I’d like to introduce you to an author who is also a poet. Please help me welcome Joel Allegretti! He has quite a background, so let’s glance at his publishing history and then find out more about what makes him tick.
Joel Allegretti is the author of, most recently, Platypus (NYQ Books, 2017), a collection of poems, prose, and performance texts, and Our Dolphin (Thrice Publishing, 2016), a novella. His second book of poems, Father Silicon (The Poet’s Press, 2006), was selected by The Kansas City Star as one of 100 Noteworthy Books of 2006.
He is the editor of Rabbit Ears: TV Poems (NYQ Books, 2015). The Boston Globe called Rabbit Ears “cleverly edited” and “a smart exploration of the many, many meanings of TV.” Rain Taxi said, “With its diversity of content and poetic form, Rabbit Ears feels more rich and eclectic than any other poetry anthology on the market.”
Allegretti has published his poems in The New York Quarterly, Barrow Street, Smartish Pace, PANK,and many other journals.
His short stories have appeared in The MacGuffin, The Adroit Journal,and Pennsylvania Literary Journal, among others. His musical compositions have appeared in Maintenant: A Journal of Contemporary Dada Writing & Art and in anthologies from great weather for MEDIA and Thrice Publishing. His performance texts have been staged at La MaMa, Medicine Show Theatre, the Cornelia Street Café, and the Sidewalk Café, all in New York.
Betty: What inspired you to write the story you’re sharing with us today?
Joel: Our Dolphin indulges some of my literary interests. Latin American magic realism has had a huge influence on me, particularly the writings of Gabriel García Márquez and Jorge Luis Borges. I wouldn’t have come up with phrases like “a gull of mythological proportions” and “the face that brought her infinite despair” had I not read García Márquez’s novels and short stories, which I read in translation.
The inspiration for the main character, Emilio, a deformed teenager, was my favorite literary character, Erik, better known as the Phantom of the Opera.
The scenes in Tangier were inspired by a day trip I took to the city in 1990 and by the writings of Paul Bowles and William S. Burroughs, who’s my favorite Beat. In fact, one of the key characters in the Tangier section, Moore, is based on Burroughs. While I had recollections of my trip as I wrote the book, the Tangier in Our Dolphin is really a Tangier of my imagination.
Betty: Which character arrived fully or mostly developed?
Joel: I’d have to say Serafino, the talking dolphin. He doesn’t have a history. He just is.
Betty: Which story element sparked the idea for this story: setting, situation, character, or something else?
Joel: It was the idea of a supernatural animal appearing out of nowhere for the benefit of a young outcast. I chose a dolphin because I’ve always liked dolphins. I was a fan of the TV show Flipper when I was growing up.
Betty: Which character(s) were the hardest to get to know? Why do you think?
Joel: Since I created the characters, I didn’t have any trouble getting to know them. Part of my program, however, was to create characters I didn’t want the reader to know well. The primary example is Mr. Charles, the owner of the brothel in Tangier. He’s a horrifying human being. He’s snide, pompous, and sadistic, a flamboyant villain without a redeeming characteristic. I don’t reveal anything about his background. The reader knows his nationality (English), but that’s it. I want the reader to take Mr. Charles at face value and not wonder why he’s so malevolent or how he found his way to his despicable occupation or what he was like when he was ten years old.
Betty: What kind of research did you need to do to write this story?
Joel: Even though I had visited Tangier—as I mentioned, it was only a day trip—and had read quite a bit of fiction and non-fiction about both the city and Morocco itself, including Paul Bowles’s translations of books by Moroccan authors Mohamed Choukri and Mohammed Mrabet, I wanted to make sure I got details right. So, I became a fact-checker. I looked at photographs, too. Fortunately, I was familiar with the subject and knew what needed confirmation.
I can’t say for sure, but to put myself in a Tangier state of mind, I probably listened to Brian Jones Presents the Pipes of Pan at Joujouka, a recording of Moroccan trance musicians that Rolling Stones Records released in 1971. I’ve owned a copy of the LP for decades.
Betty: How many drafts of the story did you write before you felt the story was complete?
Joel: Our Dolphin began its life as a novel called Christ Sang for the Dolphins. I wrote the first draft over the course of a few years as I busied myself with other things, not the least of which was earning an income. I did more work on it from time to time and changed the title to Music for Dolphins. Years later came the high-octane revision. I went through it with mental hedge clippers. “This can go. This can go. This adds nothing.” I reduced it from 46,000 words to 19,000 words. I changed the title yet again, to Our Dolphin, and submitted three chapters to Thrice Publishing, which was launching a novella series. The editor, Bob Spryszak, requested the full manuscript. To my astonishment, he chose Our Dolphin as the introductory title in the series. Bob provided excellent guidance as we worked our way to the book’s publication.
Betty: How long did it take for you to write the story you’re sharing with us? Is that a typical length of time for you? Why or why not?
Joel: I began the first draft in 1993, I believe. I wrote the final draft in 2015. I didn’t work on the book consistently, though. There were years when I didn’t touch it or even think about it.
I seldom work in long forms, so the length of time it took to write Our Dolphin was atypical.
Betty: What rituals or habits do you have while writing?
