Carcanet published your Sky Burial: New & Selected Poems this past February, before Covid-19 changed the world dramatically. From your first book to your most recent, I read you as speaking to the contemporary condition in deliberately timeless ways. How do you hear your voice as evolving over the past thirty years? Can you speak to the arc?
It is certainly a strange moment to have a book come out. One hopes that poetry can address all sorts of weathers. This epidemic is one of many epidemics that have occurred in recent history – including the ongoing epidemics of world-wide poverty, of racism, of pointless war, of the refugee crisis, of climate change, of commercial governing.
Regarding my own work, the biggest part of the arc I can speak to is just how much the mystery of it keeps deepening from spending a life at this art. When I write I am always aware that language is bigger than me, older than me, that it doesn’t live in me, I live in it. We all do. Language is an ancient medium we all negotiate every day in the world and in our heads, or better said, the world in our heads; it is archival, hence why and how we (think we) understand one another (or ourselves).
So, over these many years I feel more and more that my job as a poet is simply to listen and receive. And what I have learned is that one of the greatest gifts of being a writer, particularly a poet, is learning how to listen. When I was in my twenties and thirties I wanted to be heard and seen and was unduly loud I imagine. But now in the past decade or two, the world has gotten much louder, it’s like someone keeps turning the volume up; it has been an ongoing privilege and hardship to learn how to listen to the world.
This new Carcanet edition comes after my 2014 US Selected, In Defense of Nothing, and includes poems from my 2016 book Archeophonics and also about thirty pages of new poems. I have always hoped to have a proper book in the UK so I am delighted about it.
Let me ask you about your new book, A Dynamic Exchange Between Us. Does this title come from somewhere, as it has a scientific feel to it and has been morphed into something intimate? The book deploys a vital linguistic surface while maintaining a human core and differs from your previous books as it is less narrative driven.
I went back and forth with the word ‘dynamic’. Though I wasn’t thinking of anyone in particular when I settled on it, I have a note at the back of the book which cites Alfred Einstein, a nod to him as philosopher more than scientist. I might have first read this particular quote thirty or so years ago, on one of those posters he appears in with the crazy hair which used to be ubiquitous in US college dorm rooms. Einstein aligns the ‘beautiful’ to the ‘mysterious’ to a ‘knowledge’ which we can only comprehend in ‘primitive forms’ . . . ‘this feeling is at the centre of true religiousness’. Everything implicit in these words interests me. I gave a reading recently and was asked if I felt closer to God after writing the book and have been thinking about that ever since. For sure, I feel closer to the language of God (there are allusions throughout the book to The Bible, The Qur’an, the Buddhist Sutras etc.), closer to the language of life and death, the above and beyond, as well as the contemporary here and now. But in all these respects, the ‘dynamic exchange’ for me is a philosophical one, partial to the meta-language of assertions, propositions, semantics, performative grammars etc., and yet at the same time distrustful of them. It allows me to tread the line between a philosophical and counter (or mock) philosophical patter. If I come down on the right chord (the right collection of words), the poem performs an ontological swerve, both towards and away from expressions of being and meaning, a deferral of expectation, deeper into the multiplicity of experience and imagination, an exposure of a human condition which is wild and other-worldly. The goal is a poetry that evolves with each sentence, which is both expressive and disruptive of our ‘impenetrable’ (to use Einstein’s word) pasts, presents and futures.
We’ve spoken in the past about your love of tradition – Walt Whitman, Emily Dickinson, Wallace Stevens. But let me ask you here about the contemporary? What’s happening now that interests you?
There is so much happening in poetry now that it’s hard to know how to begin to answer this question. Last November, we lost the remarkable and original Sean Bonney. It still opens up a huge sadness and absence. His work is just great, real, and uncompromising. In this era of renewed social justice in the arts, all his career, Bonney’s voice always spoke to power with such original wild ungoverned invective. And yet, through all the piss and vinegar in his voice, the act of the imagination is towering. He can get at the heart of abjection by matching psychotic political atrocity with a seemingly psychotic response but it is much more than that, it is the result of sheer poetic skill as he turned phrases, made lists, and built an address to keep the energy moving outward so as to unflinchingly look the monster in the eye. I truly hope that a proper collected volume of his work comes out sooner than later. His poems will keep him alive and that’s not nothing, in fact, it is everything.
