Allan Peterson – Interview

Allan PetersonAllan Peterson’s fourth book, Fragile Acts, is the second title in the new McSweeney’s Poetry Series and a finalist for both the 2013 National Book Critics Circle Award and the Oregon Book Award. His last book is As Much As from Salmon Press, 2011. Other books are All the Lavish in Common (2005 Juniper Prize), Anonymous Or (Defined Providence Prize 2001) and five chapbooks, notably Omnivore, winner of the 2009 Boom Prize from Bateau Press. His next book, Precarious, is forthcoming from 42 Miles Press in 2014. He has received fellowships from the National Endowment for the Arts and The State of Florida, and was invited to read from his work at the 2010 Cuisle International Poetry Festival in Ireland.

January 24, 2013

Maria Burns: How did you become interested in poetry?

Allan Peterson: I came to poetry through the visual arts. I had no experience with poetry growing up and I’ve had no training, no classes or workshops. But when I was in art school—the Rhode Island School of Design— I came across the work of Ezra Pound, and it was like a door opened. I suddenly realized after reading Pound, and shortly after that Charles Olsen and William Carlos Williams and other moderns, that they were using, as I perceived it, the same processes I was using in painting and drawing. It’s an imaginative process: You make a mark, you write a word or phrase, and it leads to another, and to another. So, that was the beginning. But because my field wasn’t English, I felt intimidated and didn’t send any work out for publication for a number of years.

MB: Were you writing during that time?

AP: Well yes, I just began to write. I’m not sure quite sure what they were. I mean, they were poems as I perceived them, but they were poems that were done in the same way that my paintings and drawings developed. It was the period of Abstract Expressionism, late fifties early sixties, and those ideas carried right over into the writing. There were a number of things that were important to me in painting and drawing and the first was to try to draw from my imagination without editing . I wasn’t trying to do what was popular in New York City. I’m from from the provinces, you might say, the outskirts. I didn’t know anything about, you know, the technical aspects of poetry, and I never went to Associated Writing Program conferences or the like, because I was essentially a visual artist, and an outsider. I just quietly, privately, wrote , looked at nature, listened to my intuitions. As I was saying, painting and drawing went hand in hand with the writing. Eventually the writing got better, and I began to realize as I read more and more, that a great deal of everything out there just wasn’t very good. And I thought, maybe I could put my work out there in a larger arena. I finally submitted things, and in so doing I realized that nothing is at risk: editors either say, “yes” or they say, “no.” That’s it. That’s all there is to it. So that when things would get rejections – and I had lots of those – I would fine-tune them, and send them out again. It just kept going like that. I didn’t take rejection personally because I also realized that you really never know why you’re being rejected. It could be that there are graduate students doing the reading in the slush pile with different tastes. The magazine may have certain ideas about what they would like to see promoted or they may be doing a theme issue you know nothing about.I was my own critic in writing as I was with painting and drawing. I think you need to be your own best critic. But what I emerged with was kind of a poetry that didn’t really seem to fit with what was going on elsewhere. So maybe that’s why I had a number of rejections at the beginning. I just don’t know.

Joe Angeletti: Since I was really fascinated by the way you talked about writing evolving the way your visual art did – starting with a smear and figuring out what comes next – in that respect, how has your poetry affected you visual art or at least the way you conceptualize your art?

