Anthony Cappo: The Poet-Lawyer

Anthony Cappo

Attorney at Law Magazine sat down with Anthony Cappo, a staff attorney in the litigation department of Greenberg Traurig, following the release of his first collection of poetry, “When You’re Deep in a Thing.” Cappo has worked with Greenberg Traurig for 20 years. Scroll past the interview to view an excerpt of two poems from his collection. 

AALM: What drew you to poetry? Was it something you loved immediately or something you came to appreciate?

AC: I grew up in Cherry Hill, New Jersey, and was fortunate to have amazing English teachers in the public school system. I remember reading Frost, Yeats and Eliot in high school and one teacher, Mrs. Lyons, taught Gerard Manley Hopkins in the 10th grade! So, that was a great education for my poetic ear.

But I didn’t begin to write myself until I attended college at Rutgers. I wasn’t really in the frame of mind to take it seriously, though. After starting law school, my writing pretty much stopped. I did some jazz singing for a while—keeping the creative flame burning—but only started writing poetry again around 2008 or so. Believe it or not, I was inspired by taking a Walking Tour of Walt Whitman’s Lower Manhattan. A poem came to my head on the walk back to the subway and I vowed to myself that this time I wouldn’t stop. I kept my promise to myself and eventually got an MFA in creative writing at Sarah Lawrence, which was really helpful in allowing me to immerse myself in poetry.

AALM: How did your legal career inspire or complement your writing career?

AC: Legal writing/analysis and poetry come from such different places—legal writing uses much more of the rational brain, while poetry is more emotional and free-associative. But I will say that one thing legal writing and poetry share in common is that every word matters! I learned early on as a law clerk and lawyer that when you’re trying to convince a judge or partner of something, you really can’t afford to be casual with the words you choose. Lawyers pick up on nuance, so you have to be careful. Similarly with poetry—because there are so few words, again, every word is important. One false or wayward word can take the reader right out of where you want them to be. So, I’ve become a very careful editor of my poetry.

My initial thought was that my legal career had not really complemented my poetry—aside from providing me a living so that I could continue to write poetry—but maybe my legal career has complemented my writing career more than I’d realized!

AALM: Who are some of your favorite poets and authors? Your favorite collections? Your favorite anthologies?

AC: I have so many! During the many years when I was not writing, I found I often returned to William Blake and Walt Whitman, two poets I loved as an undergraduate. At Sarah Lawrence, I was really influenced by reading John Berryman, Theodore Roethke, and Louise Glück, to name a few. Berryman for his playful language and imagination, Roethke for his gorgeous sounds, and Glück for her economy of language and painful honesty.

She has a collection called “Ararat,” in which she writes about her family with such intimacy that at times I had to hold the book at arm’s length/avert my eyes. Writing about loved ones is often one of the most difficult things a writer must do and she does it with a fearlessness that is, at times, breathtaking. “When You’re Deep in a Thing” covers a lot of my own childhood—my parents’ divorce, finding my way in the world with little paternal guidance—so Glück’s example was never too far from my mind.

More recently, some collections I’ve loved have been Yerra Sugarman’s “Aunt Bird,” Victoria Redel’s “Paradise,” and Matthew Thorburn’s “String.”

AALM: Do you strictly write poetry? Any prose? Any current projects in the works?

AC: I do write the occasional essay or review, but mostly I write poetry. I would like to do more prose writing. I enjoy exercising that part of my brain. I can’t say that I have much of a knack or inclination for fiction writing, though. I don’t necessarily think in terms of characters and plot.

I am finishing up a new poetry manuscript. Its working title is: “My Anima.” The poems focus on romantic situations and travails. It wrestles with the problem of unrealistic, idealized images about love or a potential partner (Jung’s concept of the “anima”)—and how they interfere with connection and appreciation of the actual, amazing humans who come into our lives.

AALM: Tell us about your style and your writing and revision process.

AC: I suppose I’d be characterized as a lyric poet. I rarely write in any received forms, but I pay a great deal of attention to formal concepts like the relation between stressed and unstressed syllables, assonance and consonance, and internal rhyme. Both sound and sense are important to me.

Inspiration can strike at any time—often, annoyingly so, just as I’m getting ready to leave for work! But when inspiration does strike, I always try to write as much as I can with the time I have and know that I can expand on it later and, certainly, in revision. I’m a big reviser of my work. It takes me weeks, sometimes months, to finish a poem. I work on it until I feel like I’ve gone as far as I can with it, then put it away for a couple of weeks. I’m often amazed at how the distance of time can more easily resolve some knotty problem with a poem.

