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From the Edge of the Smokestack
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From the Edge of the Smokestack

The birth of an infant parallels a boxing match. Pigeons perched on a smokestack wrestle with one of life’s great questions.

In the tome of Tony Zupancic’s poetry are images and thoughts that sometimes leave readers scratching their heads. For the Associate Professor of English, communication, and theatre, that is precisely the idea.

Zupancic grew up on the southeast side of Cleveland, Ohio in a neighborhood regarded as the oldest Slovenian community in Greater Cleveland. “That homogeny of my Slovenian culture was very nurturing for me, and I could have spent my life there. But if I had, there would have been so much I missed, including poetry.” Instead, Tony became the first in his family, and one of the few from his neighborhood, to fly away and leave that comfortable, working-class environment to attend college.

During his college years, he was opened up to a new world of creativity. He participated in theatre troupes, performing in traditional and improvisational performances. Improvisational theatre requires the actor to take on playwriting, so while acting, he took a creative writing course and began writing for an audience other than himself.

The writing class allowed him to try his hand at prose, which he found mundane. When the direction of the course shifted to poetry, a lifelong appreciation was born. “I learned to enjoy poetry because it is like a word puzzle. I play with words and images to puzzle the reader enough to create something out of the poem. Really a poem doesn’t mean anything in and of itself. I know what it means to me—sometimes it means a couple of things. I don’t think I’ve ever written a poem that only had one thing going on or one clear meaning.”

“In my communications classes, I’ve stumbled on a notion of procreating meaning in poems,” said Tony. “You can’t force people to see stuff. They get out of it what they put into it, even if it wasn’t what the poet intended. At that level, poetry becomes less sentimental rhythm and rhyme and more grappling with images and ideas.” One poem that solicited this sort of feedback is LSPN.

For Tony, LSPN is a comparison of the birth of his son with the debut of a rookie boxer. He paints a word picture of the chaos and gore in the hospital delivery room during his son’s first moments of life. “I’ve used LSPN as a teaching tool at workshops for high school teachers,” he recalls. “I try to simulate how, during an Advanced Placement exam, their students might read unfamiliar passages and find things in the writings that the exam reader may not have seen before. I had to pick something the teachers couldn’t have read, so I used this piece.”

Right away teachers connected the hospital, the blood and gore and doctors with the boxing match. But according to Tony, “Some associated it with going through cancer treatments. To them, the end of the poem is about entering into the next stage of their life, whether in remission or coping with cancer. For them it’s a hospital poem.”

Poetry also allows Zupancic to wrestle with the deeper issues of life in a therapeutic way, including the death of his brother Tim. “He had AIDS and it manifested itself in a brain tumor—brain cancer, really,” Tony recalls. “He came home to Cleveland and stayed with my family, basically coming home to die. About a year before he died, I told him ‘Tim, I’ve got to say, I hope you know, that I love you.’ His response was one of those things I would get choked up on for a while. He said ‘I know,’ in a real tender sort of way.”

He spent the next year working on a poem that became PM to AM. This recollection of the night his brother passed away provided Tony with a way of coming to grips with his own mortality and coping with Tim’s death. “One thing about poetry is that it’s so damn intense,” said Zupancic. “It is the place to go when you have intense feelings. I imagine that is why there are so many love poems and elegies to the dead.”

Tony has ventured into writing elegies, producing several tributes to colleagues at the College who have passed away. But not all of Zupancic’s poems are inspired by life’s weightier moments. On occasion he finds inspiration from the Notre Dame campus itself.

On a Bench at the Service Entrance was written in the fall of 1998. While sitting on a bench by a service door on the ground floor of Notre Dame’s Administration Building, the juxtaposition of pine trees and a deciduous tree caught his eye. “The poem muses about the difference between the longevity of being evergreen and the fleeting season of being deciduous,” explained Zupancic.

On a winter day in 1996, he again found himself outside, this time on the roof of the Administration Building’s fourth floor, where he noticed several pigeons on the building’s smokestack. “Here I was, having a cigarette and trying to stay warm while these pigeons huddled on the edge of the smokestack, trying to stay warm too,” recalled Tony. “If one left, another one waiting nearby flew up to take its spot.” As he watched, an analogy formed in his mind.

“It’s like those of us who have a job. You don’t want to get fired, so you stay around that smokestack. If you leave, you may find that you’re no longer needed and you won’t get your spot back. It’s risky to fly away, and but it’s risky to stay too. I’ve seen people like the birds that stay too long and fall into that furnace and are dead… dead intellectually or whatever.” From these observations, a poem titled One Redbrick Smokestack was born as an ode to taking risks in life.

After 25 years of teaching at the College, Tony is a fixture at Notre Dame. He still gets a kick out of being in the classroom, but knows that his future may not be dissimilar to those birds on the smokestack. “I think it would be too difficult for me to fly away from this chimney,” he said. “And if I wind up at the bottom and they shovel me out one spring, I don’t really have any problem with that.”

Steve Ruic is the Writer and Editor for Notre Dame College.