“No one has ever interviewed me about poetry before,” Richard Dittami says, leaning back in his chair at the café in Pugwash.
Yet this is how I know him, as a poet, and so I wanted to know more.
Richard is a Come-From-Away who has made Pugwash his second home. He’s retired after working in construction for 30 years and he arrived in Nova Scotia from his hometown in Massachusetts via South America.
That’s quite a road trip.
More than a decade ago, when he was in his forties, Richard was upset with the US government’s decision to invade Iraq after the terror attacks of 2001. Protesting that war was very unpopular, so much so, Richard decided to go to South America.
“I’ve always been a writer so I had this idea of writing a book,” he says of the decision. “I wondered what would happen if I bought a $100 car and just kept driving?”
“I’m kind of a mechanic,” he says, “so I ended up driving to Chile.”
But that’s getting ahead of the story because it turns out, it took him two attempts to get to South America. The first time, Richard made it to Costa Rica before realizing he didn’t have enough money. He returned home to Massachusetts, worked and saved his money for a couple of years then headed out on the road again.
He drove across the States, through Mexico and the rest of Central America, down, he says, “the end of the road in Panama. From Panama, I sold the car, took a flight to Ecuador and drove from there all the way down the coast of Peru. Which is very long. If you look at a map, you wouldn’t think so but it’s 2,000 miles of coastline.”
In Chile, he wrote his book (“which nobody ever published,” he laments without bitterness) and worked as a mechanic. He was alone. Asked about why he went there, the real why, not just the book-writing why, he leans back in his chair again, places a hand on top of his head and thinks for a bit.
“It’s a long story...” he kind of sighs and that’s the sense I get: There is so much more to the story but his reaction suggests it is too personal to share or perhaps just too complicated for a newspaper story.
Of the long, solitary drive down south, he says, “It’s very meditative. I met lots of nice people. At the time, I believed there was nothing to be afraid of.”
Does he still feel that way now, at the age of 54?
“I still maintain that there’s nothing to be afraid of but...losing your spirit. That is something to have concern about. Because your spirit is the only thing that is irreplaceable.”
Which sounds like an idea for a poem.
Richard began writing poetry when he was in university studying Sociology and English.
“I worked my way through school with the Labourers International so [after graduation] I just ended up becoming a construction worker,” he explains. “I worked my way up to foreman then superintendent.”
Did having an Arts degree make him a different kind of construction boss?
“Not right away,” Richard admits. “I had a few years when I yelled and screamed. But once I grew up a little... I supervised a lot of work so I could use my brain and communication skills. It was a brutal business, people use brutal language and it was brutal work but I was able to run work like a gentleman.”
Over the years, he’s written poetry and short stories. He published some, including an essay in a Canadian literary journal about his drive to the end of the road in Panama, but these days, he writes poetry simply when he feels like it.
“It’s a noise in my head that has to come out,” he says.
There are certain themes Richard explores in his poems.
“Sanity and mental illness. The nature of the universe in small things,” he says. “Everything is connected to everything else. You could write a poem about that desk and how it’s related to the tide in the harbour which is related to the birds migrating which is related somehow to the war in Afghanistan. Threads that become apparent you try to tie together.”
He doesn’t write many poems about love although he has been inspired for a couple by the local teacher he’s been dating since the summer of 2011. He writes longhand, in notebooks.
“I have a suitcase full of poetry,” he says.
Richard came to Pugwash in the summer of 2003, on a sight-seeing trip with a friend from South America. They ended up in Nova Scotia after running out of New England to explore. It was the “World Famous for Peace” slogan that attracted this former war protester. Richard liked the village so much, he came back in the fall and bought a house.
Now he spends half his year here and half back in Framingham.
“I just seemed to fit as soon as I landed here,” says Richard. “I have good friends here. People are very nice to me here. It’s the spirit of the people I enjoy being around. I learn things and end up a better person.”