AALM: Tell us about the title poem. How did this become the title of your collection?

AC: It’s funny, I remember the exact moment when that phrase entered my mind. I was in a particularly difficult period in my life and was walking along the High Line in New York City and started thinking: when you’re deep in a thing and that thing has an anvil . . . It wasn’t always the title of the collection, but in the end it just seemed to fit.

AALM: Of the poems in the collection, is there one that resonates with you the most? Which is your personal favorite and why?

AC: My personal favorite is probably “Bodies.” It’s one of the more recent poems in the collection. It’s a meditative poem, touching on love, aging, philosophy, psychology. It’s a bit of a journey, but I like the places it goes.

AALM: Tell us about André Kertész. What about his work inspired a section of your collection?

AC: The Andre Kertesz section arose as a result of a class I took at Sarah Lawrence. It was with the poet Matthea Harvey and we discussed many different art forms—dance, architecture, painting, photography, etc.—and how each might relate to poetry. My project for the end of that class was to write a series of poems inspired by Kertesz’s photography. I was drawn to his work because it is mysterious and evocative, but also has a lot of space in it. The images were expansive enough that they allowed me to jump off them and free associate into subject matter that wasn’t necessarily contained in the four corners of the photograph.

AALM: Is there anything you’d like to add?

AC: The poet-lawyer is actually kind of a thing. I like to think our modern patron saint is Wallace Stevens, who was a lawyer before becoming an insurance executive. Some contemporary poet-lawyers include three poets who have been published by my press, Four Way Books: Monica Youn, Rebecca Foust and Reginald Dwayne Betts. Also, Evie Shockley and a bunch more that I’m probably not aware of.

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Below is an excerpt from Cappo’s collection, “When You’re Deep in a Thing,” featuring two of the poems we discussed in the interview. Reprinted with the permission of Four Way Books. All rights reserved.

BODIES

That we exist in bodies is ridiculous.
Not the bodies themselves—lattice, torque,
lace—but how soft they are. How everything
can go in a second. Ambulation leads to
ambulance, vehicles to ventilator, hard candy
to coffin. Rocked back with shock, laid up for a week
or eight. The cosmic vacuum is always on and looking
for more specks to lift into oblivion. When my sister
was born everyone said, Watch out
for the soft spot on her head. Even then I thought
that was crazy—why would a baby
come so jelled, so open? Everything about her
made me anxious. Every cry, bump, fall
was going to be the end. Fresh torrent of tears—
family shred at the seams.
And now my own body not the given
it once seemed. New medications, dehydration—
routine middle of the night pee now fraught.
Once a body’s set in motion downwards, there’s no telling
where gravity will deposit it. Gashes, stitches,
displacements. If you’re lucky.

And what’s the deep meaning of body
fragility? Transience of all things? Supremacy
of soul? Need for pleasure to counter pain?
I’m not wise enough to say.
But when my lover rubs my feet and relief
immediate; when she caresses my back and gives
an unexpected kiss; when we’re entwined
and our bodies seamless—all sublime. And far
from ridiculous. This dissociative orphan—
my body—now portal to, yes, pleasure, but also
presence. Safe to exit the head, open senses.
Maybe this is a poem about love, not the body.
But how to separate? A body can glide the path
to love, and love can tether a body to the world.
And now, though my wish is to bound out of bed at night,
I don’t. I do what the doctor says—sit at the edge
a couple seconds, stand up but don’t walk
right away. Get my bearings. Hold on to things.

WHEN YOU’RE DEEP IN A THING

and that thing has an anvil
that sinks in your chest and

squeezes your thoughts
down trap door corridors

when a walk in the street
is a gauntlet of faces

the only song
a suite of dirges

you visit the Falls
and think not

of their beauty
but their promise

to sweep you away
lean over a railing

at the Niagara River
and imagine joining

its rush as it tumbles
toward the edge or

spacespacespacespaceback in the city
drive over a bridge

see a pedestrian
walkway and wonder

if there’s a ledge
below to stop

a leap and you hope
(for future reference)

there isn’t
when you’re deep

in a thing it’s good
to have people

who love you
faces in your heart

you wouldn’t want to see
shattered

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