from Iowa Review,
This interview took place in Grafton, Vermont on July 18, 2010. As a guest of his book artist friends, Bill Kelley and Michele Burgess—founders and current directors of Brighton Press—Peter has, except for last year, spent each of his past six July’s in Grafton, writing, attending concerts at the Yellow Barn music festival in Putney, Vermont, and reading. A soft-spoken, self-effacing man, Peter greeted me as if I were the one about to be interviewed. We sat on a long couch in Bill and Michele’s high-ceilinged living room that looked out onto a meadow and well-kept garden. Peter commented that a bear had approached the door the day before and that both deer and moose grazed regularly in the meadow. As I began to ask Peter questions about his multifaceted career as a poet, translator, and teacher, my sense of how overdue this interview was, in light of Peter’s strong work, despite the lengthy interstices between his books, only grew stronger. Brimming with good humor and a firm belief in the final word of his poetry over any fame he had achieved as a poet, Peter spoke humbly about his legacy. I sensed in each of his replies to my questions that his humility’s provenance dated back to the start of his career, and even to his childhood. His deference to the wisdom of his reader and to the discipline of writing spoke loudly in his quiet speech throughout the interview.
Peter Everwine is the author of four collections of poetry, Collecting the Animals (1972), Keeping the Night (1977), From the Meadow: Selected and New Poems (2004), and Figures Made Visible in the Sadness of Time (2003), as well as four books of translations, two of Aztec poetry and two of the poetry of Nathan Zach. Born in Detroit, Everwine grew up in western Pennsylvania. He earned his BS from Northwestern University in 1952 and served in the Army from 1952 to 1954. In 1958, Everwine won a Stegner Fellowship at Stanford University before enrolling as an English graduate student at the University of Iowa, where he earned his PhD in 1959. After teaching English at the University of Iowa from 1959 to 1962, he taught English and creative writing at Fresno State University before retiring in 1992. Peter's awards include Guggenheim and National Endowment for the Arts fellowships and the Lamont Poetry Prize in 1972. His longtime friend and colleague at Fresno State, Philip Levine, wrote the following about Everwine’s poetry on the occasion of the publication of From the Meadow: "His…poems…are like no other in our language: they possess the simplicity and clarity I find in the great Spanish poems of Antonio Machado and his contemporary Juan Ramon Jiminez but in contemporary American English and in the rhythms of our speech, that rhythm glorified. He presents us with poetry in which each moment is recorded, laid bare, and sanctified, which is to say the poems possess a quality one finds only in the greatest poetry."
Chard DeNiord: Starting off, I’m curious about the influence translating Aztec poetry has had on your own work. Could you talk a little about that influence, the influence of the Nahuatl poetic tradition on your own poetry.
Peter Everwine: I came to Aztec poetry at a fortunate time. I hadn't been writing, had no idea of what it meant to be a poet beyond a vague idea of general ambition. The poems—I read them in Spanish—let me work toward a language other than what Phil Levine once called "the language of Princes." At that time I had no real knowledge of the Aztecs or their poetry, but I liked what seemed to be their way of rooting themselves into a world of simple things like birds, flowers, precious stones.
CD: I’m reminded of this in your own lines from your poem “On Modern Travel.” “Thus to the ruins of the universal/ is added the desolation of the particular.”
PE: They had a vertical way of thinking. So you have a bird, but the bird is at the same time a mythic bird. And then it's also the soul of a warrior or a king. And they could collapse all of this into one image. I found it beautiful because it wasn’t primarily visual, unlike the particulars so often found in William Carlos Williams.
CD: As in these stanzas from “Song of the Red Macaw” from your book Working the Song Fields: Poems of the Aztecs:
Who am I? Flying, I live,
and sometimes I make songs:
flower songs, butterflies of songs—
such as reveal my sentiments,
such as express my heart.
I arrive at the side of others. I descend
and alight on earth, the red macaw of spring.
I stretch my wings beside the flower drums,
my song lifts and spreads over the earth.
PE: Yes, and there’s one that asks the song-maker to dress himself in plumes that are as red as morning light. You can read that as a lovely lyrical touch. But then you remember that the Aztec national god was a solar god—the bird in dawn's light carries a degree of the sacred. That was a shared knowledge.
