The Afterlife of the Voice: An Interview with Peter Gizzi


At Work


Last year saw the publication of In Defense of Nothing: Selected Poems 1987–2011, a significant retrospective of the work of poet Peter Gizzi. Gizzi—who also has three poems in the latest issue of The Paris Reviewhimself selected and arranged In Defense, which not only samples nearly twenty-five years of his poems but finds a new order and a new context for them—both for Gizzi and for his readers. The titles of his earlier books provided points of location and navigation. His first collection, Periplum (1992), takes its title from an Ezra Pound line about a journey, and the notion of the poem as a journey is something Gizzi has carried throughout his career. The Outernationale (2007), his fifth collection, gives a sense of the landscape these journeys cross—at once internal and external, subjective and universal. In Defense of Nothing, which will be published in paperback in April, was recently named a finalist for a Los Angeles Times Book Prize.

I spoke with Gizzi by phone about assembling the volume. At the beginning of our conversation, I told him that we had met once years before, at an event, and that after our conversation he had given me the copy of Artificial Heart from which he had been reading. He couldn’t remember our interaction, but for him, that individual connection—between the poet and the poem, the poem and the reader, and the reader and the poet—is the heart of the poetic experience.

What does it mean to assemble a selected-poems volume, and how does a project like this begin?

It began as a conversation with my editor of fifteen or more years, and now my dear friend, Suzanna Tamminen. She has a good sense of my work and she knew there had been a lot of changes in my life, some difficult, and that I was taking stock, as it were. So she proposed that I do a selected poems.

Did you learn more about what that means over the course of the project?

I’ve discovered there are several versions of Peter Gizzi. Over the course of this book there is the Peter Gizzi who lived in New York City, the Peter Gizzi who lived in the Berkshires, in Providence, in California, in Amherst, and so on. I learned that twenty-five years of life accumulate, as does one’s work. And yet I found that there is an uncanny consistency to the variety and reality of address in my poetry in whatever form I happen to be working—small lyric, series, long form, prose poem. It was illuminating to me simply because my inner life can be a turbulent experience, and I live one poem at a time and one book at a time.

I occasionally have difficulty separating my work from the world, but I have come to see, over the course of these years, that it is a world—mine, albeit messy, magisterial, sullen, ecstatic, skeptical, limited, lyric, and in love. It’s a private, untutored, asymmetrical, and homespun experience with both style and form. For instance, the negotiations of loneliness and vulnerability are formal concerns. The need to connect the inner life with the social is a formal concern, or the invisible with the material, or the staging of private denouement within an economic political reality. None of these are new conditions of poesis, but still they exist as formal problems, as in how to address the momentary and time itself. Maybe it is simply a form of being awake to the polyphony of worlds, or words. I’d like to think that being a poet is a form of disobedience, a form of civil disobedience—perhaps because I’ve signed up to be a mystery in the face of violence.

Have you always wanted to be a writer?

To be honest, I’ve never had an easy relationship with being a writer, though I persist. I loved poetry from early adolescence, but it wasn’t something I thought was in me to actually do. I know I have the idea of being a poet, and yet it’s also my life and it’s real. That sounds silly, but that’s how it feels to me some days—I mean “silly” also in the archaic sense of happiness, the feeling of being blessed. It’s conceptual, this idea of a voice. But it’s an idea I take very seriously. I can say that poetry has given me a remarkably flexible and acute lens with which to understand the world and what’s around me and therefore myself within it.

And I feel I’ve become an ethnographer of my nervous system, that dark chemistry of the body—dark in the sense of illegible, even with all the new sciences—and the effect it has on expression and form. This might sound crazy, but in the act of locating a ground in this otherwise dark process, I came to an understanding that was, for me, revelatory—that the sensory data recorded in my poetry is both a fiction of consciousness and the physical reality of my nervous system. Hence the William James epigraph for this book, “The world contains consciousness as well as atoms and the one must be written down as just as essential as the other.”

My nervous system is populated not only by the people in my life, but also the people I’ve read all my life. These books and these voices and these sounds that have constituted my imagination. As I have said elsewhere, in many ways, my bibliography is my autobiography. Being a writer, what I have always believed is that if one doesn’t love other writers, filmmakers, painters, artists, and poets, one will never love oneself. If I don’t love them with wild abandon—which doesn’t preclude study, rigor, and critical thought—I’ll never know myself, never discover myself.

Assembling a selected volume is your chance to define your work and yourself to a degree you probably will never get again.

It definitely is a retrospective volume, and it is that kind of event. Is it definitive? I can’t quite sign off on that concept. The book doesn’t function as my “greatest hits.” My first assembly was much bigger, so I had to make choices, and there are many poems I love that were left out. There were some poems that were obvious to me, and then I began to realize that all of the poems in each of my books somehow tell a story and that each book has its own concept or horizon that I write into.

