In my first post, I introduced myself; and in this second one, I want to introduce “Ricky” Riccio, from whose poetry assignments comes our book, Unlocking the Poem.
Ricky has the distinction of having been born just as his parents reached America. His first love was music, and in addition to playing the saxophone in swing and dance bands, he also studied music composition; he was even told his work was so good, it must have been professional! World War II interrupted his studies, and he served in the Pacific, acting as a lending library to his buddies who made sure to keep his duffel bag safe and dry so they’d continue to have books to read.
After the war ended, Ricky worked for a time at Baker Library at Harvard Business School, collecting experience that he would then put to use as a librarian working for the US government. In due course he went to Washington, DC where he had a job lined up at the US Army Medical Library. During the interval between his arrival in Washington and the day he started work, he kept warm in the Library of Congress, largely by feasting on the poems of Hart Crane—in fact, he copied out all of Crane’s poems longhand. As Ricky himself has written in a memoir entitled “Trio,”
“I don’t regret that work one bit. . . . While I copied that magic poetry something else happened to me. The fact of the contact between paper and pencil while I pored over those copies in the Library of Congress made me aware of Crane’s work in a way that would not have been possible by simply reading those painful but inspiring poems. . . . It was as if the lines and images penetrated my skin as well as my mind, and something of Hart Crane’s mystical vision—his very spirit—became part of me and will always remain so.”
Was it absorbing the poems of Hart Crane that helped turn Ricky from the pure sounds of music to the magic inherent in words? His in-depth absorption in Hart Crane’s work gave him an education in the forms and structures of poetry, and fed a new love for the music of language. Ricky was to prove a master of both sound-music and meaning, producing poetry with rich, rolling tones and a depth of emotion.
Ricky has always been a voracious reader, and it was through his reading that he met his first personal “muse,” Anais Nin. Enchanted by a recording he found of Nin reading from her book House of Incest, he wrote to The Phoenix Bookstore asking for a list of all her work, and for a biography of her. What he got back was a personal letter from Nin. That began a correspondence, followed by visits to her Greenwich Village home. Anais Nin—the well-known diarist and poet—kept pressuring her young friend to show her his own poems. Ricky was reluctant, but she persisted. With great trepidation, he finally brought her a sheaf of his poems . . . and she gave him important advice: start being-with other poets; start workshopping, the road to strengthening the poetic work.
Ricky took Nin’s advice to heart. He was then living in West Acton, Massachusetts. He sold his house in West Acton and moved to Belmont, Massachusetts, closer to Boston; and he signed up for a workshop at the Boston Center for Adult Education—a workshop that, at various times, included John Holmes, Anne Sexton, Maxine Kumin, Sam Albert, and George Starbuck, all prize-winning poets (Sexton and Kumin were both Pulitzer Prize winners). Within the workshop, he developed his own poetic voice and began publishing his poems. Eventually Ricky moved from workshop participant to workshop leader, and found—to the joy of scores of other poets—what became a major vocation. He has now led poetry workshops for forty years, and in that time has nurtured thousands of poets.
Ricky has an uncanny gift for spotting the essence of the poem in the product a student brings to workshop. Gently yet incisively, he has taught scores of others to find their own true poems, even when those true poems were sunk in unnecessary verbiage. Ricky’s major teaching tools have included his ever-creative, ever-inspiring assignments. Students fortunate enough to sit in his workshops have found whole books of poems emerging from the stimuli these assignments provided.
I count myself lucky to have had the chance to learn from such a skilled and artful teacher—a true master, not just of the craft of poetry, but of the craft of teaching. I count myself as luckier still to have had the chance to write Unlocking the Poem with him, a book of his assignments and teaching, all “illustrated” by poems written by his students. For anyone interested in writing poetry: please, take a look; there are sample pages available for downloading from this website. I think you’ll want to use what you find there to start new poems of your own—and please share them with us!