Literature

Richard Vetere

Richard Vetere
Richard Vetere
Richard Vetere, born January 15, 1952, is an American playwright, screenwriter, television writer, poet and an actor. | Photo: Richard Vetere | Richard Vetere, Poetry, Book, The Third Miracle,

His words have touched your life

The Other Colors in a Snow Storm
Richard Vetere
Paperback. 58 pp.
September 3, 2012. Bordighera Press.

We live in a world of celebrity, where J.K. Rowling, Stephen King or Stephanie Myers' are household names, but there are writers who touch your heart, whose name is not as celebrated, but their writings are none-the-less revered.

"Ask not what your country can do for you, but what you can do for your country" was passionately spoken by John F. Kennedy, but it was in fact written by Theodore C. Sorensen. Also, although Nelson Mandela is often credited with the quote, "And as we let our own light shine, we unconsciously give other people permission to do the same," this quote was actually written by Marianne Williamson. So many great writers are unsung heroes of our society, but while some of us will only have a brief moment of time on earth, the words of revered writers will live forever.

Stony Brook University's mission is to not only recognize great work, but to preserve an author's work for posterity. Stony Brook University invited Richard Vetere to archive his vast collection of published and unpublished screenplays, plays, poetry, notebooks and correspondence at Stony Brook University Special Collection and University Archives. The Richard Vetere Collection now sits alongside great historical writings that include the William Butler Yeats Collection, correspondence from President George Washington, Nobel Prize Winner for Literature Pablo Neruda, and many more.

From poetry to plays and screenwriting to novels, Richard's fearless bond of mind to pen has no limits. He began writing as a poet, inspired by the work of Keats, Byron, Yeats and Dickinson, so by the time he decided to write plays he had such a command of language that the New York Times wrote: "Vetere demonstrates the ability to mix the poetic with the colloquial."

His new book, The Other Colors in a Snow Storm, published by Bordighera Press, has come full circle for Richard. I remember when I first heard Richard recite the poem, The Other Colors in a Snow Storm, the name he choose for his book. At this point I was already a fan of Richard's work having seen a number of his plays, but when I heard this poem, I, like many other people that evening, saw a window open into a creative mind that has the ability to see things many of us would not take a moment to consider as we rush through the snow. Richard takes a moment to see the life in the snow.

I was given the opportunity to read Richard's book before it was released. His poems reveal a talent of great range that poignantly writes about the political issues of our time while also offering observations about the tragedy of life, the deep and profound love that will bring you to tears, and laugh out loud humor. His poems will lead you to images you may have missed in your everyday life and inspire an "OMG you just wrote what I feel!"

So, when I had a chance to sit down and speak with this prolific writer, we discussed his long and lustrous career, and it became a discussion which developed into a fascinating, in-depth interview.

We began with the publication of his most recent book, and how that came about.

The Poet
RICHARD: The Other Colors in a Snow Storm is a selection of poems that have not been published in previous books of mine, from when I started writing in the early 70s to 2011. A lot of these poems have actually appeared in magazines, but not in a collection of mine. So like Two Sides of the Story, Celebrating my Birthday at the Age of 40, Global Amnesia, Betty Boop, and Screen Writer Blues, these are the titles of a lot of poems, but they have never been in a book, so when I do poetry readings people want to have a copy, and now they can because they will be in a book.

VICTORIA: So that was the inspiration for putting the book together?
RICHARD: Yes, I approached my publisher, Bordighera Press. They published Baroque, my novel. It's on Amazon. They are really cool about promoting, they're out of CUNY. They said to me, "Do you have a book of poetry?" I said, "Sure." "Well, we have a waiting list of so many things that we want to publish, but we would love to do your book this year," and I said, "Great!" So I put it together and it should be fun. I will be doing a bunch of readings of it.

VICTORIA: And where do you do your readings?
RICHARD: Well this producer friend of mine who was at my birthday celebration said she has some really hip, cool places to do a reading. What she wants me to do is get celebrities to read with me. I used to do that in the 90s, and I said, "That will be great, let's do it." So, as soon as I get a date, a club date, I can start working on that.

