from jubilat, Issue 14
Peter Gizzi is the author of four books: The Outernationale (Wesleyan, 2007), Some Values of Landscape and Weather (Wesleyan, 2003), Artificial Heart (Burning Deck, 1998), and Periplum (Avec Books, 1992). His honors include the Lavan Younger Poet Award from the Academy of American Poets as well as fellowships from the Howard Foundation, the Foundation for Contemporary Performance Arts, and the John Simon Guggenheim Memorial Foundation. He was a founding editor of o·blék: a journal of language arts and has also edited The Exact Change Yearbook and The House That Jack Built: The Collected Lectures of Jack Spicer (Wesleyan, 1998). Gizzi lives in Holyoke, Massachusetts, and teaches in the MFA Program for Poets and Writers at the University of Massachusetts, Amherst. This interview was conducted by Robert N. Casper in New York City on May 17 and June 7, 2007.
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RC: You've said, "At best, I'm always in the process of narrating my bewilderment in the world, language, in society." Can you discuss how your poems act out of bewilderment, and the ways they act out of a sense of certainty or authority?
Gizzi: I guess I am suggesting here the role of not-knowing that plays itself out in the writing of poetry. That this not-knowing plays a signal role in the production of reality in a poem. I like the word bewilderment because it has both be and wild in it, and I can imagine also wilderness inside it as well. As to certainty or authority in my work, I prefer the word inevitability—that is to say, meaning in a poem can be at once random and inevitable, and not-knowing can come to some sort of order that allows meaning to happen, mystery. A simpler way to say this is that I write to discover what I might know only in the act of making the poem itself. Writing as an aid to discovery, and to hold always a space open, to give this openness some relief. It's a hard thing to nail down. . . so let's go back to the word bewilderment: at a reading someone said, "You're really a lyric poet." When I asked her what she meant, she said, "Well, you're not a narrative poet." To which I responded by saying that I think I am a narrative poet—I'm just narrating my bewilderment as a citizen, and that spontaneous answer seemed true and has weirdly stuck with me. It feels right.
RC: I find your poems have a signature gestural quality—certainly rhetorically, but also in terms of theme, and in the way they address the present and the past.
Stylistically, they gesture toward a range of influences as well, and yet they are tonally uniform. Your last two books, Some Values of Landscape and Weather and The Outernationale, seem to extend this gestural quality.
Gizzi: I learned I'd like both to be clear and to suggest something larger at the same time; I'd like the thought to be both more exact and yet more open in what it is trying to take on. I work with the phrase and let the music from one phrase build into the next. I feel each book extends some part of what I learn from one into another. I feel that my new book is a natural extension of my last one. Another way to think of gesture is sequencing. I am very interested in sequencing the poems in my collections, how they move from one poem into another. And then how they move from one book into another: "The De-evolution of the Father" moves nicely into "A History of the Lyric," and "Beginning with a Phrase from Simone Weil" points to "A Panic That Can Still Come Upon Me." I try to end a book with a beginning, or an opening, to the next work.
My first book, Periplum, and new book, The Outernationale, are both about mapping terms—you learn from your new work about your old work, and you realize, Oh, wow, so I was thinking about this then, but now I'm somewhere else in it. For the record, a periplum is a form of reckoning, a form of navigation, the way Odysseus moves through The Odyssey—it's a navigation between the stars and the coast. And it's also the narrative of a journey that maps itself that way. For tens of thousands of years, we moved through space not with maps but by knowing where the sun was, and that star, and that point of that mountain. Which meant that you knew where the most intimate people in your world were—your lover, your ancestors, your children—by the farthest point in space. I'm fascinated by that.
I also learned, or maybe not, that one shouldn't title a book from a word like periplum that no longer exists in the language, because most folks don't know what you're talking about! And I just did it again with The Outernationale—but again, it's about creating this kind of mapless space in which the poem becomes a formal means of reckoning. Fifteen years after my first book I'm still fascinated by what comes from outside of me, from a much larger position. Meaning: there's you and me sitting here, and then this vast sky above us. Why am I interested in that? I guess it's because it shows how incredibly fragile and lucky we are to be here—this is it, we only get this moment. And I am interested in how a voice in a poem can capture this larger sense of things and put it into a meaningful relation.
