An Interview with Peter Everwine
PE: It seems to me that what you really get in Williams, and what, I think, is easy to miss sometimes, is the energy in the movement of his images.
CD: In what he called the “variable foot.”
PE: So there was always a way in Williams where the poems were kinetic. It wasn’t just a matter of seeing for him; it was a matter of hearing that American voice. That quick, nervous voice.
CD: Good point. And he was writing Desert Music around this time you were in Mexico in the mid 50s.
PE: I lived in Mexico in 1968, though I'd traveled there earlier.
CD: In your poem “Collecting the Animals,” you conclude with these Shaman-like lines:
What were the animals but ourselves
flashing with the wind, stripped down,
simple at last—the lives
that go on evading us
in shadows at the field’s edge, in trees
flowing away like water on the far hills.
And what is there to grieve?
Here are the tracks they made
in this place.
And in your poem, “We Meet in the Lives of Animals,” you vivify a slaughtered cow with shamanistic reverence and human deference:
“Here" she says, cradling
a cow’s bloody head from which she scrapes
its stringy flesh. “Here,
hold open its eyes.
It will see our hunger.”
PE: Well, that was something I felt. The cow incident was true. I don’t know how much I can claim to be shamanistic.
CD: Silence is as important to you as the voices of the animals. You write in your poem “Distance,” “Once more I find myself/ standing on a dark pier, holding/ an enormous rope of silence.” There’s a tension between the voices in your poetry and the silence you listen to just as closely. I see this in many of your poems. Any close reader of yours hears the silence as much as the language in your poetry.
PE: It’s a companion. I also don’t work from a very large vocabulary. I think I have a very simple vocabulary. Very spare. And I don’t know if that’s deliberate; it’s just the words that I react to. And I think at the same time what lies behind a word, its associations, and its resonance, its shadow, has been important to me. That may be a religious sense of the world but if so it’s also much of the Aztec poetry I know—often a very melancholy view of the world.
CD: I see.
PE: I don’t want to make too much of it.
CD: I don’t know if you can.
PE: I don’t want to make it into a Zen-like thing.
CD: That’s why I don’t want to say "shamanistic sensibility only," either.
CD: But it’s something that’s very natural and distinct in your work.
PE: It’s the way I hear poetry. I don’t know what the experience of writing poetry is like for you, or for other people, but it seems to me that my aspect of trying to write is really about trying to listen.
CD: And receive.
PE: Yeah, and the silence is a large part of that for me. And if it gets into the form, it’s because of the way I’m hearing it.
CD: You let it sink in…the silence.
PE: In the poem, and the language that comes out of the silence. This may sound like nonsense, but silence helps me to slow down a poem, to adjust a phrase or line or inner movement to its emotional weight.
CD: Right. So the Nahuatl language of the Aztecs electrified you, helping you find your own voice that incorporates the religious quality of ancient Aztec poetry, much of which you’ve translated throughout your career, as well as your own hierophantic quality.
CD: You must have returned to Fresno with a new mission following your sabbatical in 1968.
PE: Yeah, it did feel different.
CD: You were talking to your lifelong friend and colleague Phil Levine a lot about your work then, as you probably still do?
PE: We don’t talk a lot about our own work. We talk about wine.
CD: You were born in the same city.
PE: Yeah. I once introduced Phil at a reading and I gave this facetious introduction in which I said my mother had a dream that she had to go to Detroit because she saw the initials P.L. I had to be born under these initials. [laughing]
CD: I’m sure that got a laugh. So you came back from Mexico and started writing again. For the first time in years.
CD: And what came out?
PE: Well, the first book that came out was a book of Aztec translations, In the House of Light.
CD: So you wisely stuck with that.
PE: I did.
CD: Rather than say, “Okay, I’m ready to write on my own now.”
PE: I was doing both.
CD: You were doing both but you pursued the translations first.
PE: It seemed to me the most available material. I really didn’t have a book otherwise. And then of course came Collecting the Animals in 1973.
CD: Right. Then came Keeping the Night in 1978. So the translating was really an apprenticeship for you.
PE: That’s a great term for it.
CD: Rather than doing your apprenticeship in Iowa, you did it in Mexico on your own separate journey.
PE: [laughing] To the sorcerers…
CD: With the Aztecs.
PE: I did another book of Aztec translations in 2005 with Sutton Hoo Press, a limited edition. I then found a publisher at Eastern Washington University who was willing to do a selection of my Aztec translations. Chris Howell was instrumental in this.
CD: And that is the recently published book titled Working the Song Fields.
CD: Congratulations. You mentioned earlier that a lot of Aztec poetry is melancholy, as is yours also. Is your work melancholy because of this influence or simply because you’re melancholy by nature?
PE: Probably a case of the two meeting on common ground. The Aztecs ask a lot of universal questions about what life amounts to, and I think there’s enough simplicity in their work that you’re not ever afraid of imitating them. There’s no sense of individual virtuosity in the Aztec poets, partly because it’s an oral folk process, partly because they understood the whole system of symbols that was behind every word. I’ve never been very crazy about highly ornamental poetry.
CD: And when you just used the word "virtuosity," did you mean it in that sense?
PE: Yes, also that need to be original and unique.
CD: Do you feel that ornamental quality in a lot of, say, Western poetry, say, a lot of poetry in the 50s, I’m thinking particularly of Lowell, not that he was merely decorative or ornamental but lapidary and dense in such books as Lord Weary’s Castle and Life Studies. Does this avoid a truth-telling or lack of pretension that Aztec poetry emanates?
PE: I don’t think I want to make that kind of judgment. There are all sorts of people who love that.
CD: That music?