And my new children's book, Bird Brain, was just published.

VICTORIA: Cool.
RICHARD: Yeah, it's a play, and I'm going to be doing a reading of it at the Italian American Museum, but that's published by the publisher of all my plays, Dramatic Publishing.

VICTORIA: You love going out and doing poetry readings?
RICHARD: Readings of poems that people like to hear, but they weren't in one book. I wrote one brand new poem when he told me it was being published. I said, "I have to write a poem to put in the last page," and then I wrote my newest poem called The Rest of Your Life... (pause) I really like that poem.

VICTORIA:So you started writing as a poet?
RICHARD:Oh yeah, I was a poet.

VICTORIA:And you still do poetry readings, so why do you do that? Tell me what inspires you to go out and keep reading your poetry.
RICHARD:Oh, ok. Well, I did not do that for a long time, because I was doing TV. I was writing plays and it was like, "Why do I need to do poetry readings?" Well, I can't remember when it happened, but I was asked to do a poetry reading and I liked it so much that I decided to keep doing it. I don't know where. Tony Iovino asked me to participate in this wonderful thing he does for charity every summer. A gazebo series at the beach, and I've read there now five years in a row, maybe six, and he'll be asking me again soon. What I do is read. He has lights now, but you read for about twenty minutes, he picks about four or five poets a night, and it's really, really fun.

So when I started doing that it was like, this is fun, but now as I'm older I just love the idea of reading, and I think I'm a better reader now. I was an actor before, but now I'm a director I think I have a better idea how to read for an audience, so'

VICTORIA: Do you think the audience has grown for poetry in the last few years?
RICHARD: Not written poetry. It's mainly spoken poetry. I think it's a really hard discipline, to write a sestina or a sonnet, and they're written to be read on a page, not read aloud. So to me, I got involved with poetry in the 70s, just when poetry was changing. Meaning, there were a lot of magazines, but they weren't based on publishing quality writings, they were publishing people based on "If you're a left-handed, blue-eyed man-poet from Chicago we have a new magazine." So it diluted the power of poetry. I got my Masters from Columbia in Comparative English Literature, so I'm like a serious academic when it comes to poetry. So a lot of poetry that is read out loud to me is not all that interesting, because they don't seem to spend a lot of time on language. It's one of the reasons I stopped writing poetry, because I did not want to spend so much time on the language. When I was writing plays I was writing dialogue, so dialogue was a lot more fascinating to me than my own inner thing. Plus, you can tell stories with plays. It's hard to tell stories with poems. The epic poem is like not something anybody really cares to listen to, I think.

The Playwright
VICTORIA: That's true actually. I was thinking about your plays that were produced during your birthday. Three which I would love to talk about. The first, I love, was about political correctness. About this woman who was coming in'

RICHARD: Oh, the pizza place. Yeah. It's called The Kid's Menu.

VICTORIA: Yeah.
RICHARD: Yes, I really like that.

VICTORIA: I loved the character of the woman and the business owner standing up for their voice. Here is a woman thinking that she was protecting her son, and she was actually taking away the voice of somebody else, which I thought was really interesting.
RICHARD: Thanks.

VICTORIA: But do you? When you write, I said to a friend of mine not too long ago that artists are the voices of society. Do you feel that way as a writer? That you are the voice of your particular point in time?
RICHARD: Oh, definitely! On one level sure!

VICTORIA: How is that, how do you?
RICHARD: The level that you, that you live, you know, so that anything I write is going to be my point of view. Well, let's put it this way, taking the time and energy to write about a particular thing is already bringing attention to that particular issue. Now, The Kid's Menu is a story I read in the newspaper about an Italian pizza place owner in Park Slope. I think it was in Park Slope. A woman was complaining that they did not have a children's menu. I think the pizza owner was suing her or something because she was trying to close his business down. It was just a little article in the Daily News and I thought it would be really fun to write.