AP: Good question. For a long time, I did not exhibit them together, even though I was doing them together. My BFA and MFA are in visual arts: Rhode Island School of Design, Southern Illinois University, graduate school in California, all in art. So, I know a lot about art history, but I didn’t know much about the history or making of poetry. The visual art was dominant for many years, but the writing was still going on. It was just underneath. But when it came to exhibitions, which I had a lot of being a visual artist, I was reluctant to show the paintings and drawings and the poetry together because it seemed that every time pictures and words get together, the presumption is that one is there to explain the other. That’s not the way I wanted them seen. I did eventually exhibit them together and when books were published, I would have the books in the exhibitions as well, and sometimes I would play with that and I make the titles themselves into poems. I just don’t have any reservations about trying things. When you develop confidence and reach your barriers, they just dissolve before you. It’s persistence. You need to do it, and you keep doing it no matter what, whether somebody is accepting your work for publication, whether they like it or they don’t. I’m grateful that people like so much of it, but that’s gravy to me because I’m really writing for myself. I think that’s one of the reasons why my art work doesn’t really fall into traditional categories. I don’t do landscapes. I don’t do mother and child. I don’t do portraits. As I’ve said, you make a mark, you start something that leads to something else. So, in all the visual art, as well as the poetry, there is no destination, but it is kind of a journey and what happens along the way internally will only be known to me, but there’s enough there, I hope, in the poems that people will catch on to—a lot about nature, about what people love, about interaction, a lot about science, because those are things that of great interest to me. At one time, when I ended my first teaching job at the State University of New York, I thought, well, this is the time I can go into science. And I wrote to every research facility that I could think of that might be interested in someone not captured by certain ways of thinking and that had a visual art background. (No takers) Some of my best students were people who were not artists. Art majors came to studio classes with certain kinds of understandings and formed opinions about how art should look. People that came from math or computers didn’t have any of that, they were much more, or appeared to be, much more open and imaginative than some of the people that were in that little visual arts track.

MB: You were writing out of your own interest, but do you ever have an audience in mind when you write?

AP: No. I mean, I know that if it’s going to be published, somebody else may read it, but do I conceptualize the audience in some way and does it influence the choices I make in the writing? No. Because I think this: We all are remarkably the same. We have the same bodies, the same bilateral symmetries, many of the same life experiences. We have love. We have unrequited love. We have death and babies, and all kinds of things. So, whatever I write is bound to have some resonance somewhere along the line to other people’s experiences. It seems to be inevitable. When I look at other people’s work, that’s what I’m looking for. I’m looking for evidence of a mind at work. Something that enlarges our shared experiences. Since we’re all going to be expressing the same subjects, those which I just mentioned, basic life experiences, what are you going to be able to say that’s going to make your work stand out? Here’s a parallel: In art, if you’re a potter, pottery has been going on for thousands of years. How many plates and cups have been made? I mean, there are just billions of them. So, what are you going to do? If you have the temerity to step into that field, what are you going to do that is going that is going to make you work stand out? It’s got to be your personal imagination. Thats what sets you apart.

Nobody does things like you do them. No matter how ordinary or how peculiar, whether you’re a formalist writer or whether you’re a free verse writer. From my standpoint, the formal aspects are not what makes the difference in your writing. Somebody asked me the other day in New Orleans, well, what comes first – is it content or is it form, and I’d have to say it’s always the content first, the ideas. There are some awarenesses that I draw on– whether it’s like T.S. Elliot’s “Objective Correlative,” or whether it’s personal experience, or the kind of imaginative transformative experience that happens all the time. There’s the line in one of the poems where the seagull flies behind a fence post and never comes out. That’s a visual phenomenon. Of course, the gull could have taken a quick turn, but in perspective, the space covered up by the post is huge, so it represented a transformative, magical moment. And I see those all the time, and I’ll just bet you do it too. Do you ever do that thing where you’re walking down the street and somebody else is walking across the street and you purposely walk just fast enough behind the tree so it’s like you were never there? I mean, life is so wonderful that way. It’s so open to that kind of curiosity—the curious nature of everything, and you bring to your work your own level of knowledge, connoisseurship, class work, and whatever else.

I really like the pre-Socratic philosophers because they didn’t know very much. They didn’t have science, so they just kind of stared at nature long enough until they had some intuitive ideas about it. So, when Lucretius says, “Thunder is the clouds over-rolling,” I can get a sense of that. I think that’s poetry right there. You look at something, you don’t understand it, and you make some intuitive assertions about it.

