A Spill of the Radioactive Blood of John C. Mannone


The Donor Center went through a recent renovation do to non-toxic levels of radiation that were left behind when our recent Donor came in for a chat.  He is the very eloquent John C. Mannone, poet extraordinaire.  John is the first poet to arrive here at the Donor Center, but he leaves a lasting impression (and some slightly more illuminant blood than we are used to).  We welcome John C. Mannone to our humble establishment.

AJ:  For starters, who is John C. Mannone?

JCM:  Thank you AJ, I am still trying to figure out who I am, but I can give you a collage: I am a Renaissance man, a scientist, an engineer, a writer, a scholar, a student of life, and a Christian. And they all blur together.

I am Sicilian by heritage, Uruguayan (and American) by birth (1948), Argentinean in my toddler-hood, and Baltimorean in my early adult years. Later, after having gone to Idaho and Wyoming to work (1978), I settled in beautiful east Tennessee (1981), so my blood runs orange. Nevertheless, it is Italian blood infused with Latin culture and American sensibilities. This might explain my intense passions, which often come out in my writing. Most of my creative work is poetry, but I enjoy writing short fiction, too, especially micro fiction, flash fiction and the short short story.

Professionally, I started as a physical chemist in Maryland, but I have evolved into a physicist. I love to teach—anything from college physics, to poetry, to Sunday school at my church. I became debt-free from nuclear consulting work, but I kept my sanity by teaching and having led an adventurous life, especially with my scuba diving and flying experiences.

Today, I am an active member of the Chattanooga Writers Guild, the Senior Editor of the Journal of the Society of Amateur Radio Astronomers, and privileged to serve as NASA/JPL Solar System Ambassador (Tennessee 2008).

I am also very excited about my recent appointments. One is to the poetry faculty of To Write Well, a private online creative writing school. The other is as poetry editor of a very fine journal of fantasy fiction, Silver Blade.

AJ:  Your blood’s not radioactive is it? If so, Herbie’s going to need different needles… and masks for that matter.

I want to discuss your poetry in a minute, but the term Renaissance man intrigues me. I’ve heard the term plenty of times, but what exactly is a Renaissance man?

JCM:  LOL. No, not anymore radioactive than anyone else’s. I have a motto I adhere to when I work at a nuclear facility, “I don’t do dose.” Well, once maybe. I had to personally go into a “high rad” area (had to don on double anticontamination clothing in one of the heat exchanger rooms) to collect a sample of material on a pipe that wasn’t suppose to be there. The maintenance crew thought my specific directions on how to acquire the sample were too “complicated” for them so I was encouraged to do it myself, so I did. I got 13 millirems from that one exposure. That’s a no-never mind, but a whole lot more than I ever have gotten before (0-2 mrem). So you should be okay. Your needles won’t get contaminated and I won’t glow in the dark.

I like the term Renaissance man. I think it is from the French meaning “rebirth.” I am not sure exactly why that word is appropriate for one of that era, but I suspect it has to do with an “awakening,” a “rebirth,” if you will, into the Age of Enlightenment that followed the great Renaissance. I like the idea of discovery and rediscovery in the sciences and other liberal arts, which eventually lead to engineering advances and the Industrial Revolution. This Renaissance business goes to the inventiveness and resourcefulness of man because of his well-educated-ness in so many areas. The great scientists of the Renaissance period were also great thinkers: philosophers, theologians, etc. So in a restrictive sense, I consider myself a Renaissance man—I appreciate the value of a liberal arts education and to be blessed with the knowledge in a variety of scientific and engineering areas, as well as in other disciplines. However, unlike the developing attitudes of the Renaissance period and this thing we call humanism, I adhere strongly to the Divine. For it is He who has gifted me, enabled me. I won’t ever forget that.

AJ:  So you’re not going to glow for us? Okay, I’ll tell Herbie to put the high end, thicker needle away.

You’re a thinker and a poet? Those two probably go hand in hand. Have you always been a poet and has the thinker in you helped become a good poet?

JCM:  I suppose that is correct, but I’m not a philosopher. It is remarkable that what I would have thought to be two disparate things—a thinker (in the scientific sense) and a poet—are actually well-connected. The same things that are important to one turn out to be important to the other: the deeper questions about life, loss, faith, social conscience, the why of so many things. In physics, when I study the physical universe, big questions are raised, even though there might not be an answer to them. In poetry, I try to express the inexpressible, sometimes as if those questions are begging answers right now.

