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Interview with Peter Gizzi

I first met Peter Gizzi in early March, when he gave a reading for about 150 people in a cramped backroom of SET, a community arts centre in Dalston. Denise Riley spoke first. Gizzi closed with ‘Now It’s Dark’, an elegy for his brother Tom and the title of an expanded edition of new work to be published in the US in the autumn. The poem begins: ‘No one gave me a greater thing / than their time’, and ends with the self-defined purpose of the poet writing through grief:

 

I recast language in hope

of recovering

the red oak

my neighbors felled.

It lived over a hundred years, glowing.

Now, neither music or rhyme,

just night, tin, and sky.

 

Across numerous small-press chapbooks, artist books, and six full-length volumes of poetry, Gizzi has been trying to recover the presence of what has been lost. I have recently become enthralled by the world of these new poems, which are animated by our experience of time and by what Adrienne Rich has called ‘the innermost whir of the daily curtain rising on outer catastrophe’. These are poems of the rooms in which we sit, and pace, and remember what the future once meant to us.

 

On 1 June I interviewed Gizzi remotely, battling all the familiar technological obstacles, after he had returned to his home in Amherst, western Massachusetts, for lockdown. The world has irrevocably changed since that unseasonably warm late winter evening in east London. I began by asking what that meant for him.

 

Q

The White Review

—  We are speaking today in probably the worst summer in American history: the greatest uprising since 1968 sweeps across the US in the aftermath of George Floyd’s murder, the global COVID-19 pandemic, the impending economic crises that have been here for as long as I can remember. The brilliant first poem in your new collection is called ‘Speech Acts for a Dying World’, in which you write that ‘the polis is breaking’, casting a shadow over all of you, and it’s against that shadow that you write the poem. Many of your poems feel as though they are produced within, and call attention to, the crises of our moment. By that I mean the tenor of crisis, if not the specific contours of each one. Could you say a little about crisis in your work?

A

Peter Gizzi

—  I appreciate your phrase that it is ‘against that shadow’ that I write my poems. Indeed. I have always written into the impending crisis that is our world but I decided early on that I would not merely become reactive and bang on a can. You mentioned COVID and the egregious murder of George Floyd and the systemic racism it lays bare. For me these are epidemics that have been going on for a long time: there’s racism, destructive commercial governance that has no regard for human life; theres unequal development, pointless wars, an industrial prison complex, a refugee crisis; theres climate change. We’re living in this time of nothing but conflict that keeps coming, and it keeps coming in all these various manifestations. That said, I feel that Im always narrating my bewilderment as a citizen in the world. I define the world as an unstable multiplying narrative. And were witnessing this unstable multiplying narrative happening right now in relation to COVID and the protests that are now happening, the latter being hopeful, long overdue, and justified. Perhaps civil unrest is what its going to take to wake people up. These protests also address the lawlessness within government that saturates commercial governing and the lack of anything like leadership or regard for ‘the people’. Not to be overly cynical, but one could say that it is quite possible, thanks to greedy news outlets and idiotic social media, that America got the President it deserved in Trump, and while that depresses the shit out of me there’s some truth to it. As Robert Creeley wrote: ‘the darkness surrounds us.’ In my poems, there’s a pushing back with the essential outrage I’ve felt my whole life. It’s an outrage that derives from my total distrust of hierarchy from my early life on. Outrage is an essential tool with which you can understand the world. In the introduction to The Wedge, published in 1944, William Carlos Williams writes: The War is the first and only thing in the world today. The arts generally are not, nor is this writing a diversion from that for relief, a turning away. It is the war or part of it, merely a different sector of the field.’ I have had this quotation tacked above my desk for years. again, it’s a reminder that I don’t merely want to become a ‘trumpet’. I want to take art to another place through a liberatory imagination, my own. Wild imagination equally plays a role in emancipation. That said, I feel that Im always writing into a crisis as a citizen, because Im bewildered by the things that are around me all the time. My forthcoming book, finished last year has a title that kind of says it all: Now It’s Dark. I feel that the world is on fire and has always been on fire. I speak to that condition, which is not only a fire but also, to switch the metaphor, a deep and deepening wound. And I speak to that condition in a public way, but also through my own personal asymmetries and my own inner turbulences. Some of these public and private disturbances attach themselves to the horrible political reality, others to the ungovernable loss Ive experienced in life. They are both part of the world I occupy. The poem can connect them.