CD: I think you’re referring to “Bellbird Song”:
The Golden bellbird! It’s your song,
the beautiful one, rising
from the blossoms overhead.
perhaps you are the god’s bird,
or a king in his stead—
first to see the dawn’s fire
and now singing.
CD: So the image is actually more than just the thing itself?
PE: Yeah, though it is a bird. I don't think the Aztecs saw their world as abstract.
CD: The image according to Pound is “an intellectual and emotional complex in an instant of time,” but it also carries with it a kind of implicit narrative or story in the Aztec poetic tradition.
PE: I think Aztec poetry deals with connecting worlds in a shared code—I suppose a kind of allusive metaphor-driven poetry.
CD: The Aztec image arcs from the thing itself to some transformative resolution, or idea, or other image. So one thing was always more than just one thing. The multiplicity of the single thing. Can you think of another example of this?
PE: Well, in another poem, Montezuma, presumably the maker of the poem, calls the jade stones in his necklace his companions, then says he looks into their faces and sees nothing but eagles and jaguars. It all seems very odd. But jade is part of his wealth, and eagles and jaguars are also elite classes of warriors. A lot of things are getting hooked together in a few words.
CD: And what kind of leap, either forwards or backwards, do you see in Williams's notion of the image or thing?
PE: It seems to me that what you really get in Williams, and what, I think, is easy to miss sometimes, is the energy in the movement of his images.
CD: In what he called the “variable foot.”
PE: So there was always a way in Williams where the poems were kinetic. It wasn’t just a matter of seeing for him; it was a matter of hearing that American voice. That quick, nervous voice.
CD: Good point. And he was writing Desert Music around this time you were in Mexico in the mid 50s.
PE: I lived in Mexico in 1968, though I'd traveled there earlier.
CD: In your poem “Collecting the Animals,” you conclude with these Shaman-like lines:
What were the animals but ourselves
flashing with the wind, stripped down,
simple at last—the lives
that go on evading us
in shadows at the field’s edge, in trees
flowing away like water on the far hills.
And what is there to grieve?
Here are the tracks they made
in this place.
And in your poem, “We Meet in the Lives of Animals,” you vivify a slaughtered cow with shamanistic reverence and human deference:
“Here" she says, cradling
a cow’s bloody head from which she scrapes
its stringy flesh. “Here,
hold open its eyes.
It will see our hunger.”
PE: Well, that was something I felt. The cow incident was true. I don’t know how much I can claim to be shamanistic.
CD: Silence is as important to you as the voices of the animals. You write in your poem “Distance,” “Once more I find myself/ standing on a dark pier, holding/ an enormous rope of silence.” There’s a tension between the voices in your poetry and the silence you listen to just as closely. I see this in many of your poems. Any close reader of yours hears the silence as much as the language in your poetry.
PE: It’s a companion. I also don’t work from a very large vocabulary. I think I have a very simple vocabulary. Very spare. And I don’t know if that’s deliberate; it’s just the words that I react to. And I think at the same time what lies behind a word, its associations, and its resonance, its shadow, has been important to me. That may be a religious sense of the world but if so it’s also much of the Aztec poetry I know—often a very melancholy view of the world.
CD: I see.
PE: I don’t want to make too much of it.
CD: I don’t know if you can.
PE: I don’t want to make it into a Zen-like thing.
CD: That’s why I don’t want to say "shamanistic sensibility only," either.
CD: But it’s something that’s very natural and distinct in your work.
PE: It’s the way I hear poetry. I don’t know what the experience of writing poetry is like for you, or for other people, but it seems to me that my aspect of trying to write is really about trying to listen.
CD: And receive.
PE: Yeah, and the silence is a large part of that for me. And if it gets into the form, it’s because of the way I’m hearing it.
CD: You let it sink in…the silence.
PE: In the poem, and the language that comes out of the silence. This may sound like nonsense, but silence helps me to slow down a poem, to adjust a phrase or line or inner movement to its emotional weight.
CD: Right. So the Nahuatl language of the Aztecs electrified you, helping you find your own voice that incorporates the religious quality of ancient Aztec poetry, much of which you’ve translated throughout your career, as well as your own hierophantic quality.
CD: You must have returned to Fresno with a new mission following your sabbatical in 1968.
