AN INTERVIEW

 

Let's talk a bit about age and career. Your last book came out in 2007 with Rose Metal Press. Before that was Alphaville from BlazeVox in 2006. And your first book, which won the Iowa Poetry Prize, came out in 2002, many years after you finished your MFA. At a time when "established" poets--whatever that means-- seem to be publishing a book every three years, and young poets have a few chapbooks under their belt well before the age of 30, how do you experience the relationship between the natural drive to get published as much as possible and the patience needed to ignore instant gratification? Do you feel pressure to keep up? Is the slow-working, determined, and quiet poet out of style?

 



After Thieves’ Latin appeared (poof!) my father asked me if I was still writing poems.  Yes, I said.  That’s good, he said.  It’s good to have a hobby, he said.  That’s why I play fantasy baseball. 

 

I felt like Grasshopper to his Master Po.

 

He’s a genius of love and love is a “feral pedagogy” (Aira). 

 

Does that answer your question?  No?

Slow-working? No.

Determined? Disturbingly so.

Quiet? The poet: yes. The poems: no.

Out of style: Disturbingly so.

 



Can you explain that response a little more?

 



I answered from the personal, hoping it would speak to the general?  Sorry.  Do you think that technology--online magazines, blogs, the proliferation of niche publishers--has changed instant gratification?  When I was boy.... the turnaround between writing a poem and seeing it in print was years.  Now--it may be hours.  Maybe poets your age will react against this speed?  A slow poetry movement?  My parable was meant to illustrate the relativity (ouch) of success.  Here's the start of a Paris Review interview with James Dickey (by Donald Hall?): "In 1960, when he was thirty-seven—an age at which most men have abandoned pretenses at having creative gifts—James Dickey published his first book of poetry...."  I love the pungency of Hall's pronouncement and how I've changed since I first read the interview and thought: wow--37?  1st book?  Not me, I'll be famous by 30! 

 



I don’t see younger poets reacting against speed anytime soon. It's heavily embraced. And for good reason! Small publishers and presses are having great success as a result of, I think, technology and social networking. When you began to write poems, what were some of the things you were reacting against?

 



My name is Peter: I’ve embraced speed, too!

 

But, to circle back to your first question, acceleration can lead to ersatz art—the poet may start to conflate publication with brilliance, they become addicted to the reaction, not to the action of writing. Of course, this was always true but one had to wait months if not years for the reactions—and while one waited, one wrote new poems, better poems, which blunted approaching successes and failures.

 

In my undergraduate workshops I often meet original poets who I know will stop writing poetry—they don’t have the tragedy/ecstasy/doom (Rothko) gene. They’ll move to California (it’s Emerson!) and write screenplays or software or software that writes screenplays within a video game.

 

I was lucky to have teachers—Jorie Graham, James Tate, James Galvin, Thomas Lux, Bill Knott—who taught me to respect the tradition even as they were extending those poetries in their own work. I love reading about the avant-garde (the foremost part of an army, advancing into enemy territory—grrrrr) but I’m not, by nature, an annihilator. Plus, as we all know, often the most schismatic –ismists aren’t such great poets. I reacted for, rather than against, and I still do.

 



Your 'acceleration leads to ersatz art' comment reminded me of an essay assigned in grad school. I remember reading The Work of Art in the Age of Mechanical Reproduction by Benjamin and thinking, yes!, this guy knows what's up. When I went back to look at it I found this sentence towards the end: "One of the foremost tasks of art has always been the creation of a demand which could be fully satisfied only later." I mention this because many of your poems seem futuristic. How does technology affect or influence you work?

 



For most of the 90s I was satisfied with a word processor.  I used one that had a screen so small I could only see a ribbon of text, 2-3 lines at a time.  So, I started writing long, skinny poems.  An editor once complimented on my “reduxing” of Williams—he was right (WC’s early poems were deeply influenced by his use of a typewriter)—but not the way he thought.  Now, I write on a computer.  I’m sure it affects my poems—but I can’t say how.

 

I don’t miss writing in notebooks and on scraps of paper, at all.  In the 80s I went through this baroque phase of using huge artist pads.  I didn’t like turning the page in a normal notebook—I liked seeing the poem all at once.  But imagine trying to carry those 24 x 36 sketchpads on the subway.

 

My poems do seem futuristic, sometimes—I think you’re right.  I don’t know why. Maybe because I grew up on a farm?

 



A couple years ago you won the Sonora Review Poetry Prize for a long poem written in three columns that went on for close to 15 pages. It can be read a myriad of ways-- top to bottom, side to side, bottom to top, diagonally--yet it nevertheless maintains a wacky narrative and continues to offer moments of surprise. How did that poem come into existence? And where did the idea for its form come from?

 



That piece began as a play.  There was a lot of slapstick action—wheelchairs falling from the ceiling, peculiar group exercise routines, squirting rose bushes, a decapitation and 3 characters who together, tell a long story. I actually won a Massachusetts Arts Council grant in Dramatic Arts for the play. But I could never figure out what to do with it.  I don’t know that world—theater.  I sent it to a few companies, a few publishers, but no go.  So, at some point I changed it into it’s present form—3 characters who together, tell a long story. It still has a lot of repetition and movement—maybe it could be an opera libretto?  I’ve always wanted to read it—of course I’d need help. 



What draws you towards theatre/plays? What techniques do you steal/utilize and then incorporate in your own work?




I think Bill Knott mentioned in an interview that a lot of poets want to be  playwrights--the audience, the camaraderie.  I just like the form--the mixture of tone--stage directions, characters names, dialogue.  An actual audience would only hear dialogue, but in a verse-poem, readers can play in the splay of typefaces. Some of my favorite parts of Beckett's plays are his stage directions.  Really, HOW TO BUILD THE GHOST IN YOUR ATTIC is a dramatic monologue, you know, it's a riff on Sophocles w/ the bad "attic" pun in the title.  I like writing (a la Kenneth Koch) plays that are, essentially, unperformable. Tom Andrews wrote a great book of unfilmable screenplays, same idea. That would be a great anthology, little plays by poets--Koch, Tate, Andrews, Jennifer Knox, Mairéad Byrne...



Lastly, what are you working on now? Can we expect a new book anytime soon? Any other plays that will go unperformed? Any overlooked poets we should be reading?



 

I mentioned Aira, earlier--Cesar Aira, not a poet, but his novellas have everything I expect from great poetry. I'd start with How I Became a Nun or Seamstress in the Wind (both by New Directions). He had a marvelous short story in the New Yorker, recently. I've been reading a lot from anthologies--Hofmann's  20th-Century German Poetry and Miller and Prufer's New European Poets. I mentioned Mairead Byrne, earlier, too, I love her last book, The Best of (What's Left of) Heaven (Publishing Genius).