An Interview with Peter Everwine
from New Letters, Vol. 83 No. 1
Peter Everwine is one of the most accomplished and valued poets and translators writing in the United States today. His long and estimable career includes the Lamont Poetry Prize, a senior Lecturer Fulbright award for the University of Haifa, Israel, fellowships from the National Endowment for the Arts and Guggenheim Foundation, and an American Academy of Arts and Letters Award in Literature. "There is something shining and pure—a radiant clarity," poet Edward Hirsch writes, "a luminous stillness at the heart of Peter Everwine's beautiful, mysterious, and necessary work."
Everwine's recent collections of poetry include The Countries We Live In: Selected Poems Natan Zach 1955-1979 (Tavern Books, 2011), Listening Long and Late (University of Pittsburgh Press, 2013), and the limited edition poetry chapbook A Small Clearing (Aureole Press, 2016), which is discussed here, along with recent and new poems, their sources, the lyric crucible and his recent achievements.
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NEW LETTERS: I’d like to begin with a poem on the Poetry Foundation’s website, "Designs on a Point of View," originally published in Poetry magazine (1958), which resonates still with the singular quality of your voice and vision. It is from your first book, The Broken Frieze, and it’s a mix of Petrarchan and Shakespearian strategies, right? Despite the formal mode—compulsory in those days—can you hear any threads connecting this poem’s voice to the newest poems?
Designs On A Point of View
Thus, on a summer evening, how the light
Will never startle birds or quite define
That tree, that port in air, unleaved to night
And thickening to an atmosphere no line
Will measure. Yet the swallow at his trade
Revels upon this density—the lift
To the stunting wing, the thrust and accolade
Of air that vectors to the fruitful drift.
Design means supper to the birds, not flight,
Not simply the release, although that, too
Is part of it. And the tree that shapes the night
Will also aim the bird, give contour to
A local habitation where the eye
Is rooted, where the bird defines the sky.
PETER EVERWINE: Lord, this is more an archaeological site than a poem. This was among the first poems I published. You have to dig down through the layers of allusions, derivations, get past that pompous drumroll of "Thus" and maybe you’d find something—a kind of phrasing, a way of teasing out or playing off meaning from a couple of simple images, a voice that a reviewer of later work called "disembodied"? What I like in the poem is the word "supper," especially placed against so many of the other words in the poem. And maybe "vectors." For an early, formal sonnet, it has its moments, though overly infatuated with literature.
NL: I think "The Train Station of Milan" from Listening Long and Late (2013) is genius, the true and objective pathos of one moment—expanding to indict all our lives—that one hopeful gesture in a train station all that time ago. This is the second half of the poem:
. . .
The old man surely is dead now,
and I am of the age he was
when I first saw him—as I see
him now—that winter afternoon
in Milan, his hand extended, palm up,
his fingers opening and closing,
as if he were setting free something
he held, if only for a moment,
then beckoning it to come back.
How does the first impulse for the poem develop for you, and how does the sensibility of a "moment" become a discipline in your poetry? How does the implication follow, no matter how subtle, about the notion of time, our common mortality?
EVERWINE: I was raised in an Italian family; gestures are language. I remembered the scene in the station years later, and "saw" the scene again, but slowed it down, found myself in the old man. So now the gesture was not only an illustration of the arc of memory but also an enactment of farewell, loss, and at the same time a yearning for the moment to return and stay, to welcome back—an impossible gesture to our passing moments. The poem depends on time and our common mortality, although I was hardly thinking of abstractions at the time of writing. The old man's gesture was also mine-so much slipping away, so much reluctance and yearning for its return, by any means. The train station was the perfect setting for departure and arrival; without it, the poem would not have come to mind. The man's small gesture suggested an entire history.
NL: One of the qualities of your poetry that I find astonishing is how you have maintained a lyrical integrity and intactness of vision throughout your career, a great deal of which relies on memory and loss. "Drinking Cold Water," an early poem like the more recent "Rain," infuses memory and loss through the detail of water. How fundamental has the theme of memory been in transforming the thought and vision of your poetry over 60 years of writing?
EVERWINE: It's always been important to me, though in earlier poems it may have been more veiled. As I've aged, especially in more recent work, memory has grown more central because so much of my life exists in remembering and because I believe I've dropped so many veils, become more intimate and transparent. In a curious way, growing old has taken away some of the luxuries of poetry but also has given me a certain freedom to speak more openly and plainly. I've never worried too much about being fashionable, at least in my later years, but it feels terrific not to give a damn except to write with integrity to the moment.