PE: Yeah, it did feel different.
CD: You were talking to your lifelong friend and colleague Phil Levine a lot about your work then, as you probably still do?
PE: We don’t talk a lot about our own work. We talk about wine.
CD: You were born in the same city.
PE: Yeah. I once introduced Phil at a reading and I gave this facetious introduction in which I said my mother had a dream that she had to go to Detroit because she saw the initials P.L. I had to be born under these initials. [laughing]
CD: I’m sure that got a laugh. So you came back from Mexico and started writing again. For the first time in years.
CD: And what came out?
PE: Well, the first book that came out was a book of Aztec translations, In the House of Light.
CD: So you wisely stuck with that.
PE: I did.
CD: Rather than say, “Okay, I’m ready to write on my own now.”
PE: I was doing both.
CD: You were doing both but you pursued the translations first.
PE: It seemed to me the most available material. I really didn’t have a book otherwise. And then of course came Collecting the Animals in 1973.
CD: Right. Then came Keeping the Night in 1978. So the translating was really an apprenticeship for you.
PE: That’s a great term for it.
CD: Rather than doing your apprenticeship in Iowa, you did it in Mexico on your own separate journey.
PE: [laughing] To the sorcerers…
CD: With the Aztecs.
PE: I did another book of Aztec translations in 2005 with Sutton Hoo Press, a limited edition. I then found a publisher at Eastern Washington University who was willing to do a selection of my Aztec translations. Chris Howell was instrumental in this.
CD: And that is the recently published book titled Working the Song Fields.
CD: Congratulations. You mentioned earlier that a lot of Aztec poetry is melancholy, as is yours also. Is your work melancholy because of this influence or simply because you’re melancholy by nature?
PE: Probably a case of the two meeting on common ground. The Aztecs ask a lot of universal questions about what life amounts to, and I think there’s enough simplicity in their work that you’re not ever afraid of imitating them. There’s no sense of individual virtuosity in the Aztec poets, partly because it’s an oral folk process, partly because they understood the whole system of symbols that was behind every word. I’ve never been very crazy about highly ornamental poetry.
CD: And when you just used the word "virtuosity," did you mean it in that sense?
PE: Yes, also that need to be original and unique.
CD: Do you feel that ornamental quality in a lot of, say, Western poetry, say, a lot of poetry in the 50s, I’m thinking particularly of Lowell, not that he was merely decorative or ornamental but lapidary and dense in such books as Lord Weary’s Castle and Life Studies. Does this avoid a truth-telling or lack of pretension that Aztec poetry emanates?
PE: I don’t think I want to make that kind of judgment. There are all sorts of people who love that.
CD: That music?
PE: That music. And you can’t say that that doesn’t belong in the world of poetry. It’s just one I don’t react to very much. I suppose if you go back historically—I like reading Donne, but I prefer Ben Jonson. These two poets seem totally different to me and I think of someone like Zbigniew Herbert, that marvelous poem where he says there are poets who close their eyes and a garden of images come streaming down. I don’t think I’ve ever been in that position. And the thing is, I’m not sure I ever want to be in that position. I get plainer and plainer and sometimes I worry about that but there’s not that much I can do about it.
PE: Because I think it tends to push me towards a more garrulous statement, diffused narratives, bumbling around in the furniture of narrative, and I don’t know if I’m very good at that.
CD: But I was wondering; you said you were worried about becoming more and more spare.
PE: Oh, I’m not worried about that. I’m worried about being more and more confused and garrulous. More talky. And I also want to avoid poetic bullshit.
CD: Do you feel like you’re becoming too “talky” at times?
PE: Well, because there are ways in which, when I think back to certain poems, how spare they were and how an image worked in that sparseness, and I don’t find that same sense of a single image that explores the content of the poem. I’ve come less and less to that.
CD: Do you know why that’s happened?
PE: I think it’s part of the way we age, or part of the way I age.
CD: For instance, in the poem you wrote recently about a buzzard, do you find yourself writing more garrulously than what you might call essentially?
PE: Not so much in that poem, but there are poems I’ve written lately that do seem much more given over to the narrative. And what happens, or at least part of what I think happens, is when you start using particulars, in that way of narrating the poem, the particulars tend to stay there as things, and I like particulars that sort of suggest everything behind them. It’s a way of understating rather than simply stating.
