Chad Parenteau was born in Woonsocket Rhode Island in 1973 and grew up in Bellingham, Massachusetts. He entered Framingham State College (Now Framingham State University) and majored in English. He learned poetry and prose writing from instructors such as Alan Feldman and Miriam Levine and studied journalism under Desmond McCarthy. Moving to Boston in 1995, he obtained his MFA at Emerson College, studying with Bill Knott, Gail Mazur and John Skoyles. His involvement in the small press continued, publishing poetry in Meanie and Shampoo.
In 2003, Chad self-published his first chapbook, Self-Portrait In Fire and won a Cambridge Poetry Award. 2008 saw the publication of his third chapbook, Discarded: Poems for My Apartments from Červená Barva Press. In 2011, a catalog of his work was added to Framingham State University’s Alumni Collection at the Henry Whittemore Library.
Chad is the current host and organizer of Stone Soup Poetry, one of the longest-running weekly poetry venues in the state. His recent contribution to the reading series is creating and editing its online tribute journal, Spoonful.
Interview by: g emil reutter
GER: There has been a lot of criticism of MFA programs as producing “cookie cutter” poets and writers. What was your experience like at Emerson and do you agree or disagree with the criticism?
CP: As an undergraduate student I would have disagreed with the criticism. I wanted to be a poet, I was far from a confident poet, and this was the only way I knew how. In graduate school, there were poets who opposed the teachers, but I wasn’t one of them. If anything, I found the workshop atmosphere, being judged by nearly a dozen people at a time, very intimidating, but I stayed on because I wanted to learn. I couldn’t tell if anyone was cookie cutter because their poems sounded more realized than mine. Twenty years later, hindsight makes me sometimes wish I went for something besides an English degree, but that’s not the same as not needing to pursue it at the time. It’s very possible that I wouldn’t have become the poet I am today if I didn’t follow the academic path I did. It’s true that I received my MFA at Emerson. I finished at age twenty-five. People my age today who are in MFA programs tell me how impressive just having this is. However, I am not very proud of how I performed at Emerson and generally downplay my MFA degree in conversation.
Either by slipping through the cracks in the educational system or just being a shoddy student, I was painfully inadequate as a writer before entering Emerson. I went through my undergraduate years at Framingham State College (now Framingham State University) tutoring myself by way of extra reading and writing on top of my regular classes. I got better, eventually becoming a medium-sized fish in a small pond. When I went to Emerson for an MFA, I ended up being eaten alive in a large pond. I was still unprepared for this new set of challenges, and it showed in my final work with a thesis collection of poems I never would have wanted to publish as a book.
Poetry was never a focus in my early education, so my time at Framingham State and Emerson actually gave me exposure to a variety of poets. I used to randomly take out books of authors I’d never heard of. It enabled me to expand my outlook, which every writer needs. With twenty-first education, poetry seems to be part of every child’s curriculum. If I had more of that as part of my younger years, would I have felt the need to pursue writing? Would I have chosen an education that could have gotten me a better job? Could I have still pursued writing on the side to good effect? I can never answer these questions. One thing I do notice is that several people I knew at Emerson who wrote circles around me never pursued writing much beyond obtaining a costly degree. Or they pursued it but have long since stopped. I never pursued teaching with my degree, which my father hoped I would do; but at the very least, I think writing and poetry take up a great part of my everyday life, even if it’s not on an economic level.
CP: Self Portrait was my first chapbook, and it was self-published. It was intended as a likely swan song, my first and potentially last collection. When I put it together, I finally removed myself from a horrible living situation and was in a new relationship in Rhode Island that had the potential to radically change my life. I was trying to consign myself to possibly giving up any serious attempt to be a published poet. Self-Portrait was actually what I named my MFA thesis. I used the title piece and a few others from the original collection, scrapped the rest and added new work. Fifteen poems in all, the best I had to offer. It got me in the door as far as the local poetry scene went. I can be a little embarrassed by the title and some of the works, but there are poems I still dig out and read today. It also did what most books should do for authors, and that’s make me want to do a better book.
Discarded was my first successful attempt to create a chapbook around a central theme, that being my time in various apartments and living with a number of roommates ranging from interesting to straight out volatile. Originally intended to focus on items I was throwing out from old roommates, I wisely expanded the theme and worked it into a manuscript that still make me feel proud to read. When I finished the book, I was ending another relationship, living in the one bedroom apartment I occupy to this day, and dealing with the death of my father. So I was still coping with a lot of flux in my life. I suppose that’s true of almost any time you’re writing, but I’ve had some stability the last few years. Hopefully, my upcoming collection, Patron Emeritus from FootHills publishing, will show more focused observation.
GER: Your latest collection HHH has a strong political bent. You have been active in the Boston area on social issues and Occupy. How strongly is your political/social activism reflected in your poetry?