Q

The White Review

I wondered if we could go back for a moment to the reading in Dalston back in March, organised by David Grundy, in which you spoke alongside Denise Riley. The room was so full, people perched on each other’s knees, leaning cramped against the walls. Were you surprised by that kind of support in London? How has your life changed since then? I know your UK tour was cut short and you’ve been in isolation at your home in western Massachusetts ever since. Have you been writing during this period? Or reading?

A

Peter Gizzi

—  The Dalston reading was enormously gratifying and I felt very lucky to have had that experience before the lockdown. It was so full, and people were so attentive: of course, part of it was because Denise agreed to read with me. I’ll never forget the generous moment when she got up and surprisingly said: ‘I’m here to be Peter Gizzi’s backing band,’ and then went on to give a stunning reading. I was sitting in my chair in this packed room thinking, ‘Okay, I better get up and deliver.’ For whatever reason that day I was held by David and Denises kindness and by friends that turned out. I felt this was an opportunity for my work to be heard, and that day I was fully present to every syllable, and it felt extraordinary, as though I was discovering these poems all over again in front of you. What we experience in a good reading is the author listening to their work, so we are listening to them listen to their work. I felt that I was there, and I was present, and it was an enormously gratifying experience. That said, as a poet you go from a room of 150 people, who are appreciative, back home, alone, to your room. Being isolated now is not any different than it normally is for me. Im mostly alone in a room, kind of toughing it out. Poems dont come easily to me. I have to really be patient, and let them come to me, and then I have to listen, and I have to find a way to record what I hear and arrange that. It’s as if a carrier frequency comes across to me. I pick up that frequency and the words attach themselves to a complex of thought and feeling, a feeling intellect; its an emotional response. Whatever we might say about Pound, he had many useful ideas, and one of them I love is ‘only emotion endures’. Thats important to me in poetry, and I felt like I conveyed it that day at the Dalston reading. So now Im back in the States, alone in my house. At first, I was very depressed that I had to cancel ten readings in the UK and a reading in Poland for the Miłosz Festival. And then I realised: ‘Okay, its finejust let it go.’ I have to use this time alone to reflect: I’m grateful for my health, Im grateful that I have the space and time to concentrate. Ive been in touch with friends through various technologies and I’ve been in touch with people that I havent been in touch with recently enough because I simply have the time now and thats been really rewarding. So, despite it all, there have been benefits to this isolation. Do I like it? No. Am I disappointed that I couldnt go out and be in the world with my work? Yes. Do I feel sorrow for the hundreds of thousands who have died? Very much. Am I horrified by the way this whole thing has been handled by our government in the US so that those deaths have increased unnecessarily? Absolutely. Do I feel anger in the face of it? Pretty much. To occupy myself, I have been spending my time rereading, last week was devoted to the collected poems of George Oppen and Wallace Stevens, and when was the last time I sat and did that? I cant remember. This week I started going through Dickinson. I feel like my concentration finally kicked in. And I can just read for hours. So, to me, Im thinking, Im getting used to this, and Im recovering my mind, and Im being able to focus in the midst of greater uncertainty.

Q

The White Review

—  You recently published an artist’s book, Ship of State, with Jon Beacham (2020), and it’s true that collaborations with visual artists have been a constant feature of your career in different forms. I wondered if you could speak to your collaborative practice in general, and to Ship of State in particular?

A

Peter Gizzi

—  Visual culture has always been important to me. As a boy who was dyslexic, books of paintings and picture books were one way I learned to read, but what is ultimately the first text that we actually encounter? The face, the human face. Thats the original text and we read it for survival, for emotional content, for safety, for context. The face is a very complicated text. So, I can extend that first encounter of reading faces to my love of visual cultures, like film (which is a major language for me), painting, collage, and other media.