CD: So it sounds like you’re talking more about the lyrical impulse than the narrative.
PE: Exactly. And I love the lyrical impulse. Where I’m trying to find it now is more and more in the old Oriental poets and the Aztecs.
CD: Oh, still in the Aztecs.
PE: Well, I’m pretty much finished doing the Aztecs, though; I mean, I’ve done enough of that, I want to get out of that.
CD: Just because you feel like you’ve finished.
PE: I think so, yes. I think I’ve done enough and I think I’ve explored what was interesting for me to explore in those books.
CD: So when you discovered Aztec poetry, just as Bly and Wright were discovering Trakl, Rilke, Strom, and Neruda among other European Modernists in the 60s, you were pursuing Aztec poetry that led you also in a foreign direction that redefined your muse. You translated yourself as well as the Aztecs, discovering a spare, indigenous, archetypal, anonymous voice that became your own in English.
PE: If you read those Aztec poems, it’s really hard to tell who wrote them.
CD: They follow an anonymous folklore tradition, as you say.
PE: Exactly. And maybe that’s also what I mean by our intense interest in virtuosity and voice and it doesn’t exist there. I mean, it exists in the sense that sometimes in the Aztec poems you get an announcement of who the writer is, or who the poet is, but this seems more formulaic than individual.
CD: Like the old woman, but it’s not “so-and-so,” specifically.
PE: No, it’s not “so-and-so.” And I don’t even think you can trust it when he says “I’m King So-and-So.” I think it’s maybe somebody who is making that voice up. So there is something attractive about that; I can’t say it’s faceless. It's deeply human.
CD: Were you influenced by any other poets or traditions of poetry at the time you were translating Aztec poetry?
PE: I must have been. But they are really hard to name. Yvor Winters, of course, some of those poems are wonderful. J.V. Cunningham, early on. Certainly a number of European poets. It’s hard to tell exactly who I chose, consciously or unconsciously.
CD: Were you reading other poets at the time, like Galway Kinnell or James Wright, or Robert Bly, or Phil Levine?
PE: I certainly read all those poets, sure. And you know there were people who said that I belonged to the deep image school, people who said I was a symbolist, people who said I imitated Mark Strand’s surrealism—I mean after a while, if you listen to everybody, you don’t know who the hell you are. You know I had all those marvelous classmates. I mean the people you mentioned many were classmates of mine at Iowa.
CD: So they—Phil Levine, Jane Cooper, Donald Justice, Robert Dana, Henri Coulette— must have influenced you in some ways, either consciously or unconsciously.
PE: Had to. And that whole generation out of Iowa was a very significant one.
CD: They really changed the direction of American poetry.
PE: It was a simpler world then.
CD: So it was a simpler time but also a momentous time.
PE: There were a lot of cross currents, and I don’t know how many cross currents there are anymore because I don’t keep up as much with what is happening.
CD: Right. Well, contemporary American poetry has become such an enormous tent in the last twenty years.
PE: There are little groups all over the place.
CD: And so many different “rings” inside this enormous tent. But I would rather talk about your specific lineage and experience as an Italian American poet. Did you ever feel that your German last name concealed your ethnic identity?
PE: I’ve never felt it was concealed. I certainly never concealed it. I love the background I came from. It was rather funny when I talked about my childhood during my visit with Ruth Stone the other day, telling her I came from uncles who started out in the mine and so forth. She assumed I had a tragic childhood because of the word “mine.” But I think I had a very good childhood, despite the very hard times of the 30s.
CD: Your father died when you were very young, correct?
PE: He died in a car accident before I was born. For the first years of my life, my mother and I lived in my grandmother’s house in Leechburg, PA, and my grandmother mostly took care of me because my mother worked. I’m not sure how it affected me. Sometimes you don’t really know what in childhood gets to you. My grandmother didn’t know English. All the family that came to the house, my uncles for example, spoke the dialect. So as long as my grandmother was around, that was the language. A very loud language. And the language I was born into at that point was an Italian dialect. So in some ways, I know, that had to affect the way I listen to the music I hear in words. I can remember being in situations later on with my stepfather where I couldn’t think of the English word and I would use the Italian. That was part of my growing into that family.
CD: How long did that last?