CP: My involvement with Occupy Boston is much less than I would like, though I am glad to sponsor readings from the Occupy Poets any time I can. HHH I felt was more about local attitudes of the poetry scene and my feelings on writing on deadline and the need to produce and be public as a poet, along with my own feelings of inadequacy while trying, even while succeeding with 100 haiku in less than five hours.
As the current Iraq war was starting, I started a series called “Sarcastic Haiku,” and it turned out to be very politically charged. Some are still on my blog today and an online journal or two. Problem was, after 2004, the political climate stopped being funny to me. Even with Obama’s victory in 2008, the racism that permeated so many factions of his opposition I found much more disgusting than amusing. I had one offer to try to sell the haiku as an ebook of 100 pieces. I think I went up to about 80 haiku, but I couldn’t finish. Maybe someday, though I think most of the poems are too of their time to be enjoyed today.
The problem with political poetry is that much of it is in its timing. Very little of it feels lasting. The trouble with what I’ve written in the past is that there was a small window to share them any place outside of my blog. Recently, however, I found a forum via Salon’s ongoing limerick contest. A chance to write humorous verse on current events and have it potentially be seen by multitudes days after I write it? Yes, please, thank you! And I’ve even gotten more opportunities to submit light verse because of Salon’s readership. Time will tell whether or not this translates into longer, more serious political poems in the future.
GER: You frequently write in free verse and haiku. Share with us your motivations and how you decide to form a poem on the page.
CP: This year, I want to write in longer forms like sonnets. Today, when I write a haiku, I have to stop myself and ask if this is the right form to use or if I’m copping out. Growing up, I was exposed to more stand-up comedians than poets, so I tend to view poetry performances in terms of that (though I think there are parallels, at least in the slam and small press scene). Haikus are the Henny Youngman one-liners. Longer poems are the long interweaving monologues by George Carlin or Bill Hicks. In recent years, when I’ve published a haiku, I started to suspect that it’s really a fragment and a product of laziness. HHH feels like one long poem instead of the hundred poems I passed it off as. I’ve also started a haiku series that I suspect might actually be joined together as one poem by the end of it.
GER: The New England area has an active poetry scene. Could you share with us your knowledge of the scene and how it continues to develop?
CP: I know more of the Boston scene than New England as a whole. I am lucky that all of New England enjoys convening in the Boston area to hear and perform poetry. This is good, because the scene always needs new blood.
I started going to the Boston Poetry Slam at The Cantab and later to Stone Soup and the late lamented Wordsworth Books, where there were crazy marathons hosted by Jim Behrle (who still comes back to host marathons at Outpost 186 in the summertime). Today, there is not only a host of slam and music venues, but also amazing storytelling venues in the neighboring cities like Cambridge and Jamaica Plain and drivable suburbs like Lynn, Massachusetts. There are even micro scenes in colleges such as Emerson and the teaching college Wheelock, home of the emergent Fundamental Lyricists of Wheelock (FLOW). There are groups like The Bagel Bards who regularly meet every Saturday morning in Somerville. Recently, I’ve written extensive hyperbole about an “invasion,” a flux of poets we are lucky to have coming in from the area of Lynn, Salem, Beverly and other towns that make up the Massachusetts north shore area. Poets like Dennis Daly, Blaine Hebbel and the carpooling members of the biweekly Zig Zag Poetry open mic. Not to mention that countless salons in individual poet’s apartments. It’s hard for me to fit any more readings besides my own in a week, but I try to make as many readings as I can, as it’s my hope that Stone Soup become a focal point for all these different voices to converge at whenever possible.
GER: You have read a number of times for us in Fox Chase. Your last appearance was at Poets in the Park. Did you enjoy the travel and the experience of reading in Fox Chase?
CP: Fox Chase always has a hopping and fun scene, whether it’s performing outside or next to a working cash register in a coffee shop. I’ve always enjoyed the adventure of going to Philadelphia. I started going there for political rallies, including the 2000 Republican National Convention. It’s fun to go there in recent years with a literary goal in mind. The last time in 2011 was particularly fun because I traveled with my girlfriend, Margaret, and we were driven there and back by two fisted fiction author and poet Tim Gager. Easily one of the best road trips of my life. I hope when my new collection comes out, I can have one or two travel dates with that kind of energy.
GER:The Stone Soup Poetry Series has run for over four decades, once a week without missing a scheduled reading. Jack Powers established the series and you inherited the series. Recently an additional host was added. Tell us about Stone Soup, what your vision is and how difficult was it to fill Powers shoes.
CP: Stone Soup does regularly meet every Monday night from 8-10 pm at its current home, the Out of The Blue Art Gallery in Central Square, Cambridge. Though we try to do it without fail, we actually cancelled a week recently due to the Hurricane Sandy related weather. I try not to pay much attention to our once alleged flawless attendance anymore, or any record others claim we have. It’s undoubtedly a testament to Jack Powers’ legacy that Stone Soup has lasted for so long. It’s definitely one of the longest running independent poetry readings. But it’s a mug’s game claiming we are the longest or that we’ve run 40-plus years consecutively without missing a beat. I’d rather focus on the quality of the open mic poets and the features Stone Soup has every week. Not brag about how many times we’ve run in a circle. Would Jack’s legacy as an activist, advocate and publisher have been any less impressive if Stone Soup only met once or twice a month?
