KR Conversations

Peter Everwine

Peter EverwinePeter Everwine’s most recent book is Listening Long and Late (University of Pittsburgh, 2013). He has received fellowships from the NFA, the Guggenheim Foundation, and an award in literature from the American Academy of Arts and Letters. His poem “How It Is (Later)” can be found here. It appears along with another poem in the July/Aug 2018 issue of the Kenyon Review.

There’s a song mentioned in your poem of which the words, singer, and sound are never quite revealed. What do you think or hope this occlusion does to your readers’ understanding or perception of the song? Is it meant to have a sound somewhere in thought or does the silence of the page do something to signal your persona’s incomplete memory of the melody?

The first poem in my first book (Collecting the Animals) was “How It Is,” a short and rather elliptical lyric based on a couple of images. The poem contained more silence than speech, and its last line became the beginning line of “How It Is (Later)”: Something is singing in the grass. After almost five decades, I wanted to return to that poem, thus the present tense. The first poem was youthful, a poem stunned by the wonder and mystery of a natural world beyond a need for speech or explanation, a poem of renewal. The “singing” never had a particular melody; it was more metaphor than something that reached the Billboard charts. Since then, that world has become not less of a mystery, but one subjected to time and experience. An aging face often begins to reveal character, even its beauty. Both poems, especially “How It Is (Later),” are concerned with how limited words are in pinning things down, and what an extended “ambiguous chorus of songs” we hear in a world we love—one that now includes so many memories—knowing it will vanish with our passing. In that sense, the celebration and joy has acquired for me also a sense of loss and sorrow, which seems more complex and truthful.

The beginning of your poem quotes another, said to have been written before, does this poem exist anywhere? Does it matter, to you, whether or not this poem’s quotation of another comes across as authentic or humorous, real or in existence only in the reality and authority of “How It Is (Later)” alone?

I couldn’t expect a reader to know the earlier poem. I believe one enters a poem on its own terms and, in good faith, goes from there; the poem stands or fails on its own, as does the first line. Whether real or imagined it finally doesn’t matter, although it is an actual line I wrote. The movement and development of the poem is what matters.

How has your writing or writing process changed since you started out?

It seems difficult and unimportant to me to stand back and view a career of writing poems, even if I don’t have a large body of work. My apprentice poems were formal; later ones more image-based, loosened and associative. I think of Zbigniew Herbert’s depiction of poets who have “gardens in their hair.” I’m not much good at gardening, and I now have less hair. I like rather spare poetry and try to avoid the overly narrative. I hope I’ve grown more open as I age, more interested in clarity than in drama or complex poetics.

Which non-writing-related aspect of your life most influences your writing?

In a curious way, my best answer to your question concerns the experience of growing up among the woods and streams of Pennsylvania. I learned to hunt and fish, both of which forced me to acquire a keen eye and ear, a sense of direction, humility and wonder before the power of the mysterious, the value of silence, a deep reverence for life and death, and the discipline of patience, all of which have been enormously useful to me in writing poems.

What is either the best or the worst piece of writing advice you’ve received or given?

In 1954 I got serious about writing poetry. I was near my date of discharge from the army and had landed in Baltimore. I read Origin, edited by Cid Corman, who published many of the Black Mountain poets. Foolishly, I sent Corman some of the first poems I was writing.

They were terrible, of course, and yet Corman sent me a letter telling me, in a polite way, how terrible they were, but suggesting I should read W. C. Williams, among other poets, telling me to compare what I’d sent him to specific poems other poets had written. It was not simply a rejection but an entire lesson in how one might go about writing a poem rather then writing “poetically.” And so we corresponded a few times after that, and Corman’s generosity and patience were simply astonishing. Needless to say, he never published anything I sent him and I soon left Baltimore for Iowa City, against his advice, yet I am forever indebted to that man. He became even more helpful, in absentia, years later. So I thank you, Cid.