VICTORIA: Right.
RICHARD: So, I went to my friends, these guys you know that have a pizza place, and I interviewed them about the pizza, but I thought the whole idea of forcing someone to have a kid's menu was just part of the silly political correctness. I thought that if your kid is too fat to eat, don't go to a pizza place. You know it's like silly, but yes, I do believe, directly or indirectly, all writing is political.

VICTORIA: What is your particular voice when it comes to politics and things that are going on today? And how do you represent that in your writing?
RICHARD: Well, sometimes I don't know if I purposely try to represent something. The Kid's Menu gets a lot of attention, but that was something that I was actually trying to do politically, to say, "Look at this woman with this kid." I'm like right down the middle, so I don't really have a political agenda when I write. I'm more interested in the characters, but there are emotional issues or themes that some people might take as political, but I don't think I'm known as that, I don't think that's my thing.

VICTORIA: I like that, because you're just focusing on life.
RICHARD: Yeah, with the characters to think about, yeah.

VICTORIA: And life moments.
RICHARD: Yeah, but the play, The Kid's Menu, was a really good example of me when I was trying to make a point.

What are the other two plays?

VICTORIA: The other one I thought was very interesting to me in particular was the one with the sergeant.
RICHARD:Oh, One Shot, One Kill, yeah.

The Other Colors
The Other Colors

We live in a world of celebrity, where J.K. Rowling, Stephen King or Stephanie Myers' are household names, but there are writers who touch your heart, whose name is not as celebrated, but their writings are none-the-less revered. | Photo: |
VICTORIA:What I found interesting that tends to be a big issue in the United States is that what is in the forefront of the news is the prejudice between African Americans and European Americans. In your play you feature two people from the same ethnic group, a European group, and one character was talking about how he was oppressing the other. That's not really talked about, and I thought that was really fascinating.
RICHARD:Oh, that's interesting.

Oh yeah, the kid was part Italian, Irish, Korean and Spanish, so what's interesting for me and the American military, well look at that poor Chinese kid that was driven to commit suicide.

VICTORIA: I know, very sad.
RICHARD:So the American military is an Anglo Saxon institution. I mean, the great generals were all white Anglo Saxon, but they love the warrior mentality of the American Indian. You know the warrior chiefs, Geronimo and Sitting Bull.

Sitting Bull defeated the American 7th Cavalry , so that is held in high esteem, but everybody who joins the military wants to be, you know, a part of the hierarchy, so I was just interested in giving this kid a lot of skills. A kid who is a minority in the space of the American military, but his major admires him because this kid has great sniper skills, but at the same time he still pokes fun at him. The Major has a line, "I'm a warrior, and when I look into the eyes of another warrior I see myself, and when I look at you I see the warrior."

So he was elevating the kid to the same level, no matter what his background was. Well, that was because the kid had incredible skills as a sniper. But I'm glad you like that, I love that play. What was the third one?

The Playwright and Family
VICTORIA: Three Sisters.
RICHARD: Did you really? Oh yeah.

Oh good, I have a meeting later on the play.

VICTORIA: That's an excellent play.

RICHARD: Thank you.

VICTORIA: Yeah.
RICHARD:Why did you like it?

VICTORIA:I think people have a fantasy when it comes to relationships about their family, and because she is a so-called sister you should be able to accept and be a friend, and be bonded or to have some kind of relationship. It is not always going to happen that way, and that is really what I appreciated in your play, it was about relationships. It's about character, it's about who you are, and you can come from the same family and still be on opposite ends of the spectrum, and that is what I loved, that there was this vast diversity within the family unit. It was so powerful, and they seem to be quite at a loss with how to deal with it, and a lot of people are at a loss with how to deal with it because they make assumptions on the title, instead of understanding the person.
RICHARD: I learned a lot when my mother passed away with me and my brothers. I don't have any sisters. I'm the oldest and my younger brothers are extremely successful and still treating each other like they were five years old. It was all sibling rivalry, a pecking order, because once the parents are gone, the king and queen of the empire are gone, so now everybody has to take care of themselves. There is this sort of power struggle I hadn't seen.