Stone Soup was originally created because there wasn’t anything like it in Boston. Now, we have many poetry readings on just about any given night. I was called in to help with occasional hosting and booking. It was only when Jack suffered a stroke that robbed him of his speech that any sense of permanence came to my position and I stayed on as host.
Despite what some people say now, back then he wasn’t thrilled that I had come to control so much of Stone Soup. I know he was upset about it. Having hosted it since late 2005, I completely understand why. Even though I do all the behind the scenes work, there’s something about the title of “host” that has a magical effect on how people perceive you. Saying “Chad Parenteau, host of Stone Soup” means something to poets and people on the outside. Who would care if I was merely “Chad Parenteau, the guy who pesters feature to send their bios and photos to Stone Soup”? That and the routine—one of the first things I ever committed to and stuck with—kept me going the first few years. I know that it kept Jack, its creator, going for as long as it could. I hope the knowledge that something he started was continuing gave him comfort. With the wall between us his alcoholism and the loss of his communicative powers, it’s hard for me to know and hard for me to believe it when others tell me it was so. In a perfect world, Stone Soup wouldn’t have been handed down to me, a guy who only started going to it in 2003. But I have it, and I’m doing all I can with it.
I first imagined Stone Soup’s function to be the Catch a Rising Star of the poetry world. And I have proudly given many new poets on the scene their first feature. I am still proud to serve that function, featuring a variety of newcomers from Jade Sylvan to new co-host Michael F. Gill. My new function has been to keep Stone Soup relevant and take its history (which has largely been an oral one) into the 21st century. If all goes well, in the next year, I will be adding more to Stone Soup’s archives, I will start to post new videos from our features, I will work on reprinting Jack’s first book Light From Stone, and I will continue to give other people from Stone Soup’s history their due.
I would very much like for the organizational and hosting duties of Stone Soup to be passed on to someone else. I don’t really know if I can keep doing Stone Soup for decades the way Jack did. That’s largely why I passed on one night a week to Michael, who has been featuring so many new voices in such a short time. Sure I want the time off, and I want the new perspective added to the venue, but I also want to be ready to let go, whether it’s five years from now or twenty. But I would like to leave it know it’s going to live on well.
GER: How does a traveling poet get booked at Stone Soup?
CP: Be persistent! I deal with a ton of email, and some people get lost in the cracks. It’s not uncommon to have to prod me a few times. In the beginning, I was afraid to book features due to our small audiences. I was afraid there wouldn’t be enough book sales to make it worthwhile. Luckily, we are filing the chairs more than when I started, and I am doing everything I can to make sure all features are paid. Plus I’ve been told by many a poet that we have a great book buying audience. I apologize to anyone who has not gotten word back from me in a timely fashion, and I encourage you to try again.
GER: Spoonful is the on line publication of Stone Soup and you serve as the editor. Share with us how the concept was developed and what you look for in submissions.
CP: Jack Powers had put out stapled issues of his Stone Soup journal for years, in addition to several books. When I took over as host of Stone Soup, the question I had gotten the most was when there would be another print journal. The last anthology was published in 2003 with the help of Ibbetson Street Press. Without such backing, I was extremely hesitant to put money behind anything ongoing. Also, my knowledge of how to create a print journal was lacking, but I had been publishing online for years, both on my blog and on an array of early online journals. Not only did Spoonful scratch the journal “itch” for many of the regulars, it also gave the earliest Stone Soup contributors a 21st century forum and a chance for a larger audience.
Spoonful is part publication and part community project, as I strive to give voice to Stone Soup’s longtime goers and offer many people their first time at publication. That said, we have published several people who may never have attended Stone Soup (though we hope they make their way down to see us soon).
I have never been able to match my style of writing from any period of my life with any journal. As a result, I make sure to let people know that I look at all styles of poetry. I want to give a voice to those who strive to share it. And now that it’s years later, I also want to start putting out print collections, starting with Stone Soup Presents: Fresh Broth, which hopefully will overcome its many obstacles (printing issues) and be available soon.
GER: What poets do you read and what poets have inspired your own writing?
CP: I went through college and graduate school reading Philip Levine and Charles Simic. Also, thanks to Alan Feldman, my poetry teacher at Framingham State (and another poet whose work I enjoyed), I discovered a then-little known poet named Tony Hoagland, who went on to write some of my favorite modern poems (“Jet” and “Self-Improvement” I love reading at the beginning of Stone Soup open mics). We recently lost Jack McCarthy, whose storytelling style was always a joy to hear and read. These days, I workshop with Ron Goba, a local poet and a treasure who I hope to publish more of soon. I feel his style has permeated into mine, which Patron Emeritus will show once it comes out.