistently unsettling and true-to-life. While the voices of the poems shifted to inhabit the different characters, I tried to retain an aggressive directness and tautness of language to reflect a milieu where life hangs in the balance at every moment.

JB: Both of the poems you submitted are infused with especially strong, but very different voices. Can you speak to the choices you made in that regard?

JR: The tragedy of Tony Soprano is that he has a tender side, an almost poetic or spiritual sensitivity, that surfaces when his guard is down — during dream sequences or illness-induced hallucinations, or when he connects with animals, who are safer to be vulnerable with than people. He is given an extraordinary number of chances to follow his better nature, yet he never will, because who would he be without his rage and the rewards of power? 

"Commendatore" gives voice to Tony's lyrical, meditative side by using more formal language rather than his crass vernacular. It is titled after an episode where the New Jersey gang visit their allies in Italy and are intimidated by their relative lack of refinement, so I wanted to give the poem a certain operatic and old-fashioned flavor.

"Kill Your Darlings" is voiced by his nephew and lieutenant Christopher Moltisanti, a frustrated screenwriter. Though less intelligent than Tony, Christopher has a similar barely-articulated longing for a more meaningful life — an "arc," as he puts it, to which his fellow mafioso retorts, "Ya know who had an ark? Noah!" His language in this poem is simpler because he's frankly not very literate. 

"Kill your darlings" is a writing-advice cliché about being ruthlessly critical of your own work, but I don't believe that creativity can grow in the soil of unkindness. Look what unkindness has done for Christopher — made him kill what is most human in himself. He also later ends up ordering a hit on his fiancée, so the title foreshadows that as well. The poem's voice is blunt and self-lacerating because that is who he's become.

JB: The message of this issue is A Party at the End of the World, where we recognize that, regardless of the larger climate, our small circles will be what hold and save us. Are there any small pieces of community that are keeping you afloat you’d like to shout out?

JR: All the love to my family (husband, son, mom-of-choice, cat), my friends, my transmasculine support groups here in Northampton, and the Spectrum Circle queer men's online group from the Temple of Witchcraft in Salem, NH. I am a level 2 graduate of the Temple Mystery School, which means I know how to cast a circle and make potions. I have a diploma!

JB: What are you reading right now that excites you? 

JR: I am rereading the Snow White, Blood Red anthology series of dark fantasy and horror stories based on fairy tales, edited by Ellen Datlow and Terri Windling. I loved these when they came out in the 1990s and so far they hold up amazingly well in terms of feminist consciousness and originality.

In poetry, I just finished Grief Slut, Evelyn Berry's new collection from Sundress Publications. Honestly, I bought it for the cover, which touches up a classical nude painting with top surgery scars and a cheeky graffiti mustache! I appreciate how Berry, a trans woman, lovingly integrates her past male self into her present body and identity. Sundress is a great supporter of queer and trans poets. 

Divine providence sat me next to the poet Spencer Reece on a Metro-North train last fall, reminding me what a generous soul and fine writer he is. I reread his debut collection, The Clerk's Tale, and then started his memoir, The Secret Gospel of Mark, an exquisitely written story of growing up as a closeted gay man, overcoming alcoholism, and finding his vocation as an Episcopal priest.

My novel-in-progress, A Storm of Spirits, is a dystopian fantasy about queer magicians fighting Christian nationalism, set in a near-future America in crisis from extreme weather and political fragmentation. For research, I've just started A Traveler's Guide to the End of the World, David Gessner's book of nature writing about climate change, from Torrey House Press. I'm also listening to the "Straight White American Jesus" podcast, a deep dive into the politics and theology of contemporary right-wing Christianity.

JB: What’s your favorite bone?

JR: That is such a creative question, one that I have never reflected upon before. The bone that most preoccupies me at the moment is my husband's fibula, which he recently broke in a way that requires surgery. The fibula is a skinny little bone in your calf. Such a small thing to make a person suddenly disabled.

Favorite bone? All of them, because, as St. Paul wrote, "The eye cannot say to the hand, 'I don't need you!' And the head cannot say to the feet, 'I don't need you!” On the contrary, those parts of the body that seem to be weaker are indispensable,  and the parts that we think are less honorable we treat with special honor." (1 Cor 12:21-23, NIV) 

Or, to quote Asher Yatsar, the Hebrew prayer after using the toilet, "Blessed are You, our God, source of the universe, who formed humans with wisdom and created within our body many openings and many hollows. It is revealed to your throne that if one of them were ruptured, or if one of them were blocked, it would be impossible to exist and stand in your presence. Blessed are You, God, who heals all flesh and performs wonders."



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