To further speak to your question regarding the ‘contemporary’, I’ve always believed that good writing from every period is always contemporary, it is still in our immediate surround and informing us, we get to discover it, like friendship, one poem at a time. If a poem is any good it is always good. I love that. And this is how I truly embrace the present, call it deep time. A perpetual song. As one example, think of Bonney’s use and repurposing of Arthur Rimbaud in his excellent book, Happiness. They, Bonney and Rimbaud, are now forever alive and singing together. Just like Jack Spicer and Federico Garcia Lorca in Spicer’s After Lorca with its ghostly frame and real and fake translations. Another way to get at it, I work in Amherst, Massachusetts which is where Emily Dickinson lived and wrote. I continually read her work and her voice just cuts deeper and deeper and is as new and exploratory and politically awake and ‘sexy’ as anything happening now in this moment. If her ‘Master Letters’, for instance, where to appear today, in Granta say, it would blow everyone away. Whenever I share them with my students they are simply floored and inspired with awe. Speaking of students, over many years now, I have had the deep pleasure of working with some of the most remarkable writers. They keep the machine humming and expanding.
We share that interest in tradition but what about your interest in the contemporary?
The most inviting aspect of contemporary writing is that we’re living in such plural times, in theme and aesthetics. That said, the contemporary (as a condition) can’t just be documented to be interesting, it has to be affected beyond the norms of what a given medium has come to mean and be. The danger of writing the contemporary is that when you’re living in a world which is as messed-up as ours (politically, environmentally, socio-culturally, economically, and now Covid-19), a lesser poetry can reduce itself to ‘singularities’, deferring to its subject positions, its stances, its experience until the writing starts sounding the same, less testing of possibilities, less challenging of the norm than it might be. I love Gertrude Stein’s line: ‘Poetry is concerned with using, with abusing, with losing and wanting, with denying with avoiding with adoring with replacing the noun.’ There’s something fun, tongue-in-cheek, as well as something disturbing and distorting of the norm (or her own sense of the norm) as it comes to us (and as we make it) through language. It’s exactly what Bonney taps into when he writes in Happiness of a ‘supernatural sobriety of discontinued nouns’ (he also, of course, challenges our grammar with explicit reference to ‘verbs’, our ‘alphabet’, and how ‘when a specific distortion in the vowels is achieved/ we can hear heaven’ . . . even against a backdrop of dystopian capitalism where people are ‘eating stones’). The best contemporary writing for me ‘refracts’ in this way just about everything – experience, the imagination, language, defamiliarizing our positions in the world, until the very thinking and feeling being done becomes something new, something strange. Some of my own students amaze me with their willingness to experiment, to write the ‘strange’ – my workshop mantra is that the best writing often starts as an ambitious failure rather than an easy success. To rewrite and repurpose R.D. Laing, I’m of the mind that a strange response is required by a strange world.
Your own work has navigated through political spaces over the years. Do you think of your poetry as political?
Do we need to distinguish, it’s all there in the language, just as the beloved is there. Syntax in a lyric utterance connects me to the glories of the world and also to its ongoing ever-expanding atrocities. I always think of Samuel Beckett’s: ‘A voice comes to one in the dark. Imagine.’ And Emily Dickinson’s: ‘My Life had stood — a Loaded Gun.’ I have always found the old linguist’s joke to be of use to me: ‘What is the difference between a language and a dialect? A language is a dialect that has an army and a navy.’ So that world is in our heads too, always. Words are haunted. Think of it: as long as there have been soldiers there have been poets. I have often felt that being a poet is a form of civil disobedience.
I choose the lyric over narrative because I am ultimately interested in mystery, presence, intimacy . . . (mystery not as mystical but as unfathomable, a not knowing) and I often reflect, with awe, at the plain fact that an intimacy has been passed from poet to poet for millennia through one rotten kingdom after another. The power of the lyric is that it is already working in a language that is used to create damage but equally finds an opening to a human’s emancipatory interiority, singing the changes of light in a damaged world. It is like a miracle to me when that light comes back into my room in the form of shaped sound, and I can feel its ray.