 

You asked about the artists book Ship of State. I’ve been working with the artist Jon Beecham, whose handle is ‘The Brother In Elysium’, for about four years and weve done four projects together. Ship of State is far and away the most significant weve done: its a beautiful hardback, bound by hand and with hand-printed letter-set type. Jon does impeccable work as both an artist and as a bookmaker. He has a variety of skills and he puts them together in unique ways. For the most recent book, Jon made only twelve copies, so it’s very limited. No two books are the same. He made six original collages for each book which broadly correspond with the poem. I love his collages because they’re hauntedthey’re about gone things and past things being recombinedand I feel that my poetry operates in a similar way; it tries to define a presence within loss. My poem ‘Ship of State’ is a very strange poem; it’s about accepting the condition of being a corpse. Dont ask me how it happened, but it just came to me. Jon recognised the relationship between the darkness in the poem and the hauntedness of his collages. Im very happy about our collaboration and how it turned out.

 

During a studio visit with Jasper Johns last summer I finally had chance to have a proper conversation with him. For me it was a truly remarkable occasion. He loves poetry, like so many artists that I know. Hes been a reader of my work from the beginning and I was given a grant from his Foundation in 1998. Having Johns as a reader is truly a great honour. I have admired his work since I have been a teenager. You know people talk about prizes and all that kind of noise. For me, the greatest gift is to have the respect and the admiration of people I deeply admire. I think of the poets Ive known who are gone, writers I loved, like John Ashbery, and James Schuyler, and Adrienne Rich, and John Wieners, and Robert Creeley, and Barbara Guest, and Kamau Brathwaite, and my brother, Michael Gizzi, to name a few. Ive been most fortunate to know them, to read them and have them read me. When I was coming up it gave me a clear sense that I belong to something momentous, part of a world I want to be a part of.  Thats my prize. As Dickinson says, ‘the soul selects her own society’.

 

I have known many visual artists and, in fact, I treasure the work made by artists that have a deep love of poetry. Over the years, I am lucky to have found, or been given, pieces by Wallace Berman, Bruce Conner, Johns, Susan Bee, Norman Bluhm, Joe Brainard (who paid for my first book to be published), Ray Johnson, Jess, Richard Kraft (who I have twice collaborated with), Robert Seydel, R.B. Kitaj, and Beacham.

 

One of my longest friendships is with the extraordinary painter Trevor Winkfield. Trevor is a Yorkshireman who has lived in NYC since the late sixties and who is associated with the New York School of Poets. We have worked on at least three projects. Happily, I have a few paintings of his, even a portrait he made of me. The work is wonderfully eccentric. I met Trevor at John Yau’s wedding in 1989 and we’ve been dear friends ever since. He is hilarious and can make common decency thrilling. By knowing him Ive learned so much about the history of art and painting. I’ve received an incredible education through him because hes a true scholar as well as an artist. Weve gone to countless shows together throughout these many years. He is also an expert and superlative writer on art. Whenever I travel, Trevor gives me an itinerary of what I need to see. When I went to England in 2015/16, I went all over, seeing so many things he’d recommended that I would have otherwise missed: Norman doorways, small churches, leper churches, various museums and particular shows. I suspect there will be a major show of Winkfield mounted in England one day.

Q

The White Review

—  You’ve spoken recently about the ‘fierce form’ of the elegy and how it oscillates between the here/now, and the then/gone, in your own poetics of grief. In Now It’s Dark, you arc from reading every moment as ‘an opportunity for grace’ to thinking that ‘grief is a form of grace.’ Could you say a little about the centrality of the elegiac form in your writing, and perhaps also what grace means to you?

