A Conversation with Allan Peterson

by Elena Tomorowitz

pastedGraphicAllan Peterson’s most recent book of poems, Fragile Acts (McSweeney’s Poetry Series 2012), a  finalist for the National Book Critics Circle Award, in some ways seems effortless, like perhaps these poems existed before and were collected as found objects. In other ways, the craft is so meticulous that we see the perfectly sewn seams bringing the language together in beautiful ways. We find this in the opening poem, “The Totality of Facts,” in which he writes, “In the afternoon there are pauses between the words/through which commas can grow like daisy fleabane.” Without ever venturing too far ahead, Peterson guides us through familiar and unfamiliar “non-urban” landscapes, places we have been to before but which are glowing from within by a strange and unidentifiable light. Considering he began his career as a painter, it only makes sense that his images would be so effervescent, lingering with you even after you have put the book down. Peterson’s writing has appeared nationally and internationally, both in print and online, and his work has received various accolades including the Arts & Letters Poetry Prize, the Muriel Craft Bailey Prize, the American Poetry Prize, and fellowships from the National Endowment for the Arts and The State of Florida.  Three of his new poems appear in the special twentieth issue of Memorious. He joined me in the following conversation about working with McSweeney’s, the process of putting together a manuscript, his sense of place, and how he discovered writing through art.

 Tell me a bit about working with McSweeney’s. Did they seek you out or were they a publisher you’ve been eager to work with since they began their poetry series?

I was contacted last February by McSweeney’s editors Jesse Nathan and Dominic Luxford. Poet and critic Stephen Burt had put us in touch. They laid out their plans for a new McSweeney’s poetry imprint and said they were familiar with my work and would like to consider any manuscripts I might have on hand. I was very excited by their vision of a series that wanted to bring back the book as a valued object in hard cover, cloth bindings, sewn signatures, and exceptional design. On top of that, the series was to be focused entirely on the work itself, regardless of publishing history, prizes, age, reputation, etc. I definitely wanted to be a part of that. I was both honored and enthused.

I did have several unpublished manuscripts that had been rejected, reworked, reshuffled, and re-titled. I sent them in. My books up to this time have been the result of an accrual of poems that seemed to have an inner connectedness of thought and content. Their suggestion was that we create an entirely new work from them. From that point on, it was a long period of give and take on inclusion, deletions, sequencing and eventually line-by-line editing. It was McSweeney’s policy that the final say on everything rests with the author. Jesse and Dominic were caring, insightful, and enthusiastic throughout. They, and the whole McSweeney’s staff, were really dedicated to the success of the book and showing my work to best advantage.

I like that you use the word “vision,” which I think is imperative for a publisher to have. I know I’ve bought books solely because I liked the publisher and their aesthetic (McSweeney’s being one of them). How much do you think aesthetic plays or should play in the success of a book? Also, because of their suggestion to unite several manuscripts, would you call your book a collection?

Design is very much to the point in making a book, if not a success, something exceptional. Attention to aspects of paper, type selection, cover design, use of white space, all have an impact on how the book is valued and that sense of aesthetic quality is instantly perceivable, as your own experience attests. Design honors the content. McSweeney’s has that kind of attention. 

The identity of the former individual manuscripts, and which poems came from which, was very quickly lost as the new book took shape, so I don’t think collection fits. There are concerns in my work that have a certain consistency, so that poems from a few years ago can be folded in with new work without seeming out of place. The book has the feel of something unique. I never set out to make books, rather they formed themselves after the fact into blocks of like-minded writing. The new relationships among poems brighten the whole.

One thing I noticed as a thread through many of your poems is the sense of place, specific places, which you use both in terms of language as well as meaning. The last line in the poem “Long Distance,” “Romans invaded Arabia Felix, Columbus discovered Ohio,” demonstrates this beautifully. What would you say has been your obsession throughout the years in your work? Does this cross into your visual art as well?

Place has always been a driver, a constant resource for solace and imagery. We have even chosen places to live based on geography alone (Florida, Oregon).  Closeness to nature has been the obsession you ask about. I am distinctly non-urban.

The thing that drew me to poetry, or more accurately, had it burst upon me, was the discovery in art school of Ezra Pound, Charles Olson and other moderns. Up to that point I had no awareness of contemporary poetry, but their process of orchestrating ideas and images on a big scale seemed the intuitive parallel to painting and drawing. I have done them together ever since.

