Levi Rubeck talks to poet Peter Gizzi about loss, literature as instruction manual, and the accident of selfhood.
A co-worker of mine congratulated me on getting “shy Peter” to speak, but it wasn’t all that difficult. Over email and a leisurely Saturday morning chat Peter was forthright and charming while discussing his latest book, Threshold Songs. He paused only to ask if something he had said sounded “cranky.” I assured him that it did not, but thinking back, I wonder if some crankiness is exactly what poetry needs on occasion. What follows is the result of our conversations.
Levi Rubeck As someone who came to poetry through punk rock, ‘zines, and handmade books, I was thrilled to learn of your past dabbling in similar arts. How do you see your work, and specifically this book Threshold Songs, in connection to music, punk or otherwise?
Peter Gizzi I think punk is a stance as much as a mid-’70s cultural phenomenon—strictly speaking, it was over when the Sex Pistols broke up. I don’t really care about pronouncing the word “punk” though—it’s the stance that interests me. And by “stance,” what I really mean is a moment when younger people pushed back against the baby boom generation and the established orders of resistance that they created. My particular moment came at the very tail-end of the boomer generation, and that puts me in a blank spot because I don’t see my generation as “established,” or possessing a vanguard position. In fact, I think one of the values of my generation is that we don’t have a program. Which makes it easier to find this “no-place,” where I have the freedom to simply follow the poem and go where it takes me. And as an aside, song has always been essential to this quest, a language being set to a music, or more specifically, for me, a sound that is an environment.
And that environment is always a negotiation between the accident of selfhood and tradition. Which is to say, that my reading, my bibliography, is a large part of my “autobiography.” I am interested in how what I read—and what I write—performs and reveals to me my selfhood. In the past decade, 19th century America has been my foundation and my ground. What I’ve learned from that particular moment, going back to a “stance,” as I mentioned above, is that poetry, American poetry in particular, is absolutely new and absolutely wide open. When I think that the first proper edition of Emily Dickinson’s poems appeared just a few years before I was born, and that it was primarily in the 1980s, when I was in my 20s, that the NYU Press started producing variorum editions from Whitman’s archive, it allows me to imagine that this information is still profoundly contemporary. The signal is still opening. And those 19th century authors, who were writing into the hegemony or the totalizing effect of British canonical literature, were discovering my language, the American language, with its promise, its failures, its homely motor, and its homespun condition of a developing literature. I’m not waving a flag, I’m just stating a condition of discovery. For instance, I can hear Dickinson’s spiky, haunted, rebellious, and eerie tunes as punk. Poetry has become so highly populated by trenchant positions that we forget, or I can sometimes forget, that it’s still open and that I too am free to become myself and to discover my voice outside of the narrowing and fracturing of micro-positioning. What’s “punk” in all this is the DIY reality of the homemade, the raw voice, with its asymmetries, its reaching, and its limits.
LR In an interview with Rob Casper for jubilat you said: “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.” What are some of your methods for navigating that line or “threshold” between clarity and larger, potentially existential or metaphysical themes?
PG Let me begin by saying that I have often characterized my voice as, simply, an ongoing narration of my bewilderment as a citizen in the world. I find bewilderment to be a productive place from which to compose. It’s a word I like as it has both “be” and “wild” in it, and I also hear wilderness. Let’s be honest, life is strange and gets stranger; it’s strange to be here. So for me selfhood is also a biological phenomenon, enacted by the body I have to work with; it’s my instrument. In one of my poems in this book I say “the biology that composes I is shared with I.” Sometimes I think that my language has a kind of sonic blur, trying to transmit the impersonal frequency of pure neuro-hormonal energy. This might sound crazy, but in the act of locating a ground in this otherwise dark process, I came to an understanding that was, for me, revelatory: that the sensory data recorded in my poetry is, at the same time, a fiction of consciousness and the physical reality of my nervous system. Sometimes I think that I’m only an ethnographer of my nervous system; it’s certainly peopled. So what do I mean when I say that I want to be clear and to suggest something larger? One of the jobs for me as a poet is to listen to the exterior world in relation to some otherwise illegible interiority. I want to connect these two and give the resulting relationship a sound.
One of the central concerns in my poetry and in this new book in particular is that the poems keep turning. It’s the turn. They keep turning in on themselves, and they keep questioning themselves. It’s like that interior argument when you’re lying awake at night. I’m trying to find a way not to come to easy resolution but I want the poems—and within them, the lines—to be like little stations of meaning, steps, or moments, of illumination, and then I want it to turn again. And if I can turn it again, maybe I can get underneath the vast, or even push further a momentary notion. It’s a really turvy book, and in that way it is personal and interior, and it is at a constant threshold. But all of that said, I am still really interested in meaning and the meaning that it wants to make. It’s not that it’s meaningless, even though there’s much meaning in meaninglessness, but it’s trying at the same time to accommodate the not knowing and yet give it some kind of purchase, to give it some reality, and to value it as itself.
LR I’ve volunteered and interned with Ugly Duckling Presse and was part of the project that uploaded your chapbook A Panic That Can Still Come Upon Me to their website for online reading. Also, Threshold Songs will be available as an eBook as well, correct? As you were once an editor and are now a part (however small) of this digital revolution for publishing, what do you think about the Internet and digital devices as tools for poetry?