For instance, my first book, Periplum, is an ancient form of navigation, a kind of mapless way of moving through space, of reckoning. Artificial Heart plays with surface and artificiality and what constitutes a real emotion—is it social? is it mine? In Some Values of Landscape and Weather, I imagined aesthetic values—musical, pictorial—performing against a backdrop of political, social, and ethical values. The neologism of The Outernationale allowed me to write into a space “just off the grid,” or so I imagined. Threshold Songs was closer to what I have always imagined when I write and read, and if I hadn’t used it already I could have just as easily used it for the selected, as, ultimately for me, poetry is a threshold experience, to be at once on both sides of the page as it were. What I found, too, is that the specific concerns of each of my books are also always happening across all of them, that there is an overall sensibility and voice, and that those concerns are simply an enabling fiction from which I can focus for the moment of said collection.

I noticed that some of the poems in each section don’t always appear in the same order as the book they came from.

Yes, this is true. When I made the selection for In Defense of Nothing I had to remove the poems from their original contexts and then find a way to create a kind of sequence, or story, out of the poems I did choose. I wanted to create a new kind of movement and relationship, a new occasion, which is why I gave the book a title, as opposed to just “selected poems.” That way, it becomes its own work.

When you decided that you needed a title, why In Defense of Nothing?

I like the concept of nothing because it’s a big one, and a big one in poetry. Much more than Auden’s “poetry makes nothing happen,” I think of it in terms of Dickinson’s “The human heart is told / Of nothing / ‘Nothing’ is the force / That renovates the World.” I can relate to that because when I write I have to find an active presence within a silence—in other words, listening to the world anew, shorn of the habitual, waiting to crest into an evolving moment.

“In defense of nothing” means I have nothing to defend. Also, I’m defending this act of making something from nothing. Or as John Cage wrote, “I have nothing to say and I am saying it and that is poetry.” The word nothing is interesting in and of itself. Grammatically, nothing is an indefinite pronoun, which means that it has to refer to something, so when you say nothing, it refers to something. One could say that nothing is a concept and since concepts can become things, the concept of nothing is a thing. Or to quote Stevens, “Not Ideas About the Thing but the Thing Itself.”

So a poem, like a journey, has the potential to have infinite meanings?

If a poem is working and tuned in an open key, then meaning is endless—call it the afterlife of the voice—though the poem, for me, needs to come to some state of inevitability, even in its not-knowing, so it’s not just random chatter. It’s a balance even if it wobbles. It has to be tuned in such a way that there’s something that’s recognizable, and then from there you can find further orders of sensation. Having to go back and reread and select my poems, I began to see more in them than I’d imagined when I wrote some of them, and it felt good. That was the part of the journey that I found really generative and also extremely private. I have always imagined the voice in the poem as being posthumous, and it doesn’t necessarily mean it’s over or dead, just other—just speaking from another location—an afterlife of the poem as it is being inscribed in real time.

I get the feeling that poetry is always personal for you. Even if thousands relate to a poem, it’s still about a one-to-one connection.

In my case, I don’t know about thousands. Maybe dozens!

In one of my poems, I say, “nothing more personal / than headlines.” I’m interested in joy and discovery. If my poems are sorrowful or they mourn, it’s because that’s a condition of being. For me, the understanding of the periodicity of being, of a body, of a voice, has given me the ability to tune. The language one is made of or a poem is made of is bigger than me, it’s older than me, and it doesn’t live in me, I live in it—we all do. There is always a sense of ghosting, of being haunted, and I don’t propose this as an entirely melancholy state—just a fact. And so what gives the language or a voice in a poem its force is an understanding of its periodicity. It’s a question of scale.

The collection includes poems up to 2011. How has your poetry since then been affected by working on the book?

Assembling my selected poems was writing. It might have interrupted the making of new poems, but it wasn’t any less of a creative act for me. Now that the selected is behind me, I have begun to write again, thankfully. Whenever I finish a book, I worry I’m never going to write again, but if I look at my work, I produce a book on average every five years or so. That gives me a certain sense of … not comfort, but it’s reassuring. When I have moments in which I think it’s over—and those are horrible moments—I have to believe that the tendency to write is a very resilient muscle, and then, happily, mysteriously, I find it again.

That’s where I’m at now. I’ve got some new poems and drafts and I have a working title for a book, so I’m beginning to write my way into it. I also have a very long project that I’ve been pursuing, off and on, for about seven years. It’s there sitting on my desk and it baffles me—it’s on a different wavelength, oscillating on a different frequency. What’s really interesting about doing the selected is that, as someone who feels sometimes overwhelmed in this vast, unstable, multiplying narrative we call the world and being, I’ve learned patience from my impatience. I keep learning how to listen.

Peter Gizzi’s poems appear in the Spring issue of The Paris Review. Read “Pretty Sweetyhere.

Alex Dueben has written for The Rumpus, The Poetry Foundation, The Daily Beast, and others. His interview with William Gibson was included in Conversations with William Gibson.