A Conversation with Allan Peterson

Author of Fragile Acts
By Cynthia Hawkins

My introduction to Allan Peterson came with a pair of poems published in Prick of the Spindle Volume 5.2. “Memory comes with its own gauze curtains and hazy furniture,” Peterson writes in the beginning of one of these, “Nightmare,” and I was struck by the eerie beauty of the poem, by the way it vacillates so seamlessly between the tangible and the fleeting. “Turkeys leave the trees on impact,/ dispersing like epithets.” Gorgeous. Peterson, an award-winning author of four poetry collections and five chapbooks as well as an accomplished visual artist, has included “Nightmare” in his latest collection, Fragile Acts, the second book to be published by McSweeney’s new poetry imprint. It was my pleasure to interview Peterson about his work in conjunction with Fragile Acts’ June 2012 release.

CH: Could you tell us how your newest collection, Fragile Acts, came to be?

AP: Last summer I was contacted by Jesse Nathan and Dominic Luxford. Jesse is a poet and McSweeney’s editor, and Dominic is poetry editor of the McSweeney’s publication, The Believer. They said that McSweeney’s was launching a new poetry series, something they had never done.  They explained that they wanted to make the series something special in the way of reviving the book as a valued object. To that end, the books would be hard cover, strikingly designed, and [they would publish] only four titles a year. They made it clear that their selections for the series would be based only on the work itself, not one’s publishing past, name status, or other factors. (In fact, the first title in the series, Love, An Index, is author Rebecca Lindenberg’s first book). 

I liked everything about their expectations for the series, and I readily accepted their offer to be one of the first authors. They asked if I had any unpublished manuscripts on hand that they might look at. As it happened, I had several that had made a number of unsuccessful rounds through contests and competitions. Each of them had been revised, re-shuffled, re-titled, and re-submitted several times. I sent them on.  Given the demanding expectations of the two editors, I was quite honored that they chose my work. 

CH: What influences and inspiration seemed to inform it as a whole?

AP: After reading the materials I sent, they suggested shaping an entirely new book from them that we could then work on together to develop into a finished work. That’s what we did, deleting some poems and resequencing others into new configurations. 

Let me say right off that Jesse and Dominic, poets in their own right, were both dedicated to a vision that showed my work to its best advantage.  They were very enthusiastic about the poems throughout the process. In our deliberations, which included Skype sessions, many e-mails of draft versions, and a visit to San Francisco to work face to face, I had a final say on what was selected, on edits, on cover design. 

What more could you ask from editors, or from a publisher?

Fragile Acts will be the second in the series and will be released July 14, 2012.

CH: Do you find yourself revisiting certain themes or images as a poet and artist, and, if so, what do you think the appeal of those themes or images are?

AP: With a strong sense of place and attention to the natural world, yes, there is a lot of returning to aspects of subjects and images.  No subject can be fully addressed or encompassed in a single work, but revisiting is not a matter of repeating, but rather exploring and expanding on other aspects. Any subject is potentially inexhaustible. 

My interest in science is very evident in my writing, as are references to landscapes, weather events, fellow creatures, and reflections on how it is to live in these bodies. That may not sound out of the ordinary, but I think the appeal or resonance resides in the very commonality of the lives we all inhabit. What I hope makes the difference are unique ways of viewing those shared experiences and what an individual imagination can bring to them. That’s what I look for in both poetry and art, a mind at work, one that expands my experience in ways I might never have considered.

CH: Does your work in the visual arts ever influence your poetry or vice versa?  How might you describe the relationship between the two?  

AP: While an undergraduate at the Rhode Island School of Design in the late 50s and early 60s, and having no exposure to poetry growing up, the discovery of the work of Ezra Pound, T. S. Eliot, and other moderns like Charles Olson and William Carlos Williams was like a door opening. The process of image-making with words seemed an intuitive parallel to what I was attempting in the visual. I have continued to do both ever since, often exhibiting them together. Not surprisingly, my writing is strongly visual. The paintings and drawings, while not literal or illustrative, share the same sense of intuitive process in their creation.

CH: There’s always a lot of talk about the changing landscape of the publishing world and the evolution of the book itself to e-books and so forth, but I haven’t heard many poets parse what this means for poetry in general.  What are your thoughts? 