It is interesting to note that I never cared for poetry. Maybe there is truth to that cliché “I’m a poet and didn’t know it.” Silly as it is, there could be a modicum of truth to it. But something clicked in the late 90s. I think that’s when it was that I had a sudden change in my life. I started signing holiday cards with increasingly poetic expression… to show something heartfelt and not just a standard response. In short, I started to care about people more in late 1997 and it came out as poetry. But I still wasn’t aware of it until mid 2004. I amusingly claim that’s when my right-brain woke up out of comatose. That’s when I consider starting to seriously pursue the craft of poetry.

There is no doubt whatsoever that my scientific mind has helped my poetry. I can immediately think of two ways: the more obvious one is my analytical mind has (and continues) to help in the crafting of the poem, but a more subtle benefit from science is its provision of fresh metaphors (and interesting language), as well as new places for the imagination to romp. This is particularly true for speculative fiction writing. But here is the real surprise (to me): my poetry has helped my physics! How is that? It sounds counterintuitive. How can a right-brain thing help the left-brain get better? I am convinced that poetry has opened news ways for me to think about physics—and I’m talking about specific problems or concepts. At the very least it has given me ways to help express difficult concepts to my students by invoking poetic devices, like personification. I have always given personality to electrons in a chemistry lecture or to unstable nuclei of radioactive atoms in a physics lesson, but now I am more aware and therefore more deliberate in rendering “dry” lectures with new life.

But more important than anything else, poetry has taught me how to think outside the box. This is critical. I can remember feeling triumphant in tackling what seemed to be an almost impossible problem for my final (take-home) exam in Statistical Mechanics when I was a graduate student at Georgetown University. I had been anguishing over one of the problems for days… nothing would come to me. It was so damned hard! And now it was in the wee hours of the last day before my exam was due in December 1974. I was in an old farmhouse in Columbia, MD with my brand new baby daughter (born late October) literally under the Christmas tree in her bassinette. I was listening to Faust, the opera, and became overwhelmed, and it continued as the night went on, with Mozart. There was magic in the air… and I was part of it. I began to write mathematical equations with a fever that had no cooling. I wrote into the morning sunlit hours. I turned in 20 pages for that one problem alone. I felt exceptionally good. For a few hours I felt brilliant, I couldn’t write the equations fast enough. No, I didn’t solve the problem, but I knew I made one hell of a stab at it. But you know, no one else was able to solve it either. Our professor had given us a problem that had no known solution and wanted to see how we’d handle it. The problem was first proposed by Flory—the Nobel Laureate in Chemistry (he’s the guy who “invented” liquid crystals).

I said all that to say this, I believe on that night, music stimulated some exceptional thinking (okay, my daughter might have had something to do with that too). But I wonder if poetry can do the same thing on a different plane. I think it has.

AJ:  Music is a constant influence in a lot of lives, especially those who are writers. I can see how poetry can have a reaction on the thinking process if you compare it to music: they are both essentially lyrics to the song that is life.

I’ve gotten to know you a little over the last two or so years and I’ve watched as your poetry has become increasingly better. As a writer I know I have to work on a story over and over until I feel it is right. Do you do the same with your poetry?

JCM:  Thanks AJ, I am glad I am visibly improving at my craft. I work very hard at it, but a certain amount of it has to be natural, otherwise it would be all work and no fun; or worse, all craft and no heart. One thing that started to improve two years ago is clarity. This was my stumbling block, even after four years. (Of course, I didn’t know that clarity was a problem at first especially since I was going for that surprise ending. I was confusing clarity with transparency. I wanted to be clever with subtle allusions because I didn’t want to tip my hand, but all the time I was being obscure, which took the reader out of the poem—a mortal sin of creative writing.) Of course, I still work on clarity, but it isn’t as much a problem as it was in my earlier years.

But it wasn’t until 2008, a year after that, that I started to pay keen attention to rhythm. My poetry got noticeably better when I worked hard on its rhythm (in the revising stages). And to accomplish that, I would read my work-on-progress aloud quite often (and I do this with my short fiction, too). The rhythmic flaws would show up early and I wouldn’t have to wait until an open mic to embarrass myself with the aural defects—the tongue tripping over words, the running out of breath and stumbling, mispronunciations, the switcheroo of words and a host of others.