JA: I think I’m going to kind of skip around the questions a little bit more about the way you see visual moments and reflect on them. Particularly in All the Lavish in Common, I noticed the progression of form, or maybe the lack of progression of form, and how each poem has its own particular signature. Since you put content first, do you approach form in the same way you approach those life moments, where you just see a new direction and just want to play with it?

AP: Yes. You know, art is kind of like using up possibilities. What if I do that? What if I don’t do this? So, yes, it’s very much like that. Did you ever read Johan Huizinga? Homo Ludens? A historian/philosopher from the late nineteenth/early twentieth century. It’s all about the basic necessity of play, of being silly, of letting that imagination come through, of not putting the brakes on. It’s a funny thing about education. For almost all of your career they want you to sit down and be quiet, and then suddenly you get to college they want you to tell them what you think. And you’re like, “Well, we have no experience with that. Nobody’s ever asked us before to say what we think.”

Jonathan Fink: Can you put that in multiple-choice form?

AP: One of the nice things about visual art is that none of that [multiple choice structure] applies. We are there from the very beginning to look for the imagination. It’s not just about hand skills— I can teach those, they can be taught—but it’s about how to feel comfortable with trusting your imagination and going with it wherever it takes you. That’s the important part. I’ll use punctuation or I don’t use punctuation. It’s all pretty intuitive. It seems like I do what feels right.

In the making of this book, I had two editors, and I thought McSweeny’s was going to be far out. They were both more conservative than I expected. There’s more punctuation in this book than I would ordinarily have. And while we’re doing this—we had Skype sessions, we had email sessions, we had telephone, and we’re back and forth and every line we get line by line editing— and we get all done and they say, “Well, now it’s going to the proofreaders.” Okay, I can kind of understand that. McSweeny’s is really much more about fiction than it is about poetry. They’ve never really done a poetry series before this one. So we get through that, and then they say, “Well, now it’s going to the fact checkers.” Fact checkers? For poetry? So they said, “Yeah, that’s going to be a challenge for them too.”

MB: For the science?

AP: For verification about things mentioned . At every stage of the editing process, there was something worth questioning for accuracy, a date, an event, but there’s one poem that mentions a guy that wins the lottery and tries to buy all of the pet stores in Orlando out of existence. That kept them busy for days. And they said, “I’m sorry, but we just can’t find it,” and I had to tell them made it up. The press that’s bringing out the next book in 2014 wanted to know why some of the poems were center justified and why some of them were flush left. I’m really interested in science, as I have said, and part of that science has to do with the nature of the body and symmetry. And I thought if I were going to write some poems about bodies, then bilateral symmetry would be the logical form for it. That theme never developed. It was a series of body poems but having a kind of theme is not the way I work. But it did develop into a book that largely had to do with nature, and it’s been re-titled several times—and it was all centered text. The online magazine At Length likes long poems, and I mean long. They like long everything. They like long musical works. They like long fiction, and they published the whole first section. So when the editor wrote and asked if I would submit some material, I sent about nine pages. He wrote back and said, “No, I mean long stuff.”

MB: I know memory plays a big role in your poetry, and it functions kind of as an experience in and of itself, and I’m just curious how you view the reliability of memory?

AP: Well, frequently it isn’t reliable, but it’s all we have. The nature of it is that it is both factual and it erodes over time. I take both of those as positive facts. When I was an undergraduate, I was attempting to try to figure out how we forget things because it seemed to me that it wasn’t so much about remembering, but that there was a process of forgetting. For example, you see a movie, and in three months, what do you remember of that movie? Is it the music? Is it the text? Is it something that happened with the sex? What was it? What dropped away? I never found a really good answer, but I treated memory as the heart of the matter, the whole heart of the matter of being alive. Everything is memory. Memory is being made right now, and then it’s behind us already. It’s an ongoing thing. I can hardly think of anything more central than memory, but what you can say about it, how you can make it be revealed is a little bit like the analogy to ceramics or being a potter. Or take photography: The world is afloat in visual images. It’s everywhere. And now we have video, so how can you just step into that field and make something that is going to be unique and stand out? You’ve just got to rely on yourself and I think memory is a big part of that. Do you trust yours?