PE: It lasted until I left home at fourteen. When I started school I got less and less accustomed to it. The curious thing is, when I went back to Italy some years ago and went to the Canavese area, I could understand much of what they were saying.
PE: Yes, but also up to modern times when writers were trying to keep the language intact.
CD: And that must be increasingly difficult.
PE: Absolutely. The curious thing is that my grandmother had come to America, and as the years went along, she probably spoke a purer dialect then those who were living in the dialect region. There wasn’t that element of change going on.
CD: You experienced much loss early in life, your father, your family’s dialect, and Italian way of life. Do you think that these losses were formative influences in shaping your personality and poetry? What you call your "melancholy strain"?
PE: I think it is part of my temperament. Part of it comes out of family certainly, and it’s very curious. Although it doesn’t much get into my poetry, I’m often very happy!
CD: I see that also.
PE: I’m always a little stunned by my own sobriety.
CD: Well, it’s not so much sobriety, I think, as a deep sadness and bittersweet.
PE: It’s true. The book of prose poems that Bill Kelly and I just did called Traces carries that sense of losing, and if and when I get a new book, that will be a section.
CD: What’s clear in your last book of poems, From The Meadow, particularly in such poems as “Elegiac,” “Fragments,” and “Lullaby,” is the quality of two worlds, this world and the other. These two worlds are especially poignant in the conclusion of “Lullaby.” Your speaker hears a mosquito which makes him
stop and think
how driven we are—even the least—to hear
world’s incessant undersong
even if it was never meant for us,
or never anything but clamor we wanted to be song—
and how much we love it, and with what sadness,
knowing we have to turn away
and enter the dark.
PE: And that’s a poem I'm grateful for. If I could write a bunch of those poems, I would be happy. I might lose all melancholy.
CD: That’s a really beautiful poem with a finely crafted symmetry. It starts with the lines “Last night in the dark, something/ came near and frightened me,” and ends with the lines, “knowing we have to turn away/ and enter the dark.”
PE: It seems to me that one of the pleasures I get from that kind of poem is discovering a form in which you can return to previous elements of the poem and yet discover an inevitable weight has been added. And what you talk about, that symmetry, is really a form. Expectation and surprise, perhaps. Because I think of these poems as sometimes establishing a rather formal relationship to the experience. And at the same time intimate, if you can combine them.
CD: There’s great intimacy there. Your poems are consistently elegiac, and by that I don’t just mean sad or mournful. There is a joyous quality in them as well. Do you think you conveyed this elegiac quality to your student Larry Levis who was such a powerfully elegiac poet?
PE: I don’t think so.
CD: You don’t?
PE: That would be giving me high praise indeed.
CD: Well, I think you deserve it.
PE: But I mean Larry had so much talent. I knew Larry when he was just beginning to write.
CD: He was your student at Fresno State during a very formative time in his early development as a poet.
PE: I did have him in several classes. But I think Larry just had that melancholy gift. I don’t think that can be taught. I think you can only come to it from experience.
CD: But he might have learned some of the forms for it from you.
PE: That would be nice to think so. By the time he died he had invented so many of his own complex forms. He had found a whole closet full of forms he could use.
CD: Was he an elegiac poet as a student?
PE: He was always a little dark, but he was also very funny.
CD: In your poem “From the Meadow,” you mention a tiny figure at the end of the poem calling to someone who may be you. Do you recall this figure?
PE: I do remember—
though from the meadow where you stand looking
over your shoulder, that tiny figure you see
seems to be calling
CD: Do you see this figure as the past, the poet, or perhaps the divine?
PE: I don’t think it’s divine.
CD: Perhaps death then?
PE: No, I don’t even think it's death. I think it’s the child you leave, his innocence; and yet you bear him with you lifelong.
CD: So the stanza preceding this one—
But now you know right what lies ahead
is nothing to the view behind?
How breathtaking these nostalgias rising
like hazy constellations overhead!”
little to go by, surely…
—makes wonderful sense from the speaker’s perspective as an adult directing himself, as well as the reader, to recall the “breathtaking…nostalgias” of childhood as it also looks toward the future.
PE: That’s the most immediate sense, as well as a figure way in the distance. And summoning you, or calling to you as if to say, “Are you there?”