A

Peter Gizzi

—  Let’s start with elegy. It’s a fierce form because it is a useful tool to understand and depict reality, and I am interested in a lyric of reality. The elegy allows me to explore the significant awareness of periodicity as a measure of the world, the periodicity of a life form, of one’s own life, of others. It is a way to transform a broken heart in a fierce world into a fierce heart in a broken world. And as for grace, to me grace is a beautiful concept. When I wrote ‘I thought grief was a form of grace’, I mean, as hard as it is to take in the grim condition of the present world, or to care-take and lose beloved people in life, there is also a gift, a grace, to deepen one’s relationship to the world, an opportunity to learn about the world and oneself. The elegy is a dynamic form to explore these hard realities. Grace is a gift that’s given to you, it’s a donation from the unknown. It is without an author. And yet something comes to you in life, and for whatever reason Ive been given the grace to work in a deathless medium such as language, and to recombine it and recycle it in a way to understand my personhood. When youre given grace, what are you really given? Youre given a responsibility, and you have a responsibility to earn that every day. Its not something that you take lightly; its not something that I take lightly. It means that I have to get busy to earn a gift that Ive been given, and poetry has been a gift that Ive been given. I have to earn it every day because my work is to participate in a medium that has given me a significant context for my being. For me, poetry is one of the most resonate ways we have to understand the human record. As long as there have been soldiers, there have been poets: its a long, sad, venerable tradition. Weve always been here just next to the story. Im just a class of worker that’s been here for thousands of years, just a piece of this song, this carmen perpetuum. That makes me feel that I belong to something far greater than myself. I feel a kind of majesty from the grace Ive been given, even if on some days it feels like an agony, that Im failing, that Ive wasted my life! These things exist together: majesty and grace; failure and waste. Throughout my life, I’ve lived out the drama that I’m only as good as my next poem. Thats who I am: Im only as good as my next poem. And maybe thats too much weight to put on it, but I haven’t really chosen that perspective. Its a perspective that’s hardwired in me.

Q

The White Review

—  Among those you’ve mentioned, Jack Spicer has been an important poet in your career. You edited Spicer’s collected lectures, The House That Jack Built (1998), and his collected poems, My Vocabulary Did This to Me (2012). I’ve been reading Spicer a lot lately: ‘Berkeley in a Time of Plague’ (1946), and collections like ‘Fifteen False Propositions Against God’ (1958). How do you find new ways to engage with a poet you know so well?

A

Peter Gizzi

Really interesting. I question that too, because sometimes it’s as if Im done with Jack Spicer: I’ve done it, I know it, I’ve learnt from it, and now I want to move on. And then someone asks me a question and Im drawn all the way back in. Hes a fabulous poet and, as with all great poets, meaning is endless if you tune a poem correctly. Really what were interested in is attack, and form, and style, and rhythm, and sounda feeling of other-worldliness that’s coming in from outside. Hes a poet who has great powers of reception. He is truly in the Orphic line. To me, hes a late devotional poet, particularly as he develops in his later work. He has ‘Four Poems for Ramparts,’ which was a Catholic magazine that would never take his poems, and they absolutely bring me to my knees: ‘Get those words out of your mouth and into your heart.’ I think he’s a devotional poet because no matter how dark or contrary he is, Spicers always fighting for an emancipatory good that tries somehow to escape the stupidity of human nature or the rottenness of human nature. I think politics are mostly rottenI just doand I think throughout history the world has been run by assholes for the benefit of assholes. Spicer has that essential view. He’s defined for me by his sense of heartbreak, his abject loneliness, and how he can turn his loveless life into an enduring form. That’s a triumph against all of his asymmetries, all of his unattractiveness as a cultural figure. He spoke to me when I was young. There were many poets I love who I could have worked on, but the work on Spicer needed to be done. And its a great joy to take a poet whos just on the outside, who’s a poet’s poet, and do that work. If youre establishing texts of record, you want to do two things. You want to make a correct text, a true text of record. And then you also want that record not just to sit in a library, you want it to succeed in the world. So it felt like the work succeeded on both fronts. First the lectures The House That Jack Built, 1998] and then later the Collected Poems My Vocabulary Did This to Me, 2012] which I co-edited with the great, and sadly missed, Kevin Killian, established the texts and were also extraordinarily well-received. Since those publications, there has been much work written about Spicer, books, articles and chapters. His work is now in every major anthology. He’s in the canon. So, it’s been very gratifying over thirty years to see this happen for such a brilliant, original, and deserving poet.

Q

The White Review

In Defense of Nothing: Selected Poems 1987-2011 was published in the US in 2015. How did you go about assembling the version of Sky Burial: New and Selected Poems with Carcanet this time around? This is a little more of a pared back edition; did you find new correspondences between poems as you curated this edition?