And a nice side benefit of all this “out loud stuff” is that I have become a much more confident reader. It shows up not only in my poetry, but also in my reading Scriptures. There is an increased calm and confidence. I like that. That “feels right” feeling comes through much more with these frequent out loud readings (as does the “it doesn’t feel right” feeling).

When it’s off, I look for different words, a different order if I like the words, for more/less words and even different punctuation (usually all of the above) to fix it.

Interestingly enough, rhythm and flow may be one of the few surviving elements of poetry. There have been many other elements that have been much more ubiquitous in 20th century writing than what I find now. Visualize the anecdotal verse, which seems to pervade the lit mags. Its easy conversational tone sometimes makes one hard pressed to believe it is poetry and not just prose. I suppose the impeccable rhythm goes a long way to bail it out of prose jail (but a few other things are probably happening to ensure its freedom as a poem).

Even when I get “lucky” and can write a complete 200-word draft in an hour, I will spend many hours over many days to revise it. Occasionally, the process is abbreviated, but it is nothing I can count on. I am amazed at how many times I said to myself, okay, this is ready (or damn near so), only to find out weeks or months later that it was woefully deficient. There are no short-cuts in this “business.” Any piece of creative writing (and I would venture to say any writing) needs “settling-in time.” As a writer, when I let my right-brain do its job and spill my heart on paper, I have to distance myself from the work emotionally to be able to do a good job of critiquing it. I can’t do that if I am balling my eyes out or if I feel like I have written a masterpiece. The truth will soon come out… and the surgery begins.

AJ:  I often let stories sit for months, sometimes years, before I go back and read and edit it. It’s like a revelation when I go back to it. Many times I forget that I even wrote the stories until rereading them and then it’s like, wow, I wrote this, or seriously, I wrote this crap.

Your poetry has brought you some newfound work lately. Can you tell us about this?

JCM:  Ah! Yes. For a brief moment I thought you meant my new “Found Poetry” (which Wikipedia tells us is “a type of poetry created by taking words, phrases, and sometimes whole passages from other sources and reframing them as poetry by making changes in spacing and/or lines (and consequently meaning), or by altering the text by additions and/or deletions.”) I haven’t deliberately done any of that, but I have done it inadvertently, as in my rewriting Newton’s Laws of Physics for love and relationships (not published yet). I needed coffee to clear my mind. LOL. You meant my newfound appointments!

Even though it’s been in the works for quite some time, I just officially joined the faculty of To Write Well, a private creative writing school owned and run by L. McKenna Donovan. I met McKenna in Francis Coppola’s Virtual Studio called American Zoetrope in 2005 shortly after I joined. She witnessed, first-hand, my passion and ability to discuss and teach poetry and physics concepts that popped up in her office and elsewhere. This eventually led to the invitation to teach poetry for her school. The web developers are preparing the site for the expanded faculty as we speak and we hope to be in full production mode early in October. I will be teaching a series of three poetry courses called The Anatomy of Poetry. The link, http://lmdonovan.wordpress.com/tww-2/148-2/  has the announcement and course descriptions. We believe our online courses will provide some unique learning opportunities through interactions among the students, as well as through personal attention by the instructors, in a virtual classroom and workshop environment. I love poetry and I love to teach. This will be a good marriage.

The other timely boost to my literary career is my recent appointment as poetry editor to Silver Blade: The Quarterly Journal of Fantasy Fiction. ( http://silverblade.net/ ) This is a fine market with a great publisher and editorial staff. This market has vision, is progressive and is innovative. We accept work in a variety of genres and cross genres for fiction and poetry (and some nonfiction, too): Modern Fantasy, Folkloric Fantasy, Science Fiction, Science Fantasy, Slipstream, Medieval / Feudal Swords and Sorcery, Epic Adventure or Children Oriented Fantasy. Romance also, if it has a strong fantasy element. I am already busy reviewing poetry submissions for issue 8 due for release in October 2010. We have just installed a new submissions manager, Submishmash, to make the submission experience of potential contributors quick and easy.

I am also on the Board of Trustees of Silver Pen ( http://www.silverpen.org/ ) a 501(c)(3) organization. We are “dedicated to helping all writers, publishers and editors achieve excellence.” I joined them in January 2010.