RC: You begin Some Values of Landscape and Weather with "A History of the Lyric" and end the book with the line, "No better time than the present." How do you see your poems engaging the past, in contrast to or in relation to the present?
Gizzi: I think that the past or tradition is realized in the present, consciously or not, and that is the incredible pressure I feel in the work. Otherwise, it would be just a pastime or entertainment. By trying to establish a history of the lyric, what one is really addressing or voicing is lyric history. All real art makes us reconsider tradition—not as a fixed canonical body that exists behind us or bears us up, but as something we move toward. We find it reading back through those very works that were ahead of their own time—in the poems of Emily Dickinson or William Carlos Williams or Jack Spicer, for instance. If this model of discovery teaches us anything, it's that tradition is, in fact, always just ahead of us. Something we are always approaching. . . .
RC: Your poems do point to, and draw from, a giant history—for instance, in Some Values of Landscape and Weather Edgar Allan Poe not only shows up but shares space with other literary precursors.
Gizzi: To me naming Poe is like naming a tree—he's absolutely real and a part of the living landscape now. And we could say that Whitman is the ground we walk on in the American language. We can see Whitman's presence in the Moderns (Eliot, Pound, Stevens), and his effect is also here in our present. I find that kind of reading—the adventure of listening—a form of love, and enormously gratifying. That a new work can have these sonic relations and also be wholly itself. But I guess it's because I'm a poet. To paraphrase Spicer, he said, "I don't understand people who aren't poets who read poetry, because poets get the messages." As I've gotten older and done the work of reading and rereading poets, I've realized, "Oh, that's what he's talking about: these in fact are the messages." It's not something I can illustrate exactly. It's more a sense of affinity when reading another poet. The "message" is not a particular meaning per se, it's how meaning is made, its expression.
RC: In another interview you quote William Carlos Williams, "If it ain't a pleasure, it ain't a poem"—can you describe the ways you find a poem pleasurable?
Gizzi: It is an experience of an inner emotional and intellectual life alive and unfolding. It has a sense of numinous reality that is open. The deep, satisfying, symphonic mind conducted through the sonic frequency oflanguage. When a moment—when either reading or writing—lights up and reveals consciousness itself free of expression, implacable, impersonal, alive and singing. Or when I am reading Melville or Stein, H.D. or Brathwaite (to offer different models), it's the simple fact of a body listening to itself as it makes its measure and meaning in the world, as it creates a world. And that poetry has given me a context to live my life—maybe not always a "pleasure," but the experience is certainly total.
RC: I'm interested in your sense of community—you seem to be active in, and personally as well as aesthetically connected to, all sorts of poetry communities.
Gizzi: Well, I definitely read widely. I like to make my own choices—I don't let a specific community determine what I read and what I don't read. That's the downside of any scene which can sometimes manifest itself as social policing or as hierarchy, whether it's on the left or the right: it can create a certain laziness or unuseful categories. For my part, I didn't start to be a poet so that I could be this type of poet or that type of poet—I don't think any poet does.
RC: But communities have been generative, even necessary, to many young poets.
Gizzi: Yes. I'm saying let's take it from there and then stay open. Because a community is both you and me sitting here, as well as all the poets influencing this later great tradition. That's why I was drawn to a very bookish, almost at times schoolmarmish poet like Jack Spicer—in his first letter to Lorca he says tradition is "generations of different poets in different countries patiently telling the same story, writing the same poem, gaining and losing something with each transformation—but, of course, never really losing anything." And I think that if poems are really working, they are thinking about some kind of futurity—even if they're talking about loss.
RC: And yet, as you said earlier, you love to trace the influence of poets—and didn't you study classics in college?
Gizzi: Yes, I studied Greek and Latin, I studied ancient lit. And I'm one of those people who was bitten by the Pound bug. As quote-unquote globalism continues, how much better will we be able to read him fifty or a hundred years from now? What was he pointing toward? It gave me a rich education: because of him, I read ancient and medieval literatures. When I was a teenager, I began with the Beats, Rimbaud, Homer, Shakespeare, Hawthorne, Whitman, but I never read just one stream. To me the tradition is much larger than just the recent postwar "raw and the cooked," as Lowell broke it down. I didn't want to think of it in those terms.