You also favor the lyric. When I chose your Victor Poems for the Boston Review Poetry Prize in 2010, I was taken with the energy and purposeful address in this series. The sheer inventiveness. I love this book. There was also the additional factor that reading through numerous submissions your poems instantly rose to the top of the pile and happily made my choice easy and definitive. I still feel good about it. In this serial poem, I am also struck by the use of ‘Victor’ as the protagonist. How it can be read as a proper name but also unmistakably the noun of a seeming champion. How does that name, Victor, perform for you?
The ‘victors’ of one particular line and time are the losers of another – too often such times and peoples coincide (meaning we’re all losers, or, we’re all winners). The pyrrhic victory is the saddest example of an unwelcome achievement, and the group of men who set off in search of Victor are as unstable and as pyrrhic as they come. I wanted the sequence to have both lyric and narrative drive. ‘Victor’ was set up as a paradoxical cypher, a long-lost friend and a person never known; both a prayed-for Godhead and a mystery un-solved. For the narrators, pursuit of Victor means leaving the ‘real’ world behind – to venture through an Arctic which is both Stevenseque in its sublimity and also a frozen/melting wasteland. What might have begun as a noble adventure for the narrators (towards friendship, towards revelation, classically inspired by the philosophers I was reading at the time: Aristotle and Epicurus, Michel de Montaigne and Ralph Waldo Emerson) is recognized as a misguided retreating in the very first poem, a walking in the ‘wrong’ direction, away from the world of family and work. It’s a malalignment of perspective and seeking: an ironic and failed attempt at enlightenment which swerves into a place of acknowledged loss at their own hands (or feet, since the whole book has the narrators walking, misstep after misstep).
And so to swerve: Let me ask you about place – in terms of the real, non-metaphysical world. We’re both from Massachusetts. Some reviews of your work, including the New Yorker review of Threshold Songs, make a lot about your being a New England poet; and in some of your own book bios you’ve simply stated, ‘Peter Gizzi is from the Pioneer Valley’. How important is place to you as a writer – not just as subject, but as influence?
I can say that I am definitely a New Englander and in particular from western Massachusetts which, as you know, is much different than the eastern part of the state. It’s just a place I like to live. I grew up here and then eventually after university and various jobs and living in other places, I came back here to settle and work and live. It is quiet, and mostly rural, beautiful, and close enough to New York City where I spent my twenties and continue to visit and explore.
I grew up in the western most part of Massachusetts in Berkshire County. I like to say I came from ‘The Berkshire School’. There are the abiding predecessors like Herman Melville, Nathaniel Hawthorne, Emily Dickinson, W.E.B Du Bois and Edith Wharton, who always felt present informing that landscape. But when I was in my twenties, the writers I knew who were a part of that place, or came through often and spent time there, were Clark Coolidge, my brothers: Tom and Michael Gizzi, John Ashbery, Paul Metcalf, Bernadette Mayer, the Howe sisters, Bill Corbett, and Geoffrey Young, to mention some dear old friends of my youth there. Also, Keith and Rosmarie Waldrop were most essential to me.
I left New York City in 1987 to return to the Berkshires and edited my little magazine o·blēk. I was twenty-six when I began work on it. It was everything to me at that time in my life.
At that time, and this isn’t a story I often tell in print, simply because I am not interested in being ‘sensational,’ I was recovering from narcotics addictions, I had become a street junkie on the Lower East Side of NYC in the early to mid eighties and was dying of malnutrition. I mean to say, I was ‘Punk’, that was the period. I was also, gratefully, befriended by Allen Ginsberg and Gregory Corso. It was several lifetimes ago but how I left that abject habit and got to change my life is still a miracle to me. My run of using substances which began with weed, ran from age thirteen to twenty-six. I started getting high a year after I saw my father’s plane crash when I was twelve, which was a foundational marking and irrevocable experience of my early life. I went to five high schools, worked in a factory before I eventually went to college in NYC and studied classics (though I must confess I wasn’t the best student). Through all those lost years I was a deep reader of poetry. What did happen when I got clear of heroin, was that I took a vow and I doubled down with poetry as my single true life-force, as a means to recover reality in a broken world; it taught me that I could transform a broken heart in a fierce world into a fierce heart in a broken world. Poetry can do this. How does New England affect you after all these years living in the UK?
