Tuesday, January 03, 2012
SOMERVILLE WRITER JOE TORRA: A Man who gives it to you straight--with no chaser.
By Doug Holder
" I think poets and artists often take themselves too seriously. I mean everybody is important in some way. Hey--my plumber is more important to me than most poets at any given time. When my pipes are clogged--and I got to go...who am I gonna call? We all have our god given talents..." --Joe Torra
I have always admired Joe Torra, a neighbor of mine in Somerville Mass. He is a self-described "working class" poet, and he is one of the least affected,and talented writers I know. He shoots from the hip, and at times makes you feel like your fly is down. And it's good for you- keeps you honest. Years ago he started his own small press, worked on his critically praised poetry and fiction while making a living as a waiter and a substitute teacher, as well as being a mentor for many an upcoming poet and writer.
For the past 9 years he has taught Creative Writing at U/MASS Boston. I have reviewed and thoroughly enjoyed many of Torra's books and poetry collections, and I have had an opportunity to interview him in the past. Torra has a new trilogy of his novels coming out as well as a new poetry collection. So while there was a break from my teaching duties I decided to meet with him at the Bloc 11 Cafe on a decidedly cold winter's morning.
Doug Holder: You grew up in Medford, and have lived in Somerville for a long time. Medford and Somerville are right next to each other but there is a decidedly different sensibility to each of these towns.
Joe Torra: We have lived here for 30 years. Somerville wasn't the "Paris of New England" 30 years ago. It was called--pardon the expression "Slummerville." Things started to change in the 1990's when Rent Control ended in Cambridge and all these artists moved in for cheaper rent. There were very few small presses and artists here before this. But I do think we take our self much to seriously as an artsy community now. We think we are "so special." It is a turn off to me. But this happens with gentrification--the old timers are pushed out, the artists come in and eventually they are pushed out. I think we are more the "Brooklyn of New England" than the "Paris." (Laugh)
Doug Holder: In some ways our lives parallel each other. We both have had or have small presses. Yours was named "lift." You worked as a waiter, and I worked as a mental health worker, and when we both hit our 50's we started teaching college. Would you say we went through the writing school of hard knocks?
Joe Torra: I call what we did living life. It was a great experience being a waiter, and it gave me time to write. Any life the artist has is the right life--rich or poor- who cares? What I didn't like about being a waiter was that people couldn't believe you were a good writer if your worked in a restaurant. I left this work when I turned 50--it was hard on the body-and I was getting tired. You can burn out on anything if you do it long enough.
Doug Holder: Tell me about your "My Ground Trilogy" that is coming out this spring. It is compilation of three novels you wrote " Gas Station," "Tony Luongo," and "My Ground."
Joe Torra: Yes--they are loosely connected at best. The only one that was published in the States was "Gas Station." The other books were published by Gollancz in England. PFP Publishing is publishing the trilogy. Much of the work is informed by Somerville. "Tony Luongo" is about a Somerville born and bred salesman. In "My Ground" the city is called Winter Hill- a section of Somerville. I couldn't have written these books without living here.
Doug Holder: You are also connected to Bill Corbett's Pressed Wafer Press.
Joe Torra: I am a founding member of Pressed Wafer-it was started by Bill Corbett. It was named after a book by John Wieners. In 1999 Bill approached me about working with the Press and I was looking to publish poets, their chapbooks, etc...
Speaking of Wieners--I think he was overlooked. Robert Lowell was known as the "mad genius" because of his patrician background. Wieners was a working class guy; so he was just known as plain crazy. Very much a class thing.
Doug Holder: You adopted two children from China. You have written about your experiences there. What attracts you to this country?
Joe Torra: The longevity of the civilization--the philosophy-( Daoism in particular), the poets Li Po, and Tu Fu to name just a couple.
Doug Holder: How has teaching at U/Mass been for you?
Joe Torra: I like it. I love the students. When we share excitement with writing that is a great thing. You have to make sure you make time for your own writing. I am older now so I am not quite as prolific as I was years ago--I used to churn books out!
Doug Holder: Getting back to your years as a waiter. Would you say restaurants were a sort of way-station for creative people?
Joe Torra: It was for me. I always worked with interesting people. People who were out in the world. I met so many painters, musicians, and writers. I met people who walked across Europe, etc.. I mean when the help had their meal before the shift the conversation was about what book they read, what concert they went to--what were they writing, etc... Sixty to 70% of folks who worked there were in the arts. A nice place to be.
""Who would ever have thought we'd see a black president? I remember as a boy watching riots on television. Police chasing black protesters with dogs. Power hoses dispersing crowds of black people. My father said that Martin Luther King was only good for starting riots then running away. Where did those white people go? The ones who were burning crosses, and bombing churches, and killing young black men? Many of them are probably still here, collecting social security now. And their children live on." (From Torra's novel " What's So Funny?)
*** For more info about Torra go to joetorra.com