Here's the irony, about family as you say. When my father died, I always thought of my mother and father as together and blaming things that my father didn't do because of my mother, and I wasn't crazy about my mother. My father died and I quickly became very close to my mother.

I noticed that my mother protected my brothers from each other, and when she died, now there was no longer a protection, so now my brothers were going at each other. It was like, and you know I'm the outsider, I'm the oldest, but you know I'm like the writer and I was like you guys are behaving like you are kids, so that is what gave me the idea for this play.

VICTORIA: That makes a lot of sense.
RICHARD: We were trying to decide what to do with something, either property or the house, money or something, and I was listening to them talk and my middle brother was just giving my baby brother the hardest time.

VICTORIA: Yeah.
RICHARD: And then my little brother hung up on him (LOL), so I called both of them and my little brother said, "He can't talk to me like that," and I called the other one and he said, "Well, tell him to grow up." (LOL) I'm like you both need to grow up, you can't talk to each other like that.

VICTORIA: You've taken the role of your mom.
RICHARD: Well, I was the oldest.

VICTORIA: I know, but it's wonderful that you did that.
RICHARD: Oh, oh well yeah, because somebody had to.

VICTORIA: Yeah.
RICHARD:I'm the oldest, but and here's the funny thing, when I had to paint the house. When we took over the house, my brothers and my sister-in-laws did a great job. They are very domestic. I'm terrible; they asked me to do one thing. They asked me to paint the closet. Oh my God, I made such a disaster with painting the closet. So, six months later, I said to one of my brothers, "Hey, at least I did the painting of the closet," and they go, "Oh my God, Robert was fuming, there was paint all over the place." I said, "He never told me." He said, "No, he's never going criticize you, you're the oldest."

I said, "Yeah, see that pecking order," and I'm not sure'obviously, it's not just an Italian/American family, but that pecking order of authority keeps the family going, together. The silliness of their behavior, I just realized, they still see each other as kids. No matter how successful; one has 400 people working under him, the other one has 250 people working under him, and yet they still acted like kids.

VICTORIA: That's so interesting.
The Richard Vetere Collection at Stony Brook University
VICTORIA: Tell me about' how did Stony Brook come about?
RICHARD: I'm still not sure. I got a letter from them, from the Frank Melba Library, and they have the best collection of Yeat's poetry in the country. They have Jacob Javits' letters, Italian-American poetry. I had given a talk on film, and I got a letter that they were extending an invitation to me to create the Richard Vetere Collection and archive all my work.

I said, "What did that mean?" and they told me legally what it meant. They actually own it now. It came at a perfect time because I had 50 cartons of my work, letters and everything, that I had saved up until the year 2000. When they approached me in the year 2004 the collection was created, so I had just got back from LA, writing, in 2004.

They said, "We'll take all the boxes, so my mother was thrilled because I was saving them in her house, and they came with a U-Haul truck and took those'unfortunately some others got damaged and things, but they took 50 cartons of all my work, chronologically ordered it together, air purified the paper, and it's on display at Stony Brook.

Connecting the Dots that Launched a Career
Grants

VICTORIA: I was reading in your bio that early in your career you were fortunate enough to get a number of grants. How important is that, and are they still available do you think?
RICHARD: If they are, they're hard to get. That's a really good question. I wish somebody would do a panel discussion on it. I've been trying to get people to do a talk on it, to discuss, "Should there be grants to help artists?" There should be one. Why aren't they doing it?

It came about, because I was always involved with arts organizations, and Jimmy Carter put it out there. He got the Council Foundation to give 500 artists in New York City $10,000 a year in 1978, '79 and '80, and I was one of those 500 artists. I got a grant three years in a row plus unemployment after that. All you had to do was write, and once a month you had to give a talk at a school.

I'll tell you what happened, because in '78 Israel Horowitz invited me into the Actor's Studio. So, I had to write a play, so not only was I in the Actor's Studio, but you're right that'78 grant made a big difference with my career.

