Cristiana Baik: A decade separates the publication of your two collections, The Cuckoo (Yale University Press, 2004) and Errings (Fordham University Press, 2014). Have your thoughts about poetry and poetics shifted, changed during this time?
Peter Streckfus: The Cuckoo’s faulty heroes are largely alone on their quests. I think of its lyric utterance happening in solitude, the unaccompanied traveler whistling half-remembered songs, the cuckoo itself singing from the densest of trees, close to the trunk, almost always out of view.
I learned in my twenties to write, to reach out through the sentence to another “I,” by writing letters. Everything I know about voice, tone, attitude, about informing the reader of his/her position and place in the work, came about as I wrote to persons I knew. A lot of Errings has to do with my picking up that effort in my work, speaking across distances less easily framed by physical space.
I began Errings by writing prose poems spoken by a cohort of characters in first person plural. They were attempts to explore the various authors implied within my own work, as well as the first-person-plural experience that defined my childhood—to piece through that merged consciousness. I was the oldest in a family of five children. Here are the opening sentences of one of those poems, titled “Idiot Bigmouth Leads Us To A Gathering of Birds”:
We shall tell you more about us. On entering the forest, we found dear Idiot tied to a tree, screaming continuously because of the pain, and above his voice, we heard a party not far away. A gathering of birds, dancing and playing, and you, I’m Cold Monkey, on your hands and feet, capered like a white tailed deer among them, while we, Storyteller, Witness, Big Mouth and Reader, hid in a foliage of trees, words, and grass.
The poem that opens with the sentences above didn’t make it into the book. Although I’m fond of it, it seemed superfluous. Through its messiness, though, I think one sees the emphasis on the relational utterance. At the same time as I was writing this, I was thinking about collaborative writing with my father, who was staying with me as he recovered from a heart attack. Obliquely, I was beginning to locate him in my own work:
Meanwhile, Storyteller brushed herself off, sat down and composed the following verse:
Morning on the fig tree and the resident
garden—with his attendant in attendance,
my old man, our pilgrim.
There’s a moment of apostrophe in the sentences above as well, “and you, I’m Cold Monkey, on your hands and feet.” So I was beginning here to work with that turning away, across the world of the story toward the other.
CB: Broadly, The Cuckoo’s poems are lyrical experimentations that explore language and caricature, while Errings’ poems are decidedly more personal: this book begins with the poem “Heather Green” (the name of your wife), and poems about your father are interweaved throughout the book. I admired that the two collections led to such different reading experiences, and that they are, decidedly, two very different books. Were there any notable differences, distinctions in the ways that writing process evolved for each book?
PS: Errings is largely composed of apostrophes, in which the speaker turns away from the world at hand to speak to someone or something across a distance. In Romantic poetry, this is often preceded with an “O!” of some sort. John Ashbery opens A Wave with the apostrophic line “Somewhere someone is traveling furiously toward you,” in “At North Farm,” one of my favorite examples.
Who is the “you” in that poem? I was just talking with Heather about this, and she mentioned Tristan Tzara’s use of the second person in his volume Midis Gagnés, which Heather just finished a first pass at translating from French into English. Tzara’s book is filled with this second-person address, as is Ashbery’s A Wave, as is Eugenio Montale’s Mottetti, likewise Paul Celan’s work. Who are these second persons, these “you” persons addressed? To some degree, even when a specific addressee is named, the reader is also implied, positioned on the stage, behind the addressee, or in the midst of the address, and subsumed in the drama. My first time reading Ashbery’s A Wave, it occurred to me finally that the “you” addressed in that collection was “me” and that Ashbery loved “me.” In all of these poets’ works, the intimacy, the tenderness, stems from the apostrophic gesture, which is a relational gesture. “Someone, somewhere” is suddenly “traveling furiously toward you.” And not only toward you, but often through you, as the poem’s medium, to another. This is how I think of Errings traveling, via the distortion of space and time that apostrophe forms in the poem.