AP: I am a lover of traditional books. They were and are a great part of my poetic education, and I have a large library of poetry and nonfiction. However, as writer on the outside of the literary world and living for a long time through the mailbox, I have been glad for every development that has made it easier for a poet’s work to achieve wider accessibility. The changes, beginning with the computer that made editing/revision so much easier, e-mail that made submissions a more open and less expensive process, and finally, the web that blew the doors off many of the old practices and made publishing and communication among writers the vital thing it is today. 

I now publish as much online as in print and currently have two e-chapbooks published online that can be downloaded by anyone without charge (www.righthandpointing.com). That may become a rarity in the future, but it is one of the many options web publishing can provide. 

We are still in the early days of new media and the definitions are still being developed, including whether poems on a blog or website are considered “published,” and though self-publishing is becoming widespread, self-published books are still not accepted as evidence by some magazines and major competitions. The old barriers are falling however, and that can only be good for poets. E-books, Print on Demand, and other options are facilitating the once unthinkable—self-published books online becoming best sellers.

CH: As it happens, I was recently invited to judge a competition of students reciting, or performing really, poems by other established writers, and I was reminded as they read of how I’d always tell students that poems were meant to be enjoyed out loud.  Is that still true of poems or is that antiquated?  During the writing process, how tuned in are you to the impact your poem will have when read out loud? 

AP: That must have been a Poetry Out Loud competition. I see how popular they have become.

I happen to write for the page, and that’s how I read poetry. A potential reader, if I envision them at all, is one that is doing what I do, reading silently and letting all the mental associations happen, associations that make the experience richer than when listening to a linear delivery, in my opinion. But poetry is not an either/or. I also give readings and attend them, I listen to audio poems online, and I watch poets deliver their work on YouTube. There are many ways to appreciate poetry and many ways to express it as well.  Still, the acts of writing and art are solitary pursuits.

My disappointment with reading aloud is that many poets do not do their poems justice by the way they read. Vibrant and stirring work on the page often becomes lifeless and stylized when read aloud. Reading aloud is a kind of performance, which means that another layer is added to appreciation of the words. A lot rides on the delivery.

CH: I should note that these students were high school age, and it was a pleasure, at the risk of sounding old, to see young people genuinely enjoying and connecting with contemporary poetry.  What advice do you have for young writers in particular?  What do you hope the next generation of poets will preserve and/or change?  

AP: The present is always a poor predictor of the future, yet there always seems to be somebody writing about the death of art or the death of poetry, that the web has killed language, or that social media and slam are ruining everything. In spite of those grim laments, poetry continues to find ways of maintaining its vitality. The next generation is already at work shaping poetic communication in ways that make the most sense to them. I am watching with interest.

CH: What do you wish you knew as a burgeoning poet that you now know as an accomplished poet?  

AP: In the beginning, as a self-taught poet with no classes or workshops, as well as someone butting in from the visual arts, I was reluctant to submit to magazines because I was intimidated. It took a while for me to decide that, whatever my background, I was a just writer among other writers. Editors either say yes, or they say no, and you [sometimes] never really know the reasons your work was declined. Shake it off. Send the work elsewhere. With all the publications available now, you will find a home.  While you’re about it, learn to see the humor in this T-shirt design with a phrase we see so often in rejection letters. I have no idea where it came from, but every poet I know wants one. 

CH: The cover of Fragile Acts is absolutely gorgeous.  I’m curious if this is your artwork, how it was selected, and how it might reflect the poetry between the covers.  

AP: Three of my previous books used my drawings as cover art, but this drawing is not mine. It was done by Jacob McGraw-Michelson, of the art department at McSweeney’s. I had sent a number of images and ideas that I thought might make good covers. They attempted to adapt them, but this one image, very unlike anything I sent, seemed uniquely appropriate. As much of my work involves the natural world, I cannot help but see myself in that figure. It makes for a striking cover and, with a hard cover, cloth binding and sewn signatures, it meets McSweeney’s desires for a unique addition to the series.

Read CL Bledsoe’s review of Fragile Actsin this issue.