An Interview with Peter Everwine
PE: That music. And you can’t say that that doesn’t belong in the world of poetry. It’s just one I don’t react to very much. I suppose if you go back historically—I like reading Donne, but I prefer Ben Jonson. These two poets seem totally different to me and I think of someone like Zbigniew Herbert, that marvelous poem where he says there are poets who close their eyes and a garden of images come streaming down. I don’t think I’ve ever been in that position. And the thing is, I’m not sure I ever want to be in that position. I get plainer and plainer and sometimes I worry about that but there’s not that much I can do about it.
PE: Because I think it tends to push me towards a more garrulous statement, diffused narratives, bumbling around in the furniture of narrative, and I don’t know if I’m very good at that.
CD: But I was wondering; you said you were worried about becoming more and more spare.
PE: Oh, I’m not worried about that. I’m worried about being more and more confused and garrulous. More talky. And I also want to avoid poetic bullshit.
CD: Do you feel like you’re becoming too “talky” at times?
PE: Well, because there are ways in which, when I think back to certain poems, how spare they were and how an image worked in that sparseness, and I don’t find that same sense of a single image that explores the content of the poem. I’ve come less and less to that.
CD: Do you know why that’s happened?
PE: I think it’s part of the way we age, or part of the way I age.
CD: For instance, in the poem you wrote recently about a buzzard, do you find yourself writing more garrulously than what you might call essentially?
PE: Not so much in that poem, but there are poems I’ve written lately that do seem much more given over to the narrative. And what happens, or at least part of what I think happens, is when you start using particulars, in that way of narrating the poem, the particulars tend to stay there as things, and I like particulars that sort of suggest everything behind them. It’s a way of understating rather than simply stating.
CD: So it sounds like you’re talking more about the lyrical impulse than the narrative.
PE: Exactly. And I love the lyrical impulse. Where I’m trying to find it now is more and more in the old Oriental poets and the Aztecs.
CD: Oh, still in the Aztecs.
PE: Well, I’m pretty much finished doing the Aztecs, though; I mean, I’ve done enough of that, I want to get out of that.
CD: Just because you feel like you’ve finished.
PE: I think so, yes. I think I’ve done enough and I think I’ve explored what was interesting for me to explore in those books.
CD: So when you discovered Aztec poetry, just as Bly and Wright were discovering Trakl, Rilke, Strom, and Neruda among other European Modernists in the 60s, you were pursuing Aztec poetry that led you also in a foreign direction that redefined your muse. You translated yourself as well as the Aztecs, discovering a spare, indigenous, archetypal, anonymous voice that became your own in English.
PE: If you read those Aztec poems, it’s really hard to tell who wrote them.
CD: They follow an anonymous folklore tradition, as you say.
PE: Exactly. And maybe that’s also what I mean by our intense interest in virtuosity and voice and it doesn’t exist there. I mean, it exists in the sense that sometimes in the Aztec poems you get an announcement of who the writer is, or who the poet is, but this seems more formulaic than individual.
CD: Like the old woman, but it’s not “so-and-so,” specifically.
PE: No, it’s not “so-and-so.” And I don’t even think you can trust it when he says “I’m King So-and-So.” I think it’s maybe somebody who is making that voice up. So there is something attractive about that; I can’t say it’s faceless. It's deeply human.
CD: Were you influenced by any other poets or traditions of poetry at the time you were translating Aztec poetry?
PE: I must have been. But they are really hard to name. Yvor Winters, of course, some of those poems are wonderful. J.V. Cunningham, early on. Certainly a number of European poets. It’s hard to tell exactly who I chose, consciously or unconsciously.
CD: Were you reading other poets at the time, like Galway Kinnell or James Wright, or Robert Bly, or Phil Levine?
PE: I certainly read all those poets, sure. And you know there were people who said that I belonged to the deep image school, people who said I was a symbolist, people who said I imitated Mark Strand’s surrealism—I mean after a while, if you listen to everybody, you don’t know who the hell you are. You know I had all those marvelous classmates. I mean the people you mentioned many were classmates of mine at Iowa.
CD: So they—Phil Levine, Jane Cooper, Donald Justice, Robert Dana, Henri Coulette— must have influenced you in some ways, either consciously or unconsciously.
PE: Had to. And that whole generation out of Iowa was a very significant one.
CD: They really changed the direction of American poetry.
PE: It was a simpler world then.
CD: So it was a simpler time but also a momentous time.
PE: There were a lot of cross currents, and I don’t know how many cross currents there are anymore because I don’t keep up as much with what is happening.
CD: Right. Well, contemporary American poetry has become such an enormous tent in the last twenty years.
PE: There are little groups all over the place.
CD: And so many different “rings” inside this enormous tent. But I would rather talk about your specific lineage and experience as an Italian American poet. Did you ever feel that your German last name concealed your ethnic identity?
PE: I’ve never felt it was concealed. I certainly never concealed it. I love the background I came from. It was rather funny when I talked about my childhood during my visit with Ruth Stone the other day, telling her I came from uncles who started out in the mine and so forth. She assumed I had a tragic childhood because of the word “mine.” But I think I had a very good childhood, despite the very hard times of the 30s.
CD: Your father died when you were very young, correct?
PE: He died in a car accident before I was born. For the first years of my life, my mother and I lived in my grandmother’s house in Leechburg, PA, and my grandmother mostly took care of me because my mother worked. I’m not sure how it affected me. Sometimes you don’t really know what in childhood gets to you. My grandmother didn’t know English. All the family that came to the house, my uncles for example, spoke the dialect. So as long as my grandmother was around, that was the language. A very loud language. And the language I was born into at that point was an Italian dialect. So in some ways, I know, that had to affect the way I listen to the music I hear in words. I can remember being in situations later on with my stepfather where I couldn’t think of the English word and I would use the Italian. That was part of my growing into that family.
CD: How long did that last?