The four longer poems of Errings, two of which—“Erring” and “Videos of Fish”—address my father, came first. The composition of these longer poems, and the more personal nature of the address in these, led to the shorter apostrophes in that collection.
If the long poems taught me how to make the shorter poems in Errings, I’d say the process was opposite with The Cuckoo. The shorter poems taught me how to write the longer poems of that collection.
So the book is much more personal, yes. I’m not sure if that’s a function of where it started or of where I’m going as a poet.
CB: You embed prose written by your father, taken from an unpublished book he wrote in the 1950s, throughout Errings. Your book also includes images of his novel’s text typed on paper, with words whited out. Your father’s work, then, occupies a physical presence beyond text within the collection, but at the same time, the text’s erasure gives way to a ghosting and gaps. Could you talk about integrating your father’s work in Errings and employing erasure as a strategy throughout the collection?
PS: The Cuckoo closes with a poem I composed by combining language obtained through acrostic chance from corresponding chapters of two texts, one sixteenth-century Chinese, one nineteenth-century American. Harmonizing these two voices, the parent texts of the poem, if you will, I also wanted to direct readers to them, to visit them, to know them.
I began Errings by once again taking language from what we might call a parent text, the manuscript of a pirate adventure story my father wrote during his final years as a Catholic monk living in Peru—he left the religious order he belonged to in 1957 and married my mother in 1960. I wanted this poem to be a collaboration with this other author, who was, this time, both my figurative and literal parent. Because the source is unpublished, I also wanted to make it apparent to readers, to give it body. I came to the idea of including actual pages from the source as a way of dramatizing the process of extracting its language, using that extracted language to speak back to the source.
There’s an Italian pun about translation, traduttore, tradittore, which means, “translator, traitor.” When you change something’s form, including its language, this pun suggests, you change, you betray, its original purpose. It felt like a patricide of sorts, changing the form of my father’s text so drastically, when I first began playing with these poems years ago, extracting sentences and phrases from the manuscript into my own work; at the same time, the alteration was a medium for a new correspondence, a new relation.
As I first made these poems, I shared them with him. Once he passed away, the poems became more of a channel for me to speak back to and with him. Originally, I published three long poems from this material. But I found they didn’t breathe together. For the book, I pared much of the material away, until I came to what seemed a genuine discourse between these two selves, a kind of call and response.
I like what you say above about “ghosting.” For me the erasures of his pages in the poem “Erring” put the source, that voice, forward in the work. It’s hard to tell from the short lyric sentences that comprise the rest of the poem what I have done to the source and how I have done it. Further, erasure reduces the language of the type-script pages, pushes them, as a form, to speak back to the rest of the poem.
CB: You recently curated a group of essays for The Volta on the mixed form, and have also taught courses on the subject. In the introduction for the curated issue in The Volta, you describe the mixed form as redefining “the boundaries of the poetic line and the prose paragraph by alternating them.” Why do you feel drawn to this particular form? What nuanced tensions are created within a poem and on the page by the mixed form?
PS: If I might use my own work as an example: in addition to the mixed form of the erasure and verse sentences in the poem “Erring,” there’s another serial poem in Errings, “A Bridge,” that mixes didactic verse about collaborative writing with prose narrative spoken by the plural cohort of characters I described earlier. In this poem the alternation of the two forms allows for shifts in attitude and point of view, framings that would have been hard to achieve otherwise. A dialectic comes forward as the voices in their distinct forms comment on and refract one another:
I’m attracted to writing that talks back to itself. My first encounter with the mixed form, which, as you said, is defined by an alternation of the prose paragraph with the poetic line, was Czeslaw Milosz’s The Separate Notebooks. The second was probably Basho. Then The Journey to the West. These were formative reading experiences for me, before I’d started graduate school. In all of these, the work reflects back on itself, refracts as it shifts from one form, one purpose, and back to the other. One doesn’t always want or need this kind of refraction and variation in the work, but I find it interesting to consider when and how it appears. Literary history is filled with examples of mixed-form writing, and it tends to occur at points in the development of a literature when the functions of the paragraph and poetic line become revaluated. I’m curious as to why it resurfaces now, when the prose paragraph appears to be matching the poetic line as a means for lyric expression.