MB: No, not at all. I like it anyway, though. I enjoy it.

AP: And you have no choice. I frequently misremember things. I’m pretty certain that my vision of history is a good one, but my wife, who trusts her version of things, will sometimes say, “No, it didn’t happen that way.” And I will say, “But I have a picture in my mind,” so that’s gotten to be kind of a joke. So, that when I say, “I think such and such,” she’ll say, “Do you have a picture in your mind,” knowing that it’s already probably wrong.

JA: Earlier you mentioned how you just made up the character whom McSweeney’s then tried to fact check. Given that, if memory is true even if it erodes, then to what degree do you create characters or are your characters just versions of people you remember?

AP: Well, that was an incident not a character. I’m not a fiction writer. I’m not a playwright. I don’t create characters. There has been a recent dissatisfaction with “I” poems. Every poem to me is an “I” poem. Is there some manner of exaggerated subterfuge that will allow you to forget that somebody made this play or made this painting? It’s always an “I.” And since that is our biggest resource—ourselves—why are we fiddling around saying that we shouldn’t be writing “I” poems? We look into ourselves for our deepest truths.

JA: That’s a very helpful response.

MB: In many of your poems, there is this kind of necessary solitude, and I’m curious what you think the writer’s relationship is with solitude beyond just the functional, the needing to be alone in order to create the work?

AP: You are absolutely alone with your thoughts. I don’t listen to music when I’m writing. A lot of people do. I don’t listen to radio when I’m writing. A lot of people do. I really crave solitude because that’s when you can really pay attention to how you’re thinking. And I don’t know how much you listen to how you think. I’m not pathological with it, but there’s a little voice in my head that reads to me when I read, and it reads perfectly. Public readings depend on so much: if people are coughing, the voice inflection, do they come prepared, do they ignore the mic ? For me, I write for the page. I don’t write for that kind of oral delivery because so much more happens when you’re reading silently, and so much more happens when you’re writing silently. The whole idea of the linear, I think, is bogus. There’s nothing linear about thinking. There’s nothing linear about that delivery. There are hundreds of things going on in your mind all the time. And when you read silently, you can go back. You can go back and re read a line several times till you understand it. There’s so much going on simultaneously. In my book, All the Lavish in Common, the dedication page says what I believe: “More is more.” There was a scientist named J.B.S. Haldane, a British biologist, and he said something wonderful and truthful, and it was “The world is not only stranger than you think it is, it’s stranger than you can think it is.” Absolutely true. He said another funny thing. Somebody asked him, “Mr. Haldane, you’re a famous scientist, famous for biology, can you tell me what you have discovered about the nature of God?” And he thought for a minute, and he said, “ He has an inordinate fondness for beetles.” (there are some 30,000 species of beetles) Haldane goes right into my pantheon.

JA: I like the way we can work with more and more, but every poem has to end. How do you determine when a poem is finished?

AP: I treat them as I do paintings and drawings, it’s a process. I may frame something and move on to the next piece, but any art work contains the means for its continuance. There’s just a place I stop because I’m pleased with it, but I’ve gone back to paintings and drawings from some years ago and worked over them again, the same with writing. When I paint in the way that I’m working now, over a piece from a few years ago, it’s a nice sort of a contrast, something that couldn’t have happened otherwise. So philosophically, I’d say there is no finish, and I’m not after a poem that has a tidy conclusion. I reject the idea of closure; I like it to be open-ended. There are some ideas that kind of tie some things together in some of the poems, and they sort of ramble around whatever might be a subject in there, and I go back frequently and do some rewriting. When you look at somebody’s book and in the front it has a disclaimer that says that many of these poems have been published elsewhere in a somewhat different form, with other versions sometimes, that’s evidence of that same process. Remember Heraclitus, “All life is flux. Man cannot step into the same river twice,” a phrase that was modified years later by someone who wrote, “..into the same river once.”