Then at the same time I met this film producer, who hired me to write a movie, plus I got the grant, and after the grant, because of one of my plays being seen at the Actor's Studio, I got the job to write the film Vigilante.

So it all happened between '78, '79 and '80. Those three years, and it was perfect timing. I was 26, 27 and 28, and Vigilante came out. Then I had to make a big decision, did I want to write action movies? Vigilante was incredibly successful. I didn't have a very strong agent, and I retreated and wanted to write poems, and every time that happens I retreat and write poems, because I own the poems. So, then the next big thing happened. I started getting work on my own, but in Paris. I got a movie when I got back from Paris. I signed with a really big agent.

VICTORIA: Getting those grants gave you the opportunity to become a full-time working writer.
RICHARD: Yes. It did, because I never had to get another job from '78 on. I never worked as anything else. The other thing about it was I wasn't really looking for work because I was getting money from the grant.

VICTORIA: Right, but you were writing, which is your work.
RICHARD: Yeah, but I wasn't writing stuff to sell. Only now do I, only in the last few years do I think, when I write something is it going to sell? I never worried about it before.

VICTORIA: But isn't that also the formative time as an artist? Where you want to have that freedom to not think about it? Grants are like the modern day patron.
RICHARD: I had the freedom all these years, yeah. I have the freedom now, and teaching is like just fun. I fought really hard to do what I wanted to do, but I always seem to have been able to do what I wanted to do.

The only time I didn't, which helped me get my pension and stuff, was when Danny Aiello saw a play of mine. He called CBS and said I want Richard to come to the office every day, and I got paid really well, to write for Danny Aiello's series Dellaventura. I went, "That's a job!" Then I got another job at ABC, when someone saw One Shot, One Kill and hired me to be in LA, and working for television is a job.

I was writing, but I felt I wasn't writing what I wanted to write. I was writing just to get paid, but I'm glad I did all that stuff because that made me money. Now I want to do my own television series. I have a TV pilot I wrote on my own and I haven't had any luck with it, but everyone loves it. I just have to connect to the right person.

Mentors
VICTORIA: The other thing that I loved, and what I thought was really important, was also that you had so many mentors.
RICHARD: Yeah, that's a good question.

I keep telling people you can't find a mentor, they have to find you.

I was in college. I won a poetry contest, and the head of the modern foreign language department met with me every Thursday afternoon. He said, "Just talk to me about what you want to do." He helped usher me into Columbia for my Masters.

Then I met my friend, who just died, and he mentored me into the world of writing as a commercial activity, not as poetry. So yeah, it's really important for someone to mentor you.

VICTORIA: I think that's an interesting distinction, because I think people go out and they ask people to mentor them.
RICHARD: I've been asked twice. I had two different women come up to me and say, "Be my mentor." I had no interest in being their mentor.

VICTORIA: Why did you say no to those two women who asked you?
RICHARD: I felt one of the playwrights, not that she wasn't talented, it's just too difficult. The other woman was a singer and she just wanted career advice, and I said, "I'll give you that but I can't be a mentor."

VICTORIA: Did you write that bio for Stony Brook?
RICHARD: With someone there, yeah.

VICTORIA: That was a beautiful bio. It was a story. It flows, and you shared in your bio that your mentor saw something in you, which I thought was really important. I think what a lot of people don't understand is that you took the opportunity and you listened.
RICHARD: Yeah, I'm really good at taking opportunity.

VICTORIA: They offered, and you couldn't have known what it was going to lead to, because it wasn't formally "I'm your mentor, this is where I can take you."
RICHARD: No, no-one ever said that.

VICTORIA: This was someone who showed an interest in you and you were grateful enough to take them up on their offer and then allow whatever was going on to flow and happen. I think when we look back on our lives in that way, and when I think about people who want to become an artist or an actor or whatever, they don't always realize that you may not be able to. I think it has a lot to do with what Steve Jobs said, you can't look backward. It is about, what did he say? I remember, he said, "You can't connect the dots going forward."
RICHARD: Right, when I was in college I wanted to be known as a poet, and I was writing poetry, and two young guys at the editor magazine discovered me, but then the chairman of the modern foreign languages department was the judge of the poetry contest, and he became a good friend for years. He would have these salons at his house and tell me, "Bring over friends and we'll have dinner and have discussions." We would talk all night, and that went on for years, but then after I got out of Columbia I needed to make a living, and my other friend met me through that grant thing, and my first movie I got hired for came through the Actor's Studio and everything.