I was thrilled to have the opportunity to edit that special issue, and I hope it provokes further conversation. The writers featured turn mixed form to fascinating new purposes: Cole Swenson alternates concrete strips of language with strips of photo cells; Susan Tichy creates a space for lyric within and against the history of her own family’s two-hundred years of slave-holding in Maryland; C. S. Giscombe posits the mutated text as the new mixed form (to mention just a few examples). I think also of the many other writers making work in mixed form recently, Selah Saterstrom, C. D. Wright, Forest Gander, Maggie Nelson, Ilya Kaminsky, Carole Maso, just to name some.
CB: This past year (2013-14), you’ve been stationed in Rome as the Brodsky Rome Prize Fellow (American Academy in Rome). How has the experience been, so far? You’ve mentioned in previous interviews that traveling is important to your work as a poet and that you’ve traveled quite a bit in the past several years. Do you think there is something within the experience of displacement that’s particularly beneficial to generating work for a poet, a writer, an artist? How has traveling and the experience of “unsettling” impacted your work, and did this impact the writing of Errings?
PS: There’s a lot to be said for moving out of one’s comfort zone. My primary mode of intellectual travel has always been reading, but I have also lived in a number of countries for short periods of time. However, the most unsettling experiences I’ve had over the past 10 years have not related to travel: the death of a parent, the crazy, lovely joy of marriage, having a child and soon a second, these have unsettled me fundamentally as a person and an artist. And these are the things that I’ve tried my best to be open to that have impacted my work the most in the past decade.
Rome has taught me to see the world as a more decentered place, historically, politically and artistically, if only by making it evident that my version of the United States, if I may put it that way, is in no way the cultural center of the world. The vast and varied histories of this place, its broad connections to so many other points in the world, are humbling. For me that humbling quality is heightened by my increased awareness of the place in history we appear to occupy at this moment, on the verge of so many types of dissolution and coming into being.
CB: During the writing of Errings and its publication, you became a father. Did your new role as a parent change the way you viewed Errings (since, broadly, the collection can be described as a series of elegies for your father)? How has being a father changed your writing practice?
PS: Yes, my daughter’s birth affected a great deal how Errings developed in its last two years. Although it is in many ways elegiac, Errings became for me as much about entering as it was about exiting the world.
I’m surprised by how much the experience of parenting has been entering my writing lately, and shocked by the experience itself—of facilitating another being’s passage through this state, from one to two years of age, a period through which we all pass without remembering. As a parent, one experiences it from the outside, and in many senses for the first time.
CB: What are you currently working on? Any new projects on the horizon?
I’ve been doing a lot of reading and writing about flooding this year, wanting to revise a recurrent dream I’ve had for years in which I live in a house flooded by water. Before I arrived in Rome, I spent a month in the Netherlands, learning about the new interventions underway there to give urban, agricultural and domestic land back to floodplain, to make that country safer in the face of rising water levels. The poems I’m working on now are beginning to look like a recasting of Virgil’s Eclogues onto the highly artificial landscapes of the Netherlands. I say this in the midst of transcribing some of the interviews I did with people who have lost their homes and farms through the land reform there. We’ll see what ultimately comes of it.
Peter Streckfus is the author of Errings, winner of Fordham University Press’s 2013 POL Editor’s Prize, and The Cuckoo, which won the Yale Series of Younger Poets competition in 2003. He is the 2013-14 Brodsky Rome Prize Fellow in Literature at the American Academy in Rome, and normally lives in the Washington D.C. area with his wife, poet and translator Heather Green. He is on the faculty of the Creative Writing Program at George Mason University.