I'm definitely indebted to the poets I knew in my twenties; I'm also indebted to poets who participated in my journal o·blek, and later, The Exact Change Yearbook. At that time they gave me a community to dwell in, a body of literature to study. Ultimately, editing is all about generosity: writers give you the work, and you put the work in some kind of constellation, some kind of useful relation—and it informs new communities, new readers. That's where I went to school—more than to Brown or Buffalo per se—it was my journal that gave me a primary education. I was already thirty and had published six issues of o·blek by the time I went off to grad school. The reason I was attracted to those graduate programs—besides not having to wait tables at night and be a grounds crewman by day—and to poets like Keith Waldrop and C. D. Wright and Robert Creeley and Charles Bernstein and Susan Howe, was because I was already doing the magazine, and they liked it and were a part of it. They were also all very kind and extremely intelligent people. I never really thought about it—I just did it. But it led me here.
RC: Tell me how o·blek started.
Gizzi: Just after I finished at NYU I met Connell McGrath—a mutual friend who wanted to start a hipster mag like Details introduced us. It was the eighties, and we were both totally uninterested. Instead, we both wanted to start a poetry journal (Connell was then an intern at the Paris Review), so I wrote letters to the poets I admired with a list of what we imagined the first issue to be. And literally everyone, except for one person, sent work. It was like, "Now what do we do?"
RC: How did you define that list of people?
Gizzi: As good poets, I guess. They were the writers I had been reading at that time. To me they were working out of a modernist tradition. Rosmarie Waldrop and Keith Waldrop, Fanny Howe, Clark Coolidge, Michael Palmer, Claude Royet-Journoud, Marjorie Welish, Paul Metcalf, Emmanuel Hocquard, John Yau were all poets from the first issue, and then later it attracted the work of Bernadette Mayer, John Godfrey, John Ashbery, Barbara Guest, James Schuyler, Robin Blaser, Rae Armantrout, Lyn Hejinian, Nathaniel Mackey, Alice Notley, and many others—all poets who had come out of an international avant-garde. I met the Waldrops when I was fourteen or so through my brother Michael, who studied with Keith in the early seventies. From them and their press, Burning Deck, I discovered many, many poets. When I was a teenager I used to visit my brother in Providence, and he'd show me stuff and I'd see books on his shelves that he was reading. I'd say, Wow, what's that? and I'd check it out. As a boy I remember we used to listen to Dylan Thomas records, and Auden records, and Orson Welles reading "The Raven"—that kind of stuff. I realize when I look back on it now, it just seemed part of life. I was much younger than everybody in my family. My other brother Tom is a singer-songwriter, and songs were really the form I most connected with, but I didn't play an instrument. And I wasn't a great English student either. I was a stutterer, a stammerer—so no one encouraged me that way. I used to think it was because of my brothers that I've come to do what I've done, but thirty years now out of that household, it's not that simple, it's much more private and ultimately mysterious or stranger than I could have ever projected. I suffered some losses at an early age, and I remember when I was thirteen when I read Shakespeare's tragedies for the first time I imagined in them the voices of people I had lost. In fact, I still think the dead do speak through literature. What I was looking for in literature back then, what I was imagining. . . I don't know. All I know is I got hip to Ezra Pound and the Beats and John Ashbery when I was seventeen or eighteen, and I really went to school in that tradition.
RC: This was through your brother?
Gizzi: More through my Spanish and Latin teacher at high school. A poet and translator named Pete Thompson. It turns out he was also a student of Keith Waldrop—he went to Brown in the late sixties, early seventies, where he did his work on the late Artaud. And he gave me Pound, he gave me the Beats; I also went to my first poetry readings with him. We left campus to go see Allen Ginsberg read, two different times.
Gizzi: No, New Hampshire. I went to five high schools, and ended up at a school with an Outward Bound component—I had dreams of winter camping and all that stuff. I was young. . . I have no idea whose body that was now, but I guess I was quite hardy in my teens. My first fall semester I read the Odyssey for the first time, and I remember writing a paper—it's embarrassing, but I really felt as though I was its reader; that it had traveled through all this time just for me. It was the figure of Telemachus most of all. He was the reader. . . he was all of us. And the poem seemed to say everything: you could read so many public and private emotions, histories, psychologies, into it. My body was on fire when I read it. Years later, I ended up doing my BA thesis on Plutarch's Lives and Homeric figures and their relation to certain ideas of personhood and excellence.