CD: Can you remember? Is it saying that? What it’s like to be a child, to have that sensibility?
PE: To be that sensibility, to be what you were, to be what in many ways you still are. Because I don’t think we just leave it, I don’t think we just separate ourselves from that. It’s part of our history.
CD: But something is gone. Otherwise it wouldn’t be summoning you, right? And what would you say is gone?
PE: I wanted the figure to remain rather ambiguous. Summoning you is one thing. But what if it's calling you to wait for him?
CD: Could you elaborate on that?
PE: You know, I have that sense, I can name it, I can say “the child,” but even by naming it I don’t think, I’ve already put a limit on it. I think that what I like in the poem is that it didn’t quite have a limit, there remains something a little mysterious about that little figure. And I feel that about the continuum of our lives. We have a background, we can say, “Well, I was a child,” but it lives in us. It calls us back. It’s funny, I was talking to Ruth Stone about children and she said we never grow up. There’s a truth in that. So I didn’t know what it was calling. Because I think that ambiguity...well, the poem does end with the word "perhaps." And the poem does deal with the failure of the innocent vision.
CD: When you say “how breathtaking these nostalgias," you’re not afraid to call it nostalgia, to name it nostalgia.
PE: I’m not afraid at all.
CD: Which is, you know, often viewed as an almost willful despair, an overly romantic quality one might have about the past, a kind of emotional stasis.
PE: We sentimentalize it, and if we use that kind of word we say well, that’s the kind of poetry that looks at the past and says, “Oh it’s wonderful and sentimental.” I have nothing of that; well, I don’t think I do.
CD: No, but if an intensity of feeling in a poem is combined effectively, transcendently, with memory—with remembering—it can be enormously evocative, as is the case, I think, of many of James Wright's poems, such poems as “A Blessing” and “Beautiful Ohio,” for example.
PE: I don’t think you can live without some nostalgia. How can you do it? How can you not remember with nostalgia your first great love? How can you forget your first long trip on a train? I don’t know.
CD: You make this point in your poem “The Heart”:
I imagine I hear it singing still
so that the woods return, and the boy,
and the spring evenings—
O love, O mercy,
O passing years!
That child again, the boy. There is really more of the past in a lot of your work than the future or thinking about the future.
PE: That’s true, that’s exactly right. And I suppose that goes with that sense of loss.
CD: Your poetry has become a memorable record of losing and living, which are often the same thing, and the joys of course as well that occur between the losses.
PE: And I hope also it becomes kind of record, not of what has been lost but how you live with loss. I don’t mean that in any pedagogical way, but that is what one does. You learn how to live with it.
CD: But how to do that in a way that is, as far as the poetry is concerned, newly evocative in the context of your own life.
PE: Exactly, in my own life. I don’t pretend to instruct people.
CD: Right, but when you say, for instance, in “The Heart,” “In a small white room I saw my heart after it broke”—it’s not just you who saw your heart after it broke; it’s in a small white room.
PE: That’s what I love about the possibility of poetry. And I’m not talking just about my poetry, but really about poetry, that you can be truthful, accurate. It was a small, white room.
CD: There actually was a small white room; you aren’t just being poetic here?
PE: There was. That’s right. But at the same time how that particular, how that accident has a whole resonance behind it; I love it when that can happen.
CD: What do you mean by "accident," exactly?
PE: The philosophical sense of accident. It could have taken place in a red room, you could lie and make it a red room, I don’t know. I love it when you can be truthful to a situation in life. And at the same time catch that resonance that pushes you.
CD: In his poem “Capri,” Czeslaw Milosz refers to these real places, these “accidents,” as you call them, as “immense particulars."
PE: That’s a wonderful phrase.
CD: You mentioned you didn’t have a large vocabulary…
PE: I don’t.
CD: But you certainly possess your own verbal music, are sophisticated and well read. You choose not to use language in an ornamental way, in a decorative way, as you said before. Of course there are great poets such as Shakespeare and Keats who break the spare language rule, but their elaborate eloquence is not your model.
PE: Well, you know, if you bring up a poet like Keats, I mean how can you not love some of those odes? They’re so beautiful, they’re so breathtaking, they’re so heart-wrenching, but when it comes right down to the truth of it, I prefer Coleridge’s conversational poems. I would rather read Coleridge’s “The Nightingale,” frankly, than Keats’s “Ode to a Nightingale.” I’m sure people would say I’m foolish.