A

Peter Gizzi

Ive never been into the idea of doing a ‘New and Selected’. Wesleyan Gizzi’s US publisher] wanted to do that in 2014 and I was very circumspect and originally said: ‘No, this is a Selected Poems.’ I could have put poems from Archeophonics into it, but I really just wanted a retrospective of selected poems on its own. Luke Allen, to whom I am grateful, was a deputy editor at Carcanet, he accepted the book in 2016 and asked me to reconfigure a new book for England. It took four years for that to happen. I actually thought it was never going to happen. Luke left Carcanet a long time ago and then Andrew Latimer, who is an angel, worked with me throughout the process of preparing and publishing the book. We designed the cover together. He let me make last minute edits to the new poems. Why I like this book is that it’s very up to date, very up to speed, and I like the way it doesn’t have section breaks between poems from the different books. I wove them all together to make one continuous text. Sky Burial begins with about thirty pages of new poems, and then goes back to my first book from ‘92 all the way to my most recent book in 2016 – all without the section breaks. I really love how one book blends into another. What I began to see by arranging the manuscript in this way was that, as turbulent as my inner life is, as asymmetrical or as untutored as my imagination can be, as many losses I have suffered, every four years on average, I have a new book. Its been that consistent in my life. And its incredible to me that poetry has been the one thing thats been there in an absolutely consistent way. By not making the sections from each book separate, I began to see how the poems are all part of a single work. From the first poems to the new ones, there’s something that is distinctly my own. Making this book gave me that perspective. It gave me solace that theres continuity in my life through all sorts of weathers. Poetry has been that one continuity.

Q

The White Review

Following on from that, on the question of continuity, I’d like to ask about the lyric ‘I’. We might say that the ‘I’ who speaks the lyric is never the same as the one who left the message, as time erases the singularity of the moment that passes. How does the lyrical ‘I’ for you change over time? Both in your work and, if you like, in the longer ‘history of the lyric’, a title of one of your poems?

A

Peter Gizzi

—  I used to feel like the designation ‘lyric poet’ was a bit of a pejorative jab, but after all these years I’m really glad that I’m a lyric poet. There are three things I want a poem to have. First, intimacy, the direct connection of speaking to another person, as though in close proximity. Second, presence, something thats alive, that in reading the poem one finds a live element of the present no matter how long ago it was written. Third, mystery, something that’s beyond my ken, that I’m bringing in something bigger than the moment of composition. Through the act of writing a poem and receiving the grace that allows the work, I begin to discover new meanings and new orders of sensations. That act of discovery is just so exciting. It’s an ecstatic experience. So, when I worry that my poems are sad, in the end, theyre not sad. Theyre ecstatic; theyre bigger than my outrage, bigger than my grief. In transforming outrage or grief into something bigger, a poem can comfort. The poems I love most can also open up new vistas and teach us how to see the world anew.

 

As for the lyric I, it’s important to remember that the personal pronoun I – like all language – is older than the writer using it, older than me, bigger than me. It doesn’t live in me, I live in it. We all do. So, I can deploy the pronoun without limiting it to myself. I am always conscious of the affiliated voices that speak through the ‘I’ as well as the way it represents me, the fiction of Peter Gizzi that language allows me to discover.

Q

The White Review

—  Engagement with the particularities of place is a major part of your work. We might identify that engagement with the Lower East Side in the early poems, and more recently the landscapes around Berkshire and western Massachusetts where you have now lived for over twenty years. But you’ve often singled out more intense, transitory places as having been productive and even transformational for your work, such as residencies in Cambridge and Marseilles. How do the immediate surroundings of a foreign place, with its new communities and contexts, influence your work?

A

Peter Gizzi

—  The residency gives me permission to let go of the world of duty and look only at the world of the poem. For whatever reason, I work very productively in that mode. When I applied for the Judith E. Wilson Fellowship at Cambridge, they asked what I would do with the resources. I said that ‘I favour open time, new sensory data, and lively company.’ It worked. In fact, I first came to Cambridge in 1994 on an invitation from Jeremy Prynne, and I remember arriving in Cambridge for the first time and being blown away by this glorious medieval city. It was like Euro-Disney! Just kidding. I’d never seen anything like it.