He said, "You need to get away from that and know how to write commercially so you can make a living." So I listened to him, and you listen because I think its part of what I said in my talk, my celebration, being born with a talent is one thing, but then being smart enough to know that there's a lot to learn, and how to get there. Like, how to get the things you want? I was just really smart. Also, I was sociable, which I wasn't when I was really younger, but as I got older I got a lot more sociable. I was attractive, I was really a cute guy, and that matters. People want to be around attractive people, and'

VICTORIA: And sociable.
RICHARD: Sociable, attractive, personable, and talented. It was a killer mix. The two girls that approached me were attractive, but one was full of neurosis and everything, and the other one like I said was a singer, so I couldn't really help her, but you've got to be smart enough to know who the people are to listen to.

Writer, Performer and Director
VICTORIA: What I love about the fact that you started out as a poet is that there's a tremendous depth of understanding, not just in the written word, but the visual aspects as well when you write as a poet. What I also always loved about poetry is that it's this limited amount of words, with this intimate quality of emotion that comes through every time you read a poem. So each time you return to it you just feel something different, and I think that's what's so powerful about a poet.
Yet you grew into all the genres of writing, from being a poet, to a playwright, to a screenwriter, to writing novels. So you've actually run the gamut, which is so unique, because at most, writers are often either only a poet or only a novelist, and then somebody else can do a screenplay, but you've done all these different things, and I can only imagine the value of all of that which is probably why it's in this collection. So what do you see yourself going towards next?
Can you see yourself continuing in screenwriting? I know you also perform. You talked about different decades in your bio, where do you think you are now? What are you interested in now?
RICHARD: That's a good question. So, I just turned 60, and I'm thinking I might have ten years of still being interested in writing, and by saying that I mean I know a writer, a famous writer-playwright from '72, and I don't think he's as interested in writing anymore. What happens is you just get tired of saying stuff; or will this kind of statement ever get done, ever get an audience to see it, so I think about that. But that's like a long-range thing, because you could drop dead tomorrow. Right now I have the energy with me and I feel, at 60, I actually understand how it all works now.

It took a long time, but I'm really good at structuring a screenplay. You know how a play works better, I could tackle a novel tomorrow, but the idea of spending a year with a story and then getting it published doesn't excite me as much. So, I'm directing more because I like, I feel confident in that, I'm building up my confidence. I don't know if anyone's ever going to come to me and say, "Here's money to direct a film." I would like to do that, but I don't wake up in the morning and say I've got to direct this film, but I do like directing plays because I like working with actors and I like working on the stage, and I want to do this one man film.

I don't know if it's a one man film, it's more like a one person story time, and I'd like to see that, because I've been pushed to do that by everybody that I tell a story to. They keep telling me, "Why don't you write them down," and I said, "I don't want to write them down, I'd rather tell them."

I think I come from a tradition of storytellers and I think it might have to do with being Italian-American with Italian roots of hanging out and telling stories, because I used to love, when I was growing up in Brooklyn and Queens, hanging out with my friends when I was a teenager telling them stories about what happened to me, what happened to my friends.

So, I do the dinner parties, I tell stories and that's what this is. So, at the moment I just finished a new play with only 20 people around called The Wall. I'm thinking of a new play in my head. I'm not sure if I'm going to write, and I have about eight plays that are new, in the sense of the last 10 years, that I haven't even begun reading other than one reading. I just did a reading of one a couple of weeks ago and I've been trying to get that produced. I have a bunch of readings coming up, so I want to get that material out there. My answer to your question is, "I'm doing it all." I don't feel that old, I feel like I'm just starting out every time I do something.

The Other Colors in a Snow Storm

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