RC: Your earlier work, and the poems in Artificial Heart, are peopled with children-and they also show up in poems like "Stung"from The Outernationale. What do children, and a child's view, mean to or allow for you as a poet?
Gizzi: I have often wondered that myself. To me, childhood is not a stable condition—certainly not safe, and certainly not unaware. More a condition of sonar, an emotional sonar of sorts. I grew up late, as it were, in every way. I am the last child in my family—my parents were, like me, the youngest in their families, with much older siblings (and siblings who were born in Italy, my parents being born here). All this is to say I was born into a highly evolved discursive space and was/am always late to the conversation, and I had always to be listening to catch up or to see where I might participate in the story and find my own sense of relevance. I tried to write this in an early exercise that became the poem "Thirty Sentences for No One." The belatedness I experienced in my family dovetailed with my understanding of the history of the art.
If the condition of adulthood means being able to make choices that shape personhood, then we live in a culture in which we are infantilized—i.e., not allowed fundamental choices in the direction of the government—and therefore we remain in an unstable, dangerous state. This dangerous state feels metaphorically "out-of-doors" to me, outside the discourse of power and this out-of-doors (or outer) position or voice has proved useful to imagine selfhood or to make a voice that is at once neglected and empowered because of it. I think of the line "It's good to be dead in America" from "Revival," or "start from nothing and belong to it" from "The Outernationale," for example.
RC: Can you talk more about the difference between writing short poems, long poems, and serial poems—how do you find each propels or delimits the poem for you?
Gizzi: When I begin writing I often feel the result will be a longish poem, or at least I have that desire. The space into which I compose seems immense, or at the very least momentous, and it needs duration to be properly realized. Shorter poems come to say what their reality is very quickly, as if the discussion has been ongoing and here is a piece of it—or by saying less, it says its piece. Longer poems tend to be more voluble in their discursiveness—I can fold more into them. I love it when I can extend the surface and the location of the poem across a larger vocal fabric. And seriality for me is an admixture of the two gestures above—a larger order happening in discrete units. I think my longer poems behave like a ribbon or a tape loop or Möbius strip that moves vertically. And I think of serial poems as film frames that happen horizontally.
RC: You've talked about the poetry's similarity to film—can you expand upon that?
I think film and fiction have more in common.
Gizzi: For me film language is closer to lyric poetry than it is to fiction. Most likely because I'm interested in both modes of expression. Film language is unavoidable—it's part of our unconscious, our desires, memories, etc., and is very captivating and powerful. I went to NYU in my twenties to study film but quickly changed my major to literature and then ancient literature. Maybe now looking back I can see that the connection to ancient language and film has to do with origins of expression. Film is a relatively new language technology of our recent human history (i.e., we are in its early phases), and if silent film is like cuneiform or hieroglyph, we might say classic film language of the thirties and forties is like Greek and Latin. I don't know—it's just something I can see now.
Like poetry, film tells a story by compressing time, and through an emotive, image-based structure. There is a syntax of images, a rhythm. And it works with light—a material light. Not a major observation, but still an endlessly fasinating medium—light I mean. It gives relief to a void or a darkness, opacity of being. In some way it makes a reality out of the darkness. I love the opening to Beckett's late novel Company, too: "A voice comes to one in the dark. Imagine." That the book is titled Company but the voice comes to "one." It's a wonderful description of how it is to be in a cinema, an inherently public experience—to be alone together connected by images and phantasms of light and shadow, dreams. But it's also a wonderful correlative to being alone in one's room, in one's library, memory, alone together in one's books, and a voice comes to one, and then a poem begins. A world comes to one. And for a moment you are your self and another becoming another thing, a poem.
RC: Are you ever overwhelmed by the sensory aspect of cinema?
Gizzi: Yes. I used to think that if film existed during the medieval period, they would never have built any of those cathedrals. I think of those structures as a kind of medieval cinema. The incense, colored windows, frescoes, the images or stations—are all meant to overload the senses, open up the body for a spiritual awakening. In film the passion is built purely out of light—it's in fact a material light . . . I almost titled my last book The Poetics of Light, but I felt that was too handbookish and shut the poems down in some way. My poems do seem more and more obsessed with light-but I think it's always been there. I am interested though in a poetics of light—a way of reading and seeing its fluid materiality as a phenomenon that comes from far away and in a time frame much larger than our own. It comes to us in a periodicity outside our own. I would say my interest in light is ultimately related to capturing or depicting time.