NL: Recently, in 2016, you published A Small Clearing. One of the most memorable poems in that collection is "We Were Running."
We Were Running
in memory of Annie
We were running up the slope of a hill,
that dog and I, an early winter rain
beginning to fall, wind-driven and sharp,
the clouds so black the edges of the hills
were etched and incandescent. That dog
and I were running, the two of us
apart and yet together, and even now,
in the solitude of a quiet hour—the days
and that dog long gone—I can follow
those far-blown traces of unexpected joy
and find my way back again: heart wild,
lungs filling with the breath of winter,
and that dog beside me running headlong
into the world without end.
Can you speak to that instant you capture here? It is near impossible, as we know, to write an effective, unsentimental poem on the subject of a pet. The dog is a coefficient for that distilled point of life that comes back in a much larger way. It is just amazing. How did the gathering of specifics establish the moment in the poem and then lead to the suggestion of the larger themes?
EVERWINE: The opening is fairly exact. I really did feel in touch with that dog, the wildness of the day, that incredible joy and intimacy I shared with that lovely dog. The poem tries to return to that experience, a tracing of images back through time. Also, a key for me was the sense of "apart and yet together," which leads into the last lines and their implications.
NL: To us, few contemporary poets give more music and elegance to grief with such startling, vivid imagery. In recent years, your poems have softened in tone but heightened in brevity and the weight of specific experience. "Elegy For the Poet Charles Moulton," from Listening Long and Late, and the recent "We Were Running" include joy, loss, humor, and mystery all bundled together by metaphysical string. Is this a conscious act on your part or has experience led you there?
EVERWINE: It's a hard question, because it suggests an either/or choice. I like when an ordinary word or small phrase suddenly expands into more than one meaning, even expresses contradictions. That always seems possible in the act of writing. There's always the experience pushing at you to get it right; at the same time there's the possibility, the expectation or alertness of the poet who is looking for the word or words that will tear themselves open to you. I think this happens in both poems that you mention. How many of us have listened to beautiful music and felt so much joy that we weep? I don't think that our emotional lives are easily simplified.
NL: To continue along this line, "At the Hermitage" mentions St. Benedict as advising you, "stay in your cell ... and your cell will teach you."
At the Hermitage
This morning, before light, the voices
of the monks at matins lifted the sun
into one more day of the Creation.
Now, the headlands lean
into haze, the sea milk-blue and motionless.
In silence the hours drowse.
Only a small dun-colored bird
rummages in the underbrush, hunting
for something I can't see.
I have been reading Po Chu-i. Unencumbered,
But for the years he carried, he chose the path
of solitude into mountains much like these.
The clear sound of a bell from the mist,
a heron lifting from a pool of water—solace enough
for him and, sometimes, for me as well,
but when I turn away from my book
the old disquiet tugs and frets at my sleeve,
and I can find no peace.
Sit in your cell, St. Benedict said,
and your cell will teach you.
The hours drowse, the dun-colored bird
with his fierce appetite for the present
is hard at work, the gentle Po Chu-i is gone,
and under words, under everything is silence.
O Lord of Silence, I can no longer tell apart
what was abandoned, what gained or lost—
so much, so many lives tangled into years,
and how would I not carry them with me
even to the border of your Kingdom
and beyond it, if I could?
What has your cell taught you? What regrets might you have in writing poetry? Or to take it a few steps beyond: Is it possible through the art of poetry to grow into your own poems?
EVERWINE: I'm not sure if the poem is much about writing or the regrets of pursuing poetry. Poetry has been a good life. Silence and solitude are the conditions of the hermitage, just as they often are those of writing. The bird lives in the immediate; to go back to the beginning of this interview, "design means supper to the bird." Perhaps to live in the present—the bell, the heron—is enough. What the cell teaches me isn't the peace found in solitude, isn't the detachment one requires. What I find is what lies beneath the Word: silence. I bring to it my life, my memories, my history, and I don't wish to give them up, or can't give them up without becoming something other than who I am.
NL: A new poem, "Lines Written for Elmo Castelnuovo" [first published elsewhere in this issue] includes personal and family recollections, as we see in Keeping the Night, the small particulars from childhood that become emblematic for longings and insights we come to, usually later in life. I don't think I know a more powerful elegy. This poem in particular seems to have started with recalling that pat on the head—would that be right? Who are you recalling from your childhood in Pennsylvania? The specifics remind me a little of the Spiritual Exercises of St. Ignatius of Loyola. Is that fair?