PG I can see the values of the Internet, but I am not sure if it makes things better. There sure is a lot more busyness (business) or noise, and I think for me I might have preferred the quiet before it all (and of cell phones). We recently had a freak snowstorm that took power out for about three days or so and sent me back to the nineteenth-century, candles and silence. I think I would have liked it there. Still I was jonesing the whole time for email. I’ve often found when listening to interviews and poetry (including my own) or reading blog posts and comment streams that, if you have a bad day on the Internet, you have a bad day forever (or at the very least, the same day forever).
LR Your previous two books were named after terminology for map-making, and this one also seems rooted in the idea of boundaries and borders. What about poetry, yours in particular, lends itself to immigration and emigration across lines?
PG I think of poetry always as a territory and imagine sound as a sculptural element, in the sense of being held in an abstract or aural environment, as when one is listening to a piece of music. So it’s the same with the music of the poem, whether it be a kind of inspired talk or a richly coded lyrical run. It’s a sound, after all, and so you can return to your place in the world, or better yet, discover your place in the world, within the music of the poem, and that only happens in the act of listening. It’s dynamic. It clears a path for me to go deeper into my own interiority and to light every corridor and chamber and discover what’s there.
Poetry is always about crossing lines, streets, police-barriers, lineages, time lines, taboos, lines in the sand—when it isn’t, it’s nothing. The ultimate line that poetry has continually crossed is between the living and the dead, or the visible and invisible worlds. When I read the long-gone, the nearly-gone, the newly-gone, or the contemporary writers who are unread, unsung, under-appreciated and misread, my job is to animate their work, to bring it to life, and to bring it into my room (call it my body, my nervous system, my consciousness). And as that work has been brought to another life within my consciousness, bent and refracted in my own voice, I can call them back. The dream of a phenomenal syntax that can reanimate that which has been otherwise lost to the world. That’s what I mean by community—an animated and affective kinship you simultaneously discover and build in the construction of voice—your own voice.
In my poem “Pinocchio’s Gnosis,” I have a phrase “Hey you Mr. sacer interpresque deorum” which is the epithet that Ovid gives Orpheus in the Metamorphoses. It translates as “the sacred interpreter of god and man,” and what Ovid is telling us is that the sacred exists neither in God nor in man but in interpretation. It’s the liminal space between heaven and earth that we might call consciousness. One of the tasks that poetry takes on is this act of interpretation: to see what is otherwise in front of us every day and goes unnoticed and then give it an occupation and a name, to translate it into its larger, possibly magical relation. I am always interested in the space between seeing and feeling, knowing and not-knowing, and how the fact, and the affirmation, of not knowing can be generative for the creation of meaning in poetry.
LR The press release for Threshold Songs describes it as your most personal collection to date. Did you see yourself as less personal before and more so now? Was it a conscious decision to work more directly with your own life and the people within it?
PG Poetry has always been an extremely private art for me. And with Threshold Songs, sadly, it felt more so. There was certainly a pressure. But there’s always a pressure for me; it’s a necessary condition for my syntax, for writing. I never write about my life; I write out of my life. So the particular pressure of the last few years was the real unfathomable losses of three major people that occurred in a two and a half year period. The first was my mother, which was preceded by a year of comforting and caring for her. Though the condition around it was difficult, it was one of the most exceptional years of my life. It was a gift, in fact, for both of us. She rose to the occasion, and I guess I did too. Interesting to think that my mother brought me into the world, and then matter-of-factly showed me how to leave it. So in that year, we both opened and found a new way, a truly deeper way to connect. It felt like we were actually listening to one another for the first time. That heightened sense of listening is something I’ve always highly valued in the act of writing, and here I was just simply living it. I guess I always am, but her terminal condition had a matter-of-factness about it I simply accepted.
Emily Dickinson, in talking about her mother in one of her letters, wrote “I never had a mother, until she became my child.” It’s one of those things that you read that is both a beautiful construction and an enigma, and then, simply and suddenly, you understand it, you live it. I begin to see all literature as a kind of instruction manual. At the age of maturity, both Odysseus and Dante go to hell and confront their mortality. When I was young it was a kind of romance, and now I see it as a kind of handbook—it’s not a metaphor, it’s real. Robert Creeley said to me at one point, “as one loses people in one’s life, it’s like living in a neighborhood where each year another house has burned down.” But you know, that creates a new opening, and then the sun shines through, and you experience it in a different way.
After my mother, less than two years later, my eldest brother Michael, who was also a poet, died suddenly. And then four months after that, one of my closest friends, someone I’ve known since high school, the artist Robert Seydel, died of a heart attack. I did say earlier that life was strange, and I wasn’t being casual. The thing I’ve discovered is that when someone close to me dies, it touches and animates the other losses I’ve experienced. Those people don’t go away, they just occupy a larger discourse in my interior life. I’ve lost now many people that I knew and loved and did not understand when I was younger. And now I have all these voices ricocheting in my system. So the poem is a recital that allows me to give this interiority a voice. It’s not as if all of a sudden I understand it. I’m interested in what it means not to understand and yet to let it speak. I don’t want to simplify it or make it obvious because loving, as we know, is one of the most complex experiences we share. Why should I try to reduce it to a single message? So the last few years have been a strange echo chamber. The sound of each loss and the sound it produced in my head became the sound of these poems. Poetry is essentially a threshold experience—in my case, “threshold” because I was constantly waking—and simply going with it because there’s really nothing else to do but one’s own work and to build an environment out of this larger, unstable, multiplying narrative we call the world.