An Interview with Peter Everwine
PE: I don’t think you can live without some nostalgia. How can you do it? How can you not remember with nostalgia your first great love? How can you forget your first long trip on a train? I don’t know.
CD: You make this point in your poem “The Heart”:
I imagine I hear it singing still
so that the woods return, and the boy,
and the spring evenings—
O love, O mercy,
O passing years!
That child again, the boy. There is really more of the past in a lot of your work than the future or thinking about the future.
PE: That’s true, that’s exactly right. And I suppose that goes with that sense of loss.
CD: Your poetry has become a memorable record of losing and living, which are often the same thing, and the joys of course as well that occur between the losses.
PE: And I hope also it becomes kind of record, not of what has been lost but how you live with loss. I don’t mean that in any pedagogical way, but that is what one does. You learn how to live with it.
CD: But how to do that in a way that is, as far as the poetry is concerned, newly evocative in the context of your own life.
PE: Exactly, in my own life. I don’t pretend to instruct people.
CD: Right, but when you say, for instance, in “The Heart,” “In a small white room I saw my heart after it broke”—it’s not just you who saw your heart after it broke; it’s in a small white room.
PE: That’s what I love about the possibility of poetry. And I’m not talking just about my poetry, but really about poetry, that you can be truthful, accurate. It was a small, white room.
CD: There actually was a small white room; you aren’t just being poetic here?
PE: There was. That’s right. But at the same time how that particular, how that accident has a whole resonance behind it; I love it when that can happen.
CD: What do you mean by "accident," exactly?
PE: The philosophical sense of accident. It could have taken place in a red room, you could lie and make it a red room, I don’t know. I love it when you can be truthful to a situation in life. And at the same time catch that resonance that pushes you.
CD: In his poem “Capri,” Czeslaw Milosz refers to these real places, these “accidents,” as you call them, as “immense particulars."
PE: That’s a wonderful phrase.
CD: You mentioned you didn’t have a large vocabulary…
PE: I don’t.
CD: But you certainly possess your own verbal music, are sophisticated and well read. You choose not to use language in an ornamental way, in a decorative way, as you said before. Of course there are great poets such as Shakespeare and Keats who break the spare language rule, but their elaborate eloquence is not your model.
PE: Well, you know, if you bring up a poet like Keats, I mean how can you not love some of those odes? They’re so beautiful, they’re so breathtaking, they’re so heart-wrenching, but when it comes right down to the truth of it, I prefer Coleridge’s conversational poems. I would rather read Coleridge’s “The Nightingale,” frankly, than Keats’s “Ode to a Nightingale.” I’m sure people would say I’m foolish.
CD: You like something more about Coleridge’s colloquial speech. You prefer Coleridge’s poems in Lyrical Ballads to Keats’s odes?
PE: I don’t know how to explain it exactly. Coleridge is more intimate with his experience. Less aesthetic but more rooted. He’s more colloquial, and he puts himself into the narrative. In “The Nightingale" where he holds his child up to the moon and the nightingales are singing all around him, what an incredible intimate moment that creates between a father and son and the world. And Keats is off listening to this gorgeous music lulling him to death and it’s beautiful, he's so young, but it’s so far away and there’s so much language being generated. Coleridge has that deep gravity of his experience in his poem. And I think the last passages of that poem have a music that is the equal of Keats. You hear it again in Wallace Stevens, at the close of “Sunday Morning.” And Coleridge is just saying, you know...
CD: Or in his poem “Frost at Midnight."
PE: Yeah, “Frost at Midnight,” a little fire, thinking back.
CD: And his son is in that poem, too.
PE: Or "The Lime Tree Bower," where his friends go on a hike and he travels with them in his mind. And he's got their rhythm in his lines.
CD: There’s a spoken quality to a lot of your poems as well.
PE: I think so. I hope so.
CD: Yeah, but at the same time, the lyric is so resonant in your work. If I just pick randomly from From the Meadow, as I’m doing now, one sees this immediately:
There is in me, always,
you and the absence of you.
There is in me, always,
that road that leads to a field
of flowers we once knew
in that place where you were young,
there, where Memory keeps a life
of its own in the dark,
like a plant that waits patiently
year after year, asleep and folded inward
until the appointed night arrives
when it stirs and wakes
and opens out—Oh dream flowering!
Darkness flowering into darkness!—
forms, figures made visible
in the sadness of Time.
You combine lyrical expression with speech here in a memorable way.
PE: Well, I would like that to be true, Chard.
CD: Those lines are from your poem “Elegiac Fragments.” Your voice is quiet and often private. Do you feel your voice remains in that zone in most of your poems?
PE: I do, because I think my sense of speaking in the poem doesn’t create a very large public space, and I try, even in public readings, to create that private intimate space. I think there are poets who work wonderfully in public spaces, Whitman you mentioned. I heard when I was young Dylan Thomas read, and he just practically knocked me from my chair. I had never heard a voice like that. Or language like that, and although he was speaking about rather private experiences, the voice and the language were extremely public, I thought. I try not to. I don’t think my speaking voice in my poems is public. I can do nothing about that.
CD: Well, that’s just the nature of your work, and your sensibility. And yet at the same time, this private self that you’re talking about that is so closely focused on your own particular subject matter, whether it’s a cow or a field or a white room, or any of these things, crosses over from your deeply private self to your reader.
PE: I hope so. That would be something I certainly desire.
CD: I mean it’s the great paradox of the lyric, isn’t it—the private self, writing about deeply personal things connecting with others, mostly strangers, through the magic of his or her language?
PE: Exactly. That’s what we all want.
CD: And create poetry in the process.
PE: Isn’t that what you want in your work?
CD: Absolutely. But how do you do it? Create a transpersonal self that crosses over from personal particulars with meanings, music, and imagery that move the reader?
PE: Who do you speak to when you write?
CD: To myself.
PE: Talking to yourself? Me too.