Joel: I write first drafts in longhand. I use Pilot pens with blue ink.
Betty: Every author has a tendency to overuse certain words or phrases in drafts, such as just, once, smile, nod, etc. What are yours?
Joel: I wouldn’t say any particular words or phrases recur in my works, but I seem to gravitate toward water imagery. I’m predominantly a poet. References to bodies of water show up in poem after poem; e.g., “The Sea at Our Door,” “The Sea Serpent,” and “The Moon Reconsidered as the Tide’s Puppeteer.” And then there’s Our Dolphin.
I was at HomeGoods one day this year, and when I was on line to check out, I saw a 5″x7″ wooden sign that read, “MY HEART SLEEPS BY THE SEA.” I thought, If I don’t buy it now, I know I’ll come back for it. It’s on my desk, where it looks to be right at home.
Betty: Do you have any role models? If so, why do you look up to them?
Joel: The writers who inspired me, starting when I was in my early double-digit years, often show up in my work in some fashion, even if their influence isn’t overt: Jules Verne, Edgar Allan Poe, Ray Bradbury, Leonard Cohen, and the aforementioned García Márquez and Borges, to name the most prominent.
It’s hard to say why this author influenced me, but that one didn’t. I read a lot of Graham Greene and W. Somerset Maugham in the ’80s and a lot of Jack London in the ’80s and ’90s, but they had no impact on my writing.
Betty: Do you have a special place to write? Revise? Read?
Joel: I was born under the sign of Cancer. We crab folks like our homes. I write and revise in my home office or on my dining-room table. My home office is also my reading room.
Betty: Many authors have a day job. Do you? If so, what is it and do you enjoy it?
Joel: I’m retired now. My last position in the working world was Director of Media Relations for the American Institute of Certified Public Accountants, the national membership organization of CPAs. I counseled the CEO, his senior staff, and other spokespeople for interviews with print, online, and broadcast media. I dealt with the Associated Press, 60 Minutes, The Wall Street Journal, and Bloomberg, among many, many, many other outlets.
Betty: As an author, what do you feel is your greatest achievement?
Joel: I suppose my answer could change at any time. For the sake of answering it here, I’ll say the publication of my first book. It’s always a special occasion for a writer.
Betty: What other author would you like to sit down over dinner and talk to? Why?
Joel: Maybe not over dinner, but over a cup of coffee or tea I’d like to ask Joyce Carol Oates and Stephen King how they maintain their enthusiasm for writing after so many years and so many books.
Betty: Success looks different to different people. It could be wealth, or fame, or an inner joy at reaching a certain level. How do you define success in terms of your writing career?
I realized in early 2021 that I had accomplished my literary goals:
- I wanted to publish a book. My first book, a collection of poetry called The Plague Psalms, came out in 2000.
- I wanted to publish in some big-name literary journals. Check.
- I wanted to publish a novel. I published a novella. Close enough.
- I wanted to edit a poetry anthology. Check.
- I wanted an affiliation with the poetry press NYQ Books. Rabbit Ears: TV Poems and my latest collection, Platypus, are with NYQ Books.
It wasn’t a goal, but one of my poems, “The Sea at Our Door,” made it into a college textbook, so I’ve sort of elbowed my way into academia.
Another poem, “Epitaph: Edie Sedgwick,” appeared as one of 100 poems by 100 poets in an anthology called Visiting Bob: Poems Inspired by the Life and Work of Bob Dylan (New Rivers Press, 2018). Bob Dylan has been important to me since I was 16, so making it into the book was a special publication credit, even more so when I discovered that Lawrence Ferlinghetti, Allen Ginsberg, and Patti Smith were among the other contributors.
I grew up reading Jules Verne and go back to him from time to time. In late 2020 I saw a call for submissions from the North American Jules Verne Society, an organization of Verne scholars, for an anthology, Extraordinary Visions: Stories Inspired by Jules Verne. I wrote a short story titled “Gabriel at the Jules Verne Traveling Adventure Show,” revised it I don’t know how many times, submitted it, and crossed my fingers. A few months later, I received an acceptance. After I read the note, I got up from my desk and said, “Yes!”
Emilio Canto, a deformed adolescent, lives with his parents in an unnamed Italian fishing village. While in bed one night he hears a cry coming from the shore. He leaves his bed to investigate and finds that a dolphin has beached itself. With great effort, Emilio helps it back into the water. He watches it swim away, then lies down on the sand and falls asleep.
“Something troubled the water as it headed toward land. A pair of grateful eyes broke the surface and watched the sleeping youth. ‘Thank you, Emilio,’ the dolphin said. ‘We’ll see each other again very soon.’ It spun like an acrobat and pursued the deep.”
Emilio meets the dolphin a second time and discovers its extraordinary ability. He names the creature Serafino.
Because of his deformity, Emilio decides to run away from home. He convinces a Portuguese sailor to take him on his boat. They travel to Tangier, where the sailor gets Emilio intoxicated on a hashish confection and sells him to a male brothel.
Serafino learns of Emilio’s plight and swims to Tangier to rescue him.
For the reader, the conclusion will come as a genuine surprise.
I love going to the beach and would love to meet a dolphin in person one day. Thanks so much, Joel, for telling us about your stories and your poems.
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