There was also a rich associative component because of language that visual imagery didn’t have. The specificity of names, as well as places, offers unique possibilities. Painting or drawing could not have conveyed the example you mentioned.

So while there is no direct imagery cross over—my visual art is largely abstract, the unity between them is the process of discovery and imagination in the their making. I think it is a single process. Only the materials change.

Though I think poetry and visual art are related by process and discovery as you say, I think the “associative component” makes writing a much more cerebral act because a writer can’t depend on the nuances that a painter may gain from the unpredictability of the brush. I also want to comment on the idea that you are “distinctly non-urban,” which makes sense because I think your poetry lacks a time stamp. Is this something you actively avoid, or is it because you are inspired more by nature than by, say, pop culture? 

I was thinking, after your observation, whether words could be considered to carry, in their connotations, shades of meaning, and personal experience, a kind of parallel capacity to the drips and brushwork of visual art, but that’s a stretch. With language we share a tacit agreement as to what words mean. Marks are much more open-ended.

The idea of unpredictability is at the heart of my work process in both fields. Whether beginning with marks on paper or a perception in words, I work in a way that allows, and hopes for, the unexpected. Nothing is preconceived. I paint things in, paint things out, edit, rearrange, collage, and use the “what ifs” that occur while working, without having an end in mind. That is the inexhaustible pleasure. We are context-finding animals, so I don’t think thinking is necessarily random. I trust in the relevance of surprising associations.

Yes, it’s certainly true that I draw strongly from nature. Interesting that you noticed a “time stamp” aspect. While it’s not a policy to avoid it, pop culture is pretty transitory. I think I take a deeper view.

Unpredictability to me speaks back to “Triggering Town” where Hugo says, “Depend on rhythm, tonality, and the music of language to hold things together.” By letting the language lead, sometimes words are sonically more effective and therefore portray a more accurate truth. What triggers a poem for you? Do you start with a first line?

A start can be anything, but a first line or first words seldom stay in that position. Subjects and directions arise in the writing and may change often. Really, the subject is the process itself. A poem may begin with an observed phenomenon that suggests larger implications (or smaller). Sometimes a normal word or phrase seems suddenly important as if lighted from behind. My work process has always been attuned to inner suggestions. I trust them in writing as prompts toward discovery, just as I do in my visual art. I came to poetry through visual art and that work habit of using painting/drawing as a dialog with intuition, following the process to an unforeseeable conclusion, has guided my writing as well.

My notebooks are also a major source of ideas that I couldn’t follow up on at the time. The process is revelatory and is meant to be. One thing suggests another connection and it’s rather like an orchestra, not playing Wagner, but just tuning up.

I’m getting beyond your question, but I work on many things at once, and never complete anything at a single sitting. Even the idea of completion is limited. Everything contains more ideas than those realized. I think revision is writing. I might mention titles. I see them in poetry, as I do in art, essentially as a way to keep track of things. They are afterthoughts and not intended as assured guides to interpretation.

What is next on your writing agenda? Do you ever imagine doing some sort of art and writing collaboration project? 

Happily for me, “next” is a continuum. Fragile Acts arose from the midst of several unpublished manuscripts, and I am always in a similar midst. Several full-length manuscripts and chapbooks are currently submitted to competitions in addition to individual journal submissions. I work every day and things pile up. That’s my norm.

Regarding collaboration, we’ll see what comes along, but the actual work of art is still a solitary process for me, and not a group project. Still, the editorial collaboration with Jesse, Dominic, and McSweeney’s was an interesting and revealing experience that went beyond any I had experienced before. There may be others at some point.

This last question is something I grapple with, something I think every writer deals with differently, and that is: how do you face the fact that there is so much to read? On a daily basis we are given books, magazines, blogs, reviews, criticisms, news, etc. that we as writers are expected to be aware of to some extent. Sometimes I look at all the issues of the New Yorker sitting on my desk and wonder how to keep up. How do you manage to avoid feeling bombarded, while still staying informed?

Your question of keeping up reminds me how often I have come across exciting new ideas in books only to find they were published in 1928 or some date equally remote. The nature of the current volume of information only compounds that sense of never catching up, as you suggest. But, for me, the vast resources now available on the web and elsewhere are a wonderful gift of excess. Now I’m finding exciting new ideas that actually are. I’m also not on Facebook, don’t Twitter or blog, and we tossed out TV years ago, so I’m making progress.


For original poetry, fiction, art song, art, and interviews, please visit our magazine at www.memorious.org. 


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