 

The four months I spent living in Marseilles in 1999 were extraordinary for me. Staying in Le Panier (‘the basket’) in the Tunisian quarter, I was there with not much French and very little English. I could also say the same thing about coming to England. Once you’re there a month or two, you realise, ‘Oh, coming to England with American English is like going to France with a little French,’ because its an entirely different language, an entirely different concern of cultural information. Vocabulary just doesnt mean the same thing. And I really enjoyed how in Marseilles with my French or in England with my American version of the language, every week another curtain was pulled back and I began to learn more about the culture. I really learned more about how class structure is coded in speech, and I took all that information in when I was writing. Its not direct transmission or that Im thinking about these things consciously, but its affecting me. And so being out of the context of my language in these other places for whatever reason was extraordinarily useful for me. Having my language context reduced allows for me to find new channels, new frequencies. But I don’t write all day, I don’t want to. I need to have company, and I need to work and then know Im going to meet people. I really took to the English culture of the pub at five. Youd be hanging out by yourself, and then you meet your fellows and you chill out and laugh. I love England – well, the many good people I know.

Q

The White Review

I was struck there by how you noted the relationship between language and class in different cultures, and one of my favourite lines of yours is from ‘Strangeness Becomes You’ when you say: ‘I hate that, when syntax / connects me to the rich.’ How has class figured in your work over time?

A

Peter Gizzi

—  ‘Strangeness Becomes You’ is one of nine poems in a series called ‘Field Recordings’ and the topic in all the poems is language. It begins with an epigraph from Rimbaud’s Illuminations that I really like, ‘For today’s tourist, orientation is impossible.’ Its very hard to negotiate language when it’s so damaged. Language has been so misused in the world that its hard to create an opening to a new understanding or a new valence to create an emancipatory meaning. I’ve always been class-awake my entire life and noticed that the worlds extremely uneven in so many ways: financially, culturally, with literacy, with opportunity. You know, its staggering how wrong it all is. I have a problem with the superclass thats developed during my lifetime. Of course, its always been there but in America, especially from 1980 and Reagan to the present, that superclass has been more firmly established. Now we call it the 1 per cent or ‘the billionaire class’. Economic consciousness can enter my poems but then so do many other registers of consciousness as well. I think a poem can be about more than one thing. Poems can become knotted when those different strands enter the poem. I prefer it that way. It is what the anthropologist Clifford Geertz calls the work of ethnography: ‘thick description.’ Sometimes I think I am merely an ethnographer of my nervous system, peopled as it is, with the living, the newly dead, and the long dead.

Q

The White Review

—  As I was reading Sky Burial, I found so many references to the future, or to a very precarious future, an uncertain future. Sometimes, those futures even feel elegiac. ‘There is no better time than the present when we have lost everything’, wrote Simone Weil and which you borrow as the first line for a poem in Some Values of Landscape and Weather (2003). How does that lyrical relationship with the future figure in your poetics?
A

Peter Gizzi

—  That poem was written in the fall of 1999, a kind of fugue and elegy for the twentieth century. But that phrase is timeless. Precarity has been in the world forever, throughout my whole life and now the sense of insecurity seems to be expanding at an exponential rate through social media and the 24 hour news cycle. But ‘these feelings of futurelessness’ as I wrote in my new poem ‘From This End of Sadness,’ are real in 2020.  Everyone feels it. On a personal level, my family was destabilised when I was a boy and my father died in a plane crash; that was an irrevocable experience marking my early life. In some way, that set my soul up to understand that life is extremely fragile, completely unstable and can be deeply sad. Stevens wrote that the problem of the poet is ‘the problem of his mind and nerves’. My mind and nerves were formed young. Life is precarious, so we should treasure it and, if we can, do something with it, give it meaning. If we can use our vitality to foster greater social engagement and an understanding of what it is to be here, then we can better know what it means to be here with others. We are alone together under this vast sky, the cosmic panoply above us all the time, and we are the eyes and ears of this vast story. I’ve always been aware of that, and that’s a marvel to me. That awareness might be my source for or my understanding of the ineffable and, for lack of a better word, of the divine. For one brief moment I am a piece of that. I’d like that awareness to also enter my song.
 

To read Lucy Mercer’s review of Sky Burial, click here.


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ABOUT THE CONTRIBUTOR

is a researcher, poet, and critic. Matthew’s writing can be found in Frieze, Burlington Contemporary, The White Review and Apollo. He finished his PhD, on the curatorial career of Frank O’Hara, in 2020, and teaches at University College London and Queen Mary University of London.

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