I first met Dan Giancola in August 2018, thanks to an introduction by his longtime friend and fellow poet William Heyen who’s one of my closest friends and a fellow neighbor in the Village of Brockport where I make my home. I became an instant fan of Dan’s poetry and a new friendship blossomed. Dan is one of the funniest men I’ve ever met—a biting, acid-sting wit as you quickly learn, in person or in poetry like that in his 1998 collection, Songs from the Army of the Working Stiffs.
Eventually, in 2021, I turned my attention to Speaking in an Empty Room: The Selected Letters of John Sanford. I confess I haven’t read many writers’ letters. No particular reason except there are so many poets and too little time to get to all their books. But for Dan I had to make an exception.
I waded in, reading these missives—one letter every day for 222 days written by a novelist I’d never heart of much less read. The rewards were many.
This book is an astounding work of serious scholarship and meticulous curation. The letters began in February 1931 and continued through February 2003, two weeks before Sanford’s death. Letters to his beloved wife Maggie and other family members, to Sanford’s many editors and publishers over the years, as well as publishers who turned him away. And, to my sweet surprise, a series of letters to Dan Giancola himself whom Sanford dubbed “Dan the Sleuth.”
One of the overriding themes that emerges from these pages is the horrific slog Sanford endured to peddle his manuscripts from publisher to publisher, and too-often futile results. Only his perseverance (and talent!) saw him finally get, one by one, his books into print.
My fellow authors would recognize the old run-around as rejections amass—only Sanford was schlepping his manuscripts across Manhattan (and the country) in boxes containing a ream or more of typewritten paper. Copies were expensive to make and hard to come by. Type, retype, retype—using carbon paper. Think of it. For nearly all of his seventy-year career. He wrote his wife on March 1, 1949, “What inspired it [the letter] was my seventeenth rejection (from Viking) in the morning mail.” Seventeen hard copies. For naught.
It’s no wonder he seems at time an irascible coot, albeit one who was blackballed during the McCarthy era of terrorism. (Yes, Sanford had some communist affiliation.) His relative obscurity might have honed his native cynicism. He sure wasn’t one to mince words. H lambasts a hack writer: “He’s a base man a cheap blowhard, whose lifelong work has been in the field of calumny” (#142; April 11, 1983). Sanford “tells it like it is” I scribbled in the margin. This was a man who said what I’ve often only thought when I receive another book rejection: “That ‘editorial cunt.’”
Dan provides brief editorial notes preceding many of the letters—situating the letter in the context of Sanford’s life. For example, he explains about #32, written November 30, 1940: “(Sanford refers here to Pandro Berman, an MGM producer. The film Soapy Smith was written by John and Maggie both and released as Honky-Tonk, giving Sanford his only screenwriters film credit)”.
There’s also a nifty List of Recipients with page reference to their letters, and an Afterword by Sanford’s literary executor, Jack Mearns, who telescopes Sanford’s “warring sides”—his “generosity of spirit” and the “scourge of scorn for those who angered him.”
Thank you, Dan Giancola, for your fine work, such a tribute to the art of letter writing, the old-fashioned way.
You can find the book on Amazon at https://www.amazon.com/dp/0578774720/ref=cm_sw_r_apan_i_FBFMHFTTS9RNVRHDE49H
DAN GIANCOLAis the author of 9 poetry books, most recently Exit Strategy (Bullhead Books, 2018) and Near Ghazals (Street Press, 2020). He lives in Mastic, NY.
I had the good fortune last summer to make Mark Goldman’s acquaintance. There’s a lot of cross-pollination with the Buffalo-Rochester nexus of writers. We got together and did what writers do: exchange books and backstories.
City of My Heart, Mark’s unabashed romance with the city, came into my hands canalside in Brockport. Then traveled to my Florida condo where I read it this winter little by little, 4-7 pages/day, on my lanai here in North Fort Myers, with my second cup of coffee as sun spilled in.
The thing is I care about Buffalo. I lived there. Twice. From 1968-70 in the suburb West Seneca; and 1974-76 in nearby Lockport, NY, with commutes into Buffalo proper for grad school at the University of Buffalo’s Main Campus, where Mark taught. So, yes, Buffalo has a soft spot in my heart. The book of Mark’s remarkably passionate and personal account of his beloved adopted city is deft, lively writing—history as it should be, full of real people brought to life throughout Buffalo’s varied neighborhoods.
So many memories of The Queen City. My father taking me downtown to a furniture store to shop for my 16th birthday present: a canopy bed-set…the bus rides from ’burbs to inner city to the central library…other bus rides for visits to the Albright Knox Gallery in Delaware Park…. City of My Heart gave me vivid flashbacks because Mark doesn’t overlook a detail. Nobody knows Buffalo like this urban scholar does. And he gives it to us on a platter.
But you don’t have to be an urbanist to appreciate Mark’s punctilious documentation. The “photo album” within is well curated, again taking us across decades and through the city’s neighborhoods.
We not only get to celebrate Buffalo’s Olmstead park, we go there and learn how we almost lost a huge chunk of Delaware Park to a highway improvement project. Mark tells us the nail-biting tale of saving the park from that roadway. I’d forgotten about the controversy, but he was there. He was, in fact, instrumental in saving the park.
Mark also brings to life the arts and music of Buffalo, it’s “scenes,” the creative throb of the city. You can almost hear the Sunday jazz at the Calumet Arts Café that Mark established, almost single-handedly.
And you meet people, real flesh and blood Buffalonians: blacks, Italians, Cubans, Irish, Puerto Ricans, Polish, Jews—because Buffalo is a melting pot.
And you get valuable information. I treasure the concise list of the ten principles of redevelopment Mark has often applied. Might come in handy some day—if the bulldozers of urban renewal come for my neighborhood near Rochester. I’ll pass them along:
- Street life
- Economic Development
- Delaware Avenue (or YOUR local historical boulevard)
- Question the subsidy (of urban renewal)
- Who’s the customer?
- Don’t be afraid of the dark
The book then is also a great handbook for activism. How to be an activist. How to get involved with your community. How to help preserve it and its treasures.
Mark has the ability to distill the significance of an historical artifact, for example, and with tidy clarity he explains, in this case, a Sicilian-American newspaper: “The pages of Per Niente are a sensory guide to a long-lost world.” There are dozens of such concisely telescoped explanations throughout.
Here in all its glory is the Rust Belt city on the Niagara River that rose from the ashes of the steel mill closures and reclaimed its crown; here is The Queen City in all its splendor and splotches. Take a walk on the riverfront. Drop into an Allentown nightclub. Take in the Buffalo Symphony Orchestra. You’ll see. Buffalo is just as Mark portrays it: vibrant and welcoming.
You can find the book on Amazon at https://www.amazon.com/City-My-Heart-Buffalo-1967-2020/dp/097407022X/ref=sr_1_1?crid=18F2CNARAPVJG&keywords=mark+goldman%2C+city+of+my+heart&qid=1649368124&sprefix=mark+goldman%2C+city+of+my+hear%2Caps%2C156&sr=8-1
MARK GOLDMAN has been a citizen of Buffalo for more than 50 years. As a graduate of Brandeis University, he earned his doctorate in history at University at Buffalo. Mark is the author of three Buffalo Heritage Press books: Albright: The Life and Times of John J. Albright; Max Meets the Mayor; and now Tillie, A New York City Girl: 1906-2001. He is also the author of City on the Edge: Buffalo, New York, 1900-Present; City on the Lake: The Challenge of Change in Buffalo, New York; and High Hopes: The Rise and Decline of Buffalo, New York.