EVERWINE: Elmo was my uncle, and I've written about him in more oblique ways. I grew up with him and my mother in my grandmother's house, a truly essential part of my life. I had a difficult time writing this poem. I had the first section but wasn't sure how to go on. I thought then to move the poem forward in time, then to return to him in the classic sense of emerging from the underworld to a vanished world that existed within me. In a sense, the poem built somewhat, unconsciously, on the gesture of the man in the station of Milan. The emotional center of the poem was the pale crescent of his skin that appears in the first section.
NL: Now, more than ever, the poems pursuing love of silence and solitude are wiser and much more haunting. How have these two elements affected your work and understanding of the world of which you write, and have they centered on your growth and learning through time, age, and absences, including your self-imposed gaps of not writing?
EVERWINE: I think "At the Hermitage" is perhaps the only poem in which silence and solitude are the major subjects. I'm really not sure why I've earned this reputation. I do write rather spare poems, and I often speak from a position of solitude. Also I often invite the speechless absent into a poem. I live a rather private life, though I'm far from reclusive. As for those periods during which I've not written, they may be a curse or a blessing, but certainly not a moral choice. I've not thought of myself as a career poet; I'm not claiming this as a virtue.
NL: At the memorial last February on campus at California State University, Fresno, close to 20 of us testified to the generosity and importance of Philip Levine as mentor and friend—many had been students. Your talk was easily the most moving, and you read a new poem you wrote for Phil, an elegy, titled "Nellie" [published in this issue]. You were Phil's closest friend in poetry and in the world for something like 60 years, and I know he depended on you for help and feedback on his poems. While most all the speakers that day were appropriately thanking and praising Phil, your poem spoke to the man, to a brotherhood, to a personal tenderness and common humanity you shared. Can you say a little about that poem and that relationship of so many years?
EVERWINE: I could never figure out why Phil signed his letters—and sometimes his books to me—Nellie, the name of an odd cat; Phil wasn't a man to have pets. He wrote a fine poem about a fox, and he had that painting of a fox that he dearly loved. On a pure hunch, and it is a hunch, I put Nellie and Fox together, which made "Phil-sense" to me. We both enjoyed, in a friendly way, sticking it to each other. Phil's fox poem suggests a world of anti-fops. I wanted also to suggest one of anti-fads. And I wanted Phil's spirit to have the last laugh, one true to the friend I knew.
NL: It's no secret that you have been a much revered and endearing teacher. If you had yourself as a student in this day and age, what suggestions would you have for him?
EVERWINE: Being a student in my day was pretty simple. Now you've got a zillion conferences, summer camps, lectures, poetry cruises, discussions, forums, advice, how to use flowers as inspiration, how to emulate suffering by wearing your shoes on the wrong feet, etc. Give it up. Find some poems or poets who move you; take them to heart. Feel like it's an honor to be in their company. I had, as a student, a small anthology by Oscar Williams. It was like a door into the Muse's bedroom. You didn't even have to knock, just open it.
NL: I want to go back to voice, and a new poem "The Day" [published in this issue]. It has always seemed to us that the great achievement of our greatest poets is to speak directly, to make the artifice of the poem disappear. I think of Levine, Kunitz, William Stafford, and Gerald Stern, and also of Milosz, Szymborska, Herbert, Jaroslav Siefert, and, of course, Antonio Machado. To present the specifics that lead to the universal in lines that are direct, clear, and yet luminous and exact seems to be the great task, and the true achievement of your poems, especially the new ones. You manage to have an idea as common as "happiness" grounded in this poem and then have it resonate to suggest a complex understanding of that in time. Can you talk about the voice and strategies of this poem, and, forgive us, the vision?
EVERWINE: Wow! What answer could follow that question? Vision seems so large a word. I don't want to over-explain what the poem comes to. I wanted to speak of a particular day, as sparely as possible. A day of happiness, a day without regret. Then, as it often happens in my poems, to move the experience in time, roughly parallel, and return to it in the light of a different or larger view, one altered by what had been encountered in time. I don't know if I'm approaching anything one might call "vision." It might be nothing other than reaching a certain age and trying to write as truthfully as I can at this stage of my life. Everything lies open to question. I have no answers.
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About the Interviewers
Christopher Buckley's most recent book is Star Journal: Selected Poems (University of Pittsburgh Press, 2016). His 20th book of poetry, Back Room at the Philosophers' Club (Stephen F. Austin University Press), was published in 2014.
Jon Veinberg's most recent poetry collection is The Speed Limit of Clouds (C & R Press, 2008). He is the recipient of a National Endowment for the Arts grant in poetry and lives in Fresno, California.
University of Missouri - Kansas City
Editor: Robert Stewart
Administrative Director: Katie Taylor