CD: You like something more about Coleridge’s colloquial speech. You prefer Coleridge’s poems in Lyrical Ballads to Keats’s odes?
PE: I don’t know how to explain it exactly. Coleridge is more intimate with his experience. Less aesthetic but more rooted. He’s more colloquial, and he puts himself into the narrative. In “The Nightingale" where he holds his child up to the moon and the nightingales are singing all around him, what an incredible intimate moment that creates between a father and son and the world. And Keats is off listening to this gorgeous music lulling him to death and it’s beautiful, he's so young, but it’s so far away and there’s so much language being generated. Coleridge has that deep gravity of his experience in his poem. And I think the last passages of that poem have a music that is the equal of Keats. You hear it again in Wallace Stevens, at the close of “Sunday Morning.” And Coleridge is just saying, you know...
CD: Or in his poem “Frost at Midnight."
PE: Yeah, “Frost at Midnight,” a little fire, thinking back.
CD: And his son is in that poem, too.
PE: Or "The Lime Tree Bower," where his friends go on a hike and he travels with them in his mind. And he's got their rhythm in his lines.
CD: There’s a spoken quality to a lot of your poems as well.
PE: I think so. I hope so.
CD: Yeah, but at the same time, the lyric is so resonant in your work. If I just pick randomly from From the Meadow, as I’m doing now, one sees this immediately:
There is in me, always,
you and the absence of you.
There is in me, always,
that road that leads to a field
of flowers we once knew
in that place where you were young,
there, where Memory keeps a life
of its own in the dark,
like a plant that waits patiently
year after year, asleep and folded inward
until the appointed night arrives
when it stirs and wakes
and opens out—Oh dream flowering!
Darkness flowering into darkness!—
forms, figures made visible
in the sadness of Time.
You combine lyrical expression with speech here in a memorable way.
PE: Well, I would like that to be true, Chard.
CD: Those lines are from your poem “Elegiac Fragments.” Your voice is quiet and often private. Do you feel your voice remains in that zone in most of your poems?
PE: I do, because I think my sense of speaking in the poem doesn’t create a very large public space, and I try, even in public readings, to create that private intimate space. I think there are poets who work wonderfully in public spaces, Whitman you mentioned. I heard when I was young Dylan Thomas read, and he just practically knocked me from my chair. I had never heard a voice like that. Or language like that, and although he was speaking about rather private experiences, the voice and the language were extremely public, I thought. I try not to. I don’t think my speaking voice in my poems is public. I can do nothing about that.
CD: Well, that’s just the nature of your work, and your sensibility. And yet at the same time, this private self that you’re talking about that is so closely focused on your own particular subject matter, whether it’s a cow or a field or a white room, or any of these things, crosses over from your deeply private self to your reader.
PE: I hope so. That would be something I certainly desire.
CD: I mean it’s the great paradox of the lyric, isn’t it—the private self, writing about deeply personal things connecting with others, mostly strangers, through the magic of his or her language?
PE: Exactly. That’s what we all want.
CD: And create poetry in the process.
PE: Isn’t that what you want in your work?
CD: Absolutely. But how do you do it? Create a transpersonal self that crosses over from personal particulars with meanings, music, and imagery that move the reader?
PE: Who do you speak to when you write?
CD: To myself.
PE: Talking to yourself? Me too.
CD: I think I start there, and then when I realize sometimes when I read the poem out loud to myself, I need to hear with a third ear or see with a third eye that I have become too self-absorbed here, too runic there.
PE: We sit around punishing ourselves.
CD: This is one of the things about Ruth Stone that I’m always impressed with. Just when she’s about to descend into darkest sadness, she somehow finds her way out, usually with humor, saving her poems from despair or facile brown study.
PE: Absolutely. You quoted her poem “Curtains” to me the other day, a poem addressed to her dead husband, Walter, which she saves at the end with the angry but comic retort, “See what you missed by being dead.” I mean, that’s an incredible ending.
CD: She’s really hearing with her third ear, right? She realizes if she had gone on talking about Mr. Tempesta in the apartment it would have just gone nowhere.