I’ve now lived almost half my life on this other side of the Atlantic – moving to Ireland in the mid-1990s, and since the early 2000s living in south-west England (with frequent trips back to Ireland). When I first moved across the ocean from the US, I was twenty-seven and blown away by the linguistic verve, wit, and story-telling that was everywhere in Ireland. I tried, briefly, as an amateur will do, to emulate it in my writing. But as Patrick Kavanagh wrote, ‘the standing army of Irish poets seldom falls below 10,000’. It took me awhile to figure out that if I wanted to be associated with the country and its scene – to be poet number 10,001 – it would have to come from my bringing something else to the table, to widening the idea of what might constitute poetry in Ireland. Over time, living and working for almost twenty years in England now, I think I’ve clung to a greater dependency on my American voice; it’s the voice I hear when I teach, when I dream, when I love, when I parent, when I write. Being married to an Irish woman, and having two British kids, I’ve become uber-aware of my Americanisms, my accent, experience, existence. I hope my distance from America has allowed me to hone my own particular rendition of the language/the people/the country/the imagined space that it’s become for me.
I first met you when you were on a Judith E. Wilson Fellowship at Cambridge, in 2011 I think. When did you first come to the UK?
I have been coming to England since ’94 when J.H. Prynne kindly invited me to visit for a week in Cambridge. He was and remains one of the most remarkable instances of personhood I have encountered in this life (I have found that true poets share this quality of exceptional personhood). It was a real pleasure to recently bring out and introduce a reprint of his masterful early book, The White Stones, for the NYRB Books poetry series. That book opened my head when I was twenty-five or twenty-six. Over the years spending time deep into the night conversing with Jeremey is just fun and always illuminating, he can discourse with such precision and grace, and unpretentiously, on so many topics. On that first trip in ’94, I got to spend time with Tom Raworth, who I knew from his many trips to the states, and met the lovely Val Raworth, Peter Riley (they were all still living in Cam then) and Rod Mengham. Over time and with many trips back I have now met and respect and have great friendships with so many gifted poets there. I find it a vital and exploding scene.
You are now adding to that story with the new Periplum series at Plymouth. How long has it been running and what are its plans going forward?
I’ve been publishing and editing for as long as I’ve been teaching and writing. I think of it as another way of getting in on the conversation around the making of contemporary literature. I started Periplum in 2016 (after ten years of running Short Fiction: The Visual Literary Journal), as a way to publish a selectively slim sample of contemporary poets in pamphlet format. I love the idea of the pamphlet, the size of it, like poetry is something you can always have on your person, hidden in a pocket, just out of sight. In addition to publishing your work, we’ve been gifted with poetry by some amazing writers from the UK (most recently David Herd), America (Rae Armantrout) and Ireland (John McAuliffe), and will soon publish the ‘expanded translations’ of writers from the non-English world (by Vahni Capildeo). Going forward, I want to make more digital interviews with poets, make more broadsides, find new ways to conceive of the interrelationship between poetry and the other arts (visual, sonic etc.), not to mention the wider disciplines out there (the hard and social sciences, for example); there’s so much scope for poetry to be interconnected with the world. I’ve recently received the good news that a project I’m doing with Rory Waterman is being funded from the Arts and Humanities Research Council: to look at how poetry is working as a mode of discourse during the Covid-19 pandemic (part of this includes publishing a new anthology in 2021, dedicated to the collaborations of fifteen poets from the UK paired with fifteen poets from around the world).
You mentioned o·blēk, which you started up and edited for its run from 1987–1993. It was one of the journals I wanted to publish in most when I was just starting out. I remember getting a note back with some encouraging words, and though I never made it into the journal, it meant the world to me to get that note! You became part of the very scene you were publishing (John Ashbery, Rae Armantrout, Kamau Braithwaite, Bernadette Mayer, Alice Notley, etc.), and thirty years on, one of the coolest readings I’ve ever been to was when you blew away a totally packed and utterly invested bar of university students at an off-site event at AWP in Chicago. I hear you when I read lots of contemporary poetry: the use of infinitives, the aborted sentences, an ‘I’ which refracts personal experience, claiming a poetic space of thinking and feeling which is entirely distinct from anecdote – do you hear yourself in the more recent generation of poets? Do you think of yourself as writing for new audiences with each book?