RC: At your reading last night, you described the poem "The Outernationale" as your version of a hell canto. Can you talk more about that poem, and the title in general? Is it in any way a response to the famous French socialist song "The Internationale"?
Gizzi: The poem was written coming out of winter into spring—this is why the epigraph is from Williams's Kora in Hell. Poems are creatures of seasons, too—like now and never, or here and oblivion. But the title behaves in many ways—its meanings are still evolving as I continue to read the poems in the book. It's about making meaning from the outer edges of meaning and peripheral observations, how the outer and inner or fleeting and vast correspond. For me, the outernationale is a territory—a kind of lived vocal fabric, a material sound that might have sculptural dimensions, as in a habitable territory of the poem or the book, as it were.
In relation to "The Internationale," I grew up in small upstate mill towns, and as I've said, my parents come from an immigrant culture that worked hard to participate in and assimilate the ideals and idioms of the American mid-twentieth century. They weren't part of the utopian vision of a labor movement that that song so uniquely captures. I would say their experience wasn't international but outernational—they, my relatives, being outside the discourse of power and prestige. Which is also not to imply their work and story was or is in any way irrelevant—it's not. I would like to show the measure of things and their interconnectedness. But outer also implies the extreme of a boundary, and I imagine when I am working I want to compose just at the boundaries of the known—to find a way to write at the edge of an already impacted history and world which is where we always already are at all times. . . part of a vast, unstable, multiplying narrative. . . the ongoing story. I mean to say, back to your community question, I feel the title obliquely speaks as well to the sense that, strictly speaking, poets aren't international either but outernational. In some fundamental way we, our work, exists in time (or time exists in it), even if unacknowledged, and is also a part of this ongoing story. Oppen's revision of Shelley, that "poets are the legislators of the unacknowledged world," has always been attractive to me in that sense that we rescue each other's work and build out of it. We record the pieces of other songs, of people and their everyday struggle of living, of things coming into being even as they are lost within a larger story.
RC: What I love about outernationale is the way its prefix turns the term on its head—and it's wild that you seem to be playing with this idea through the repeated suffixes like -obic, -etic, -istic in the second title poem!
Gizzi: When I was writing that poem, I remember reading back through a draft and misreading a word broken by a line and thinking, yes, that sounds much better as just the piece of the word. It's mostly a sound element. Sound tends to work in a number of ways for me, to keep new information coming in and to handle it—the present, I mean. I hear the list of suffixes as a stutter or a stammer. In this digital age, it's almost like the skipping of a damaged CD—like something's spinning in place—or the elisions of text-messaging. Our moment is also caught up in the idea of end-times—the constant news stream of "the world is over." For example, I remember as a kid National Geographic was this wonder of information, but now when I see it at the dentist's or doctor's and the cover story is about the death of the ocean, or the heating up of the planet and the loss of greenbelts, or the extinction of multiple species, etc.—it's a very different message. The litany of suffixes or "endings" was a way of prolonging, interrupting, this idea of being at a threshold, or at an extreme, and complicating it. Again, I'm not only interested in a history of the lyric but in a more ontologically complex reality of lyric history. And by accentuating the edges of things, of meaning, in this very active period of change and shifting scales from global politics to climate change to the shifting of national borders, what remains, and what has remained constant, is the poem.
RC: Who is the "I" in your poems?
Gizzi: Well, it's me and not me. When I write, it's something just next to me—the observing I. To speak with an honest interplay of knowing and not-knowing. For me if a poem is a closed, contained vessel, it's dead on arrival; instead, I want to leave some part of the poem open so that I or another reader can enter it again and again. In a poem the I is always the reader as well as the poet. Poems that work for me have a kind of stereoscopic depth. With a stereoscope, you have the illusion of seeing all three dimensions, but it's unstable, or elusive, and yet it's there, right in front of your eyes.
University of Massachusetts, Amherst
Publisher: Robert N. Casper
Guest Editors: Cathy Park Hong, Evie Shockley
Managing Editor: Jessica Fjeld