Consistent with that pursuit of excellence, I joined The Fictioneers   ( http://web.mac.com/shadaa1/Fictioneers/Home.html ) concerning the writing of the “fantastic.” I was made a Full Member, too, when I joined early in the year. As a personal goal, I am trying to make contributions to all the “publishing anchors,” and not to stop at the minimum to establish membership.

AJ:  That sounds very exciting and, like any other role that someone takes on for love or business, it sounds like a lot of hard work and a big challenge. Challenges are good…

Is there anything else you want to tell folks about John C. Mannone?

JCM:  Thanks, AJ. A couple of things.

One niche I seem to have found is to use my poetry to introduce the collection of short stories. Since I began to aggressively pursue this in Nov 2009 beginning with the special all-story “Road Trip Issue” for The Monsters Next Door. And much to my delight, they couldn’t decide which poem of the three I had submitted for their consideration, so they used all three. And most recently, all six of my poems will introduce Anthology for Autism (Lady Luck Publishing). I believe I have now firmly established precedence for introducing short story collections with my poetry. To date I have introduced 16 anthologies by 8 different publishers with 28 poems. And another prestigious press is seriously considering two poems for their anthology. I encourage other publishers/editors to consider my work for their anthology projects. At the moment, I don’t expect any more compensation than any other contributor in their anthology. But I hope this will change as I become more in demand for this tailor-made introduction.. I can be contacted through my blog, ( jcmannone.wordpress.com ) or through my email jcmannone@towritewell.com

I am excited about a multimedia project I have been working on for the last few years and it is coming along quite well. It is called Nightsongs. It will promote awareness of our dark skies so that we can preserve them as part of our legacy to our children’s children, as well as expose the vagaries of light pollution. It is through this collection of poetry, commentary and pictures, art, etc., that fuses art and science. I am still undecided if I want to simply produce a PowerPoint presentation on CD or to publish a chapbook of sorts, without any images. I would like to do both and bundle them together. I’ll have seven poems published before the end of Fall 2010, which is more than half of them. And some of them appear in strong venues like the “revolutionary” ezine, Liquid Imagination and Pirene’s Fountain: A Journal of Poetry that publishes established voices, as well as emergent ones like me. But I am trying to find the right publisher for a couple of key poems before I can go further with this project.

Finally, I like to mention my two associates and a book project we are working on. The notable Irish poet, KB Ballentine ( http://kbballentine.com/ ) and the reputable storyteller and poet, Finn Bille ( http://web.me.com/finnbille/Finn_Bille/Finns_Home.html ) and I, whom collectively are called 3-Poets, have been working on a book on the craft of poetry for the past couple of years. Hopefully, it will be available in another year or two. We are currently trying to find a publisher and are test marketing some of the workshop ideas. It is a book on how to follow conventional rules when writing poetry, and why we should, but it is also important to know how to effectively break them. We formed a very good critique group in Feb 2006 and all three of us have greatly benefited from it.

AJ:  Thank you John, for your time and the pint of blood. We look forward to hearing from you in the future…

JCM:  And thank you! Now I must rest and regain strength, especially before my vampire visits.

(Herbie’s Note:  Contrary to what Mr. Mannone said, his blood is slightly radioactive and the room turned a bright yellow shortly after he left.)

(Herbie’s Note II:  After knowing Mr. Mannone for a couple of years and reading his poetry, I highly encourage folks to seek him out…)

Comments
  1. Thank you very much, AJ, for doing this. I am phobic of needles, but Herbie was gentle and I have recovered. I enjoyed the experience. (Sorry about the yellow glow, I must have been thinking fireflies when I buzzed out.)

    John

  2. gay degani says:

    Great interview. I love hearing what John has to say, BUT John says he’s not a philosopher!?? He needs to Isaac about that one.

  3. Sue Babcock says:

    Great interview! John is truly a resonance man – delving into matters for both the right brain AND the left brain. I love how he works his technical jargon into his poems – I haven’t figured out how to do that yet (concrete just never resonates with my right brain LOL).

    And if anyone wants to HEAR John read one of his poems (he has a wonderful baritone voice!) – we have him up at Liquid Imagination (http://www.liquid-imagination.com/Issue7/poem_mannone.html)

    • Thank you, Sue. I appreciate that.

      My very first research job after I graduated from college was in cement chemistry. And as you would guess, I have a short poem about that topic. The chemical names are often poetic so they lend themselves to “creative” writing.

      Doing “The Farm” for Liquid Imagination was fun! Audacity is powerful and free to make recordings with.

      John

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