PE: It’s a wonderful shift. I love those moments when poems shift like that.
CD: And you know sometimes, not in her case, but it can be too funny or too light, running away too far in the other direction, but by the time you say in your poem, “The Heart”, “O, mercy” at the end, it’s not funny but still evocative for the integrity of the sentiment expressed there.
PE: That’s a nice phrase. Though it’s very hard to tell sometimes. Maybe, maybe not. Maybe it’s not so hard to tell if there’s integrity. Maybe we can spot fake rhetoric.
CD: Yeah. Do you ever show your poems to Phil Levine or anyone else?
PE: I sometimes show them to Phil, sometimes my friend Connie, or Chuck Hanzlicek, sometimes to Bob Mezey.
CD: And they tweak them or tell you where to revise? Do you almost have a new book ready for publication?
PE: Well, pretty close, I hope.
CD: Pretty close, but are you actually fighting this narrative impulse? You talked about worrying about becoming too narrative, and you can hardly find a narrative poem in your selected poems here.
PE: Partly what worries me, you know—coming back to vocabulary—is I do have a simple vocabulary, that’s the truth.
CD: But that’s for a reason.
PE: It’s for a reason. And also, I’m not very good at description. You may have noticed that I don’t describe things much. I have details, I have objects, but I don’t spend a lot of time describing them. I’m concerned that if I’m writing more narratively now, maybe I need more description.
CD: But you’re just finding that your new poems are turning in a more narrative direction.
PE: In a couple of cases.
CD: Is that because you feel like you have some stories to tell that you haven’t told? That don’t work in the lyric?
PE: Yes, I have some stories.
CD: I know you do. Because those prose poems are perfect examples. Like your uncle?
CD: Well that’s just one, but all of those.
PE: Yeah, they’re stories or anecdotes.
CD: And because they’re stories, there has to a little description here and there, right?
PE: They move in time differently.
CD: But again, we talked about your lyric poetry witnessing to these losses in an enormously evocative way throughout your life. But now you’ve moved to a point where you feel the lyric can’t do all that work. It’s a little like when Pasternak decided that he couldn’t write poetry anymore because it wasn’t large enough to contain the kind of witnessing he felt he needed. So he wrote Dr. Zhivago. You’re feeling that they’re stories that you need to tell about your life, your past.
PE: Can’t do it.
CD: Can’t, it’s the wrong form. It’s the wrong form, wrong genre.
PE: But I’m always afraid someone’s going to look at it and say, “Jesus! That’s a dumb story.”
CD: But they’re not saying that!
PE: I’m saying that!
CD: I mean these prose poems, why did they come out as prose poems? Why didn’t they come out as verse poems?
PE: Total accident. Chris Buckley wrote me, and I said okay, I’ll sit down and try to do some. But I didn’t feel like I could do it piecemeal, I wanted some thread.
CD: Yeah, but there was something you found about that form that you liked, that you could work in, as opposed to lines. And here you are thinking about lines your whole life—obsessively, right? Short line here, long line here, free verse. And now suddenly you’re not thinking about the line any more. Is that liberating?
PE: It’s liberating, to a degree.
CD: You feel liberated?
PE: In those poems I certainly did.
CD: Do you want to write more of them?
PE: I don’t know, maybe. It’s an attractive form. And you can do it with a great deal of precision, though the form easily lends itself to indulgence and silliness.
CD: You’re obviously not feeling like all right, I’m done.
PE: No, not yet. Not yet. It may come, but not yet, I hope.
CD: That’s lucky. You feel lucky?
PE: I do indeed.
CD: Because you’re still writing?
PE: I’m writing. My life is full. I have friends. I’m just full.
* * *
About the Interviewer
Chard deNiord is the author of four books of poetry, The Double Truth (University of Pittsburgh Press, 2011), Night Mowing (The University of Pittsburgh Press, 2005), Sharp Golden Thorn (Marsh Hawk Press, 2003), and Asleep in the Fire (University of Alabama Press, 1990). His book of essays and interviews with seven senior American poets, Sad Friends, Drowned Lovers, Stapled Songs: Conversations and Reflections on Twentieth Century American Poets, was published by Marick Press. He is the co-founder of the New England College MFA Program in Poetry and an associate professor of English at Providence College.
University of Iowa
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