A McSweeney’s Books Q&A with Allan Peterson, author of Fragile Acts.
Allan Peterson is seventy-one, and wrote for thirty years before publishing a book. John Ashbery now calls him “a major find.” Peterson’s poems meld the fast pace of contemporary society with a steely, timeless naturalism. His are sinewy lyrics that whirl along, revealing a profoundly intelligent, curious mind leaping from object to thought to emotion. And yet, in poem after poem, Peterson somehow binds seemingly unrelated elements into one stunning whole. The author spoke with McSweeney’s editors Jesse Nathan and Dominic Luxford about his recent book, Fragile Acts, the second in the McSweeney’s Poetry Series.
McSweeney’s: How did you first encounter poetry?
Peterson: I had little exposure to it growing up. Even so, I unconsciously absorbed an idea of it as a stylized, rhymed, singsong expression of lofty sentiments in rather archaic words and phrasing. Until I was in art school, no one I knew read or wrote poetry. Poets seemed to be a great rarity, spaced out distantly like planets.
McSweeney’s: So how did you find your way to being one?
Peterson: While at Rhode Island School of Design in the late 50s and early 60s, I discovered Pound and Eliot. Olson, Williams, and other moderns followed. Poetry—that kind, anyway—was a revelation and a recognition. I was attracted to the inclusiveness of the long poem, the sense of no boundaries and a high seriousness expressed in contemporary diction. The scope seemed limitless, and this kind of poetry seemed to embrace important issues, interior experience as well as the nature of the whole of the world. Poetry seemed the intuitive parallel to what I was attempting to do with visual art, and I have done them together ever since. My degrees are in art, but my MFA thesis at Southern Illinois University combined both.
McSweeney’s: How do the two forms influence each other?
Peterson: It is like the way knowing another language expands the world. My art and my poems exist in parallel, both products of imagination, with the difference being the materials, not the mental processes. To see that words in a dense poetic context could get at the same feeling level, and often more directly than images, was an exciting discovery. Maybe this is the same way everybody works, I don’t know. Living where I lived, in the field I was in, and with no reason to attend literary conferences, I have known very few poets.
McSweeney’s: What role does science play in your work? It seems significant.
Peterson: In what I see as the deep seriousness of living, science is not an avocation, but a necessity to understand the processes of which I am a part. It is also endlessly fascinating, constantly changing, and instructive. My favorite memories of childhood were of being alone in nature, reading constantly about what was then called Natural History, identifying everything around me. I was a lepidopterist. I saved for a microscope. I learned the life cycles of birds and insects. Reading was also an introduction to words and their power to connect to imagination. A large world map on my wall conveyed a sense of the world and its places, the lure of names. Little about those interests has changed, though now I have a way better microscope.
If I refer to an insect’s antennae structure, protozoa like stentor or vorticella, or the habits of wasps, those are things I’m familiar with, facts that have enriched my understanding. I believe with Pound that you write to your level of understanding. The most exciting recent developments in scientific thinking for me have been chaos theory, complexity, complex adaptive systems, self-organization, the work of the Santa Fe Institute, and Stuart Kauffman’s ideas of Order for Free and the Adjacent Possible. My interest in big systems thinking was initiated originally by the books of Lancelot Law White, D’Arcy Thompson, and the presocratic philosophers.
McSweeney’s: How do you begin a poem?
Peterson: In art, I use random marks as a way of beginning. Poems start in a similar way, with a perceptual observation, a few words that suddenly seem urgent and promising as if they have lights around them. Connections accrue. I mine my notes. One thing suggests another. I never know where the process will lead or where it will end.
I write in notebooks first. I print. I have an unreadable longhand, the product of long disuse. Promising beginnings are transferred to the computer. The process of development, just like painting or drawing, is both additive and subtractive. Revision is writing.
I write in silence to better listen to the thoughts as they fly by. Early mornings are often most productive, a habit developed from years of trying to write before having to leave for work. Solitude enables reflection. It helps enforce the complete concentration I prefer. Retirement has meant having no limits to the time I can spend working. It has been the greatest gift.
McSweeney’s: Why do you avoid most punctuation?
Peterson: Punctuation is a fairly recent development in the history of writing and there are many ways of being clear without it, or ways to be ambiguous on purpose. It is sometimes a useful convention, but a bit of a tyranny when trying to get at the ineffable. English is also readable without vowels, some poetry starts every line with a capital letter though they are not new sentences, & symbols can take the place of words. In such a fluid system, and with poetry striving for our deepest fields of content, I’d often rather leave the gates open. I make choices that seem appropriate to the task at hand. I use punctuation intuitively and idiosyncratically and only when it seems necessary. As a result of working with you, my persuasive editors on this book, there is more punctuation than normal.
McSweeney’s: In “Subdivisions within the Idea of Place” you write, “embellishment is love.” Can you say something more about this?
Peterson: I was referring to how people instinctively elaborate, ornament, and decorate things important to them because doing so invests them with significance. It enhances and ennobles, it exalts. Ornamentation seems to add, not just a certain style, but emotional intensity. It can make an object of veneration almost numinous. Think Spanish Baroque. Book of Kells. Islamic mosaics. James Hampton’s Throne of the Third Heaven of the Nations Millennium General Assembly.
McSweeney’s: Why have you never taken a writing workshop or participated in a writing group?
Peterson: For me, the work of art is still solitary work, not a group project. Besides, I came to poetry from the visual arts. I was not on a career track in creative writing. I had not studied any poet or their work in the academic sense. I was reading and rereading everybody for evidence of a mind at work that expanded my experience from a uniquely personal point of view, the same qualities I looked for in visual art. With no literary training, little sense of poetic history, no interest in traditional forms and not much in narrative, I was very much out on the edges of literary life. Even later when my work began to be published, I didn’t blog, was not drawn to collaboration when it became so popular, and had no readers with whom I shared work in progress. My way of working, in both fields, has always been alone.
McSweeney’s: Do you read a lot of poetry?
Peterson: A lot. It has been my education. The other day my wife came by when I happened to be reading a book of essays and said, “What, are you reading something with sentences?”
I have a large library that overflows the bookshelves—heavily poetry and nonfiction, mostly sciences, but also philosophy, history, art, dictionaries. Very eclectic, very wide ranging.
There are omissions—almost no novels.
I do not read poetry in an analytical way. I’m looking for a feeling, a tone, a unique mind at work, a capability of expression that brings the world into sharp focus. The poems I hope for and hope to write are reflective, revealing, and incantatory. Incantatory, not in the sense of repetition, but spell inducing because of the aura of seriousness, metaphoric description, and reverie. A poem is not a caption to experience, it is experience, and not a reminiscence, though it may contain reminiscences. A poem is an act in the present.
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