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Lewiston poet finds commonalities in all things

LEWISTON – Lewiston poet Robert M. Giannetti seeks universality through his writings, artistic collaborations and in his philosophy of life.

“I think it’s more important to look for the universality than the particulars,” he said. “I do not engage in the politics of the current situation, but rather, look at the things of common pride – the joy in life, the experience of art. That’s what are most meaningful, and hopefully, the things that will last – things deep in the human spirit.

 “I like what Michelangelo said, that the form of the sculpture was in the stone and that what he tried to do was liberate that form,” he added. “I think that’s the digging for the universality that we need to do more of.”   

One way Giannetti has been successful in this search is through his collaborations with other artists and musicians.

One such event is planned for 7:30 p.m. Nov. 10 when he joins classical violist Leslie Bahler at the Burchfield Penney Art Center as part of the duo’s “Voice and Viola” series. The art center at 1300 Elmwood Ave., Buffalo, is part of the Buffalo State College campus. The event is included in museum admission.

Giannetti will read selections from his new book, “The Frontier, Poetry and Prose,” bracketed by Bahler’s musical excerpts.

Over the course of a dozen duo performances, the two have found this collaboration has expanded audiences for both mediums.

“The music precedes each poem and sets it up and then there is music again,” Giannetti said. “It creates a space for the appreciation of the music and appreciation of the poem. Too often, poetry readings are a flood of words and give no opportunity for reflection, but this provides a commentary, a contrast, and expansion of whole thoughts and emotions. It’s a unified work of the individual, and, of the whole.”

The new book marks a bit of a departure for the poet, with the introduction of prose.

“I try to write simply, but deeply,” he said. “My goal is to write in a way that, hopefully, a child could understand, but that an adult would see many more things in.”

The prose at the beginning of each chapter “is kind of an introduction, but also stands on its own,” he noted.

“I had been working on the book for three or four years, but it all came together when I combined the prose with the poetry,” he said. “I created sort of a conversation within the book, much like the conversation Leslie and I create with ‘Voice and Viola.’ ”

Now retired, Giannetti has led an interesting life filled with wide-flung career experiences, from U.S. Army captain to university educator, and from head of a nonprofit organization to owner of an antiquarian bookshop. He recently took some time to chat about his life and writing – what some view as a hobby, but he sees as a vocation.

“It’s the only and best thing I can do with my life,” he said. “And it brings me great peace and understanding. I don’t know what I’d do without it.”

Q: How did you team up with Leslie Bahler for “Voice and Viola?”

A:  Leslie came into my bookstore (Bob’s Olde Books, which he operated 2006 to 2015 in Lewiston) with her husband, Peter, with questions about books and we started talking. We found we had a common sense of possibly doing something like this. We put it together and now we can almost complete each other’s sentences.

Leslie sometimes likes certain poems of mine she wants to include and I look at her music selections, so that we mutually look at each other’s works and the possibility of it. They are separate, but together are more than the sum of their parts.

We craft a certain mood, a contrast of thoughts or emotions, and expand the logic of what the music says and what the poem says ...We start in one place and it ends happily elsewhere.

Q: And “Voice and Viola” isn’t your only collaboration with other artists and musicians. Tell us of others.

A: I’ve done two programs with the Harmonia Chamber Singers and serve on their board of directors.      

I’ve collaborated with photographer James Sedwick and we’ve created some high quality photo prints of broadsides that will be available for sale at the Burchfield Penney program.

He happened to wander into my bookshop one day, too, and asked if he could photograph me for a project he was doing on creative people over 70 who still have the spark (laugh).

I also collaborated with artist Judy Winograd a few years ago to create broadsides with my poems and her woodcut illustrations.

They’ve all been fine collaborators.

Q: Where did this idea for music and poetry spring from?

A: While I was a student at Niagara University, we had a literary association and we would craft little stage pieces, making use of familiar poems or bits of drama, sort of a ‘reader’s theater’ and this was the germ of the idea. We called it ‘Poetic Gestures.’

When I taught college, I introduced this idea as part of a course and continued to develop ideas. It’s just wonderful how it’s evolved over the years.

Q: How did you become a poet?

A: I’m used to compression.

 It goes all of the way back to my service in the Army (chuckle). I had just left grad school (he has a Ph.D. in Renaissance English Literature from Duquesne University). I was in the Army for two-and-a-half years during the Vietnam era, 1967-69. I was a captain and they assigned me to the U.S. Continental Army Command headquarters in Fort Monroe, Virginia.

I would research and write policy papers for the generals, boiling down the most complex issues into one-page papers.

In a strange way, that’s related to writing poetry. You mull over every word, allowing it to accumulate all of the weight it can carry and then you put it out there. You do a lot of revising. But the process of compression goes back 50 years for me.

Q: What other career choices have influenced your poetry?

A: After the Army, I taught for a while and then started working for the Pennsylvania Humanities Council as the executive director.

Then an old Army buddy of mine called and wanted me to join his consulting business in New York City, in outplacement and executive coaching. I ended up coaching a lot of people who had lost their jobs, to help them reconnect with new jobs and achieve what they wanted to with their careers. And, we also helped companies who wanted to get better performances from their employees.

I saw so many people dissatisfied with their jobs. I was working with mostly middle-management and the executive level. It was obvious so many had not been trained to be bosses.

It made me wonder, how do you live an authentic life in the world as it is? How do you live on the frontier of authenticity? That’s one of the frontiers in my new book. It’s about the question: How do we make the countless decisions we make every day and act with integrity?

Q: Let’s talk about the new book. It’s filled with echoes of wisdom, experience and maybe some sentimentality, but yet childlike wonder and hopefulness. What do you think?

A: I could not have written this book as much as 20 years ago.

The Niagara River is a central metaphor for this book and illustrates so many things about never stepping in the same stream twice. Life is a flow. What does it all mean? I still have hope for the future, a basic human-ness that applies to other human beings. It keeps me going in a rich way.

There’s a conversational aspect to the way I write. I don’t say it all - that would be prose and doesn’t allow the reader to participate. The spaces in my poetry allow for a sense of conversation. You find that in all of the best poetry.

Q: Where can readers purchase your new book?

A: It will be available at the ‘Voice and Viola’ event at the Burchfield Penney, and I will have my previous books for sale there, too, including the Polish, bilingual translation of ‘Winter Vision’ and my chapbooks. They can also be purchased through links on my website,, to the publisher or to Amazon and will likely be available at other retail outlets as the book is launched.

I also plan to do local readings soon. I do have a reading scheduled for Jan. 8 at the Niagara Arts and Cultural Center in Niagara Falls.

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