Not really, and as I go on I realize I am often conversing with the dead, call it the undying, or I imagine my voice in my poetry to be already posthumous. Call it the other world in this world, it’s like breath on a mirror, it’s there and then it’s gone. My voice somehow now exists beside me. Again, I dwell fully in this extremely haunted medium, poetry. To embrace the amplification of voice (self) by standing next to oneself, outside of one’s life, to look at one’s self in and through the world – a form of discovery within the baffles of pronominal reality.
In my work I’m interested in this form of ‘vamping,’ or ‘throwing’ of the voice and placing it beside the speaker, or even pitched (this is so effective in Whitman and Dickinson) on the ‘other side of the river’, speaking – or singing – back to me in time, to the beloved, to the reader, to imagine the pronouns speaking back to me when I am no longer here to read it. As I wrote in the title poem of my last book Archeophonics: ‘I’m just visiting this voice / I’m just visiting the molecular structures that say what I am saying / I am just visiting the world at this moment and it’s on fire / It’s always been on fire.’
For me though, the location of the voices of the ‘dead’ or ‘undying’ are not behind me but ahead of me. I think of tradition as ahead of us, not behind us shoring us up. What I mean to say is that the enduring writers that inform us were all writing just ahead of themselves, ahead of their period, of period style, and even ahead of what they could manage, all in the service of discovery. So, the action is dynamic and forward thinking. Tradition is an occasion we rise to.
You write fiction as well as poetry, maybe even fiction as poetry at times. I know we share a love of Melville. You even wrote an obsessive book-length sequence coming from Moby-Dick. How does fiction and character work for you in poems?
I love story and, I think it’s pretty inevitable that everything I write has a hybrid hope to collapse the boundaries between fiction and poetry. If I’m being generous with myself, I’ll also acknowledge a wish to push into a non-poserly, palatable mode of philosophical enquiry – characters and narrators who put forward mock aphorisms and the like. Poetry (and fiction, and any art, I think) offer unique ways to formulate and express thinking/feeling/wonder. I love how this is handled by Wallace Stevens, John Berryman, Anne Carson, Nathanial Mackey. In my third book of poems, Of Whales: in Print, in Paint, in Sea, in Stars, in Coin, in House, in Margins, the conceit was to put myself into Melville’s space (and him into mine, a palimpsestic existence), to let myself exist as a character/writer in the compositional space of reading and writing Moby-Dick whilst at the same time being a parent living a twenty-first-century existence. The sentence as a unit, and how one sentence can jettison another has become more central to me than the line as a mode of conjunction in recent years. I’ve a few prose poems in Of Whales, and it’s the form I’ve used exclusively in my last two books (my next book is shaping up in that direction too). It also coincides with my writing a novel (alas unpublishable thus far) and a collection of short stories – neither of which have much poetry to them, but which do their best with a more perfunctory sentence.
We’re nearing the limits of our allotted conversational space, so, a last question: one of the great risks and successes of your work is the way you insist on a feeling intellect. In each book (sometimes each poem), your work can range from melancholic to ecstatic. Are you conscious of this when you’re writing, I mean when you’re in the flow of it?
I am interested in the fierceness of elegy. I guess it could be a form of mindful sadness (I mean look what we have done to this world). I call it consciousness. Or maybe I suffer from something more like a deep melancholy which I find to be generative but maybe it is closer to a form of doubt, an insistence on not knowing and a kind of questioning (and questing) the real, pushing back at the sensory data I receive to test what is in fact real, the thing itself or my perception of it, or maybe it is the fragility of reception itself and what can be known.
As I have said elsewhere, I occasionally have difficulty separating my work from the world, it is a private homespun experience with both style and form. For instance, the negotiations of loneliness and vulnerability are formal concerns. The need to connect the inner life with the social is a formal concern, or the invisible with the material, or the staging of private life within a broken political reality. None of these are new conditions of poetry, but still they exist as formal problems, as in how to address the momentary and time itself. Maybe it is simply a form of being awake to the polyphony of worlds, or words. Or, maybe just being awake.
Photograph of Anthony Caleshu (left) © Alastair Coomer