Poetry Santa Cruz
Poetry Santa Cruz

In His Own Words—An interview with poet Peter Klappert

by Julia Alter

Just when I think I can define Peter Klappert's style, his work shows another face. In his latest book, Chokecherries; New and Selected Poems 1966-1999, Klappert offers a complex and refreshing poetry. The following email interview with the poet begins to get inside of this diverse voice in American poetry.

Julia Alter: What was your introduction to poetry? How did you meet poetry?

Peter Klappert: This is going to sound far-fetched, but when I was in second grade a great aunt told me I was related to George Washington, and I remember sitting in bed writing a poem. I can only remember the first couplet and a few bits that came later, but it started:

No man will ever be greater than he, He was much greater than I'll ever be.

Later that year my 2nd Grade teacher made the whole class write poems. I remembered the George Washington poem and handed it in. I was one of—I think it was 3—students who were called to the front of the room as plagiarists, but I recognized that right away as a backwards compliment. The teacher probably didn't believe a 7-year-old could write iambic pentameter.

In both Junior High and High School I had a wonderful, iconoclastic teacher named Maggie McHenry, and she encouraged me. I think it was Miss McHenry who introduced me to Ogden Nash, and eventually I bought a multi-volume Collected Ogden Nash. I wish I still had it! Anyway, I liked funny poems and poems that were musical.

Sounds like Maggie McHenry was one of your early heroes. I'm always happy to see that people remember that teacher—the one who encouraged them to continue writing, continue reading. Maggie McHenry introduced you to Ogden Nash. Who do you introduce your students to? Who are the poets that would fall into the "mandatory reading" column?

PK: That's a tough one—and I don't think there's a single answer.

It's amazing how many people who don't read poetry, or don't read 20th Century poetry, enroll in poetry-writing workshops. In introductory courses I try to use a good, varied anthology of "recent" poetry, which means the poetry of the last 50 years or so. I'll assign an array of poets which suggests the many (many many) possibilities for poems in our time. But I also urge aspiring poets to browse until they find the poets who really excite them, really speak to them—and then track down those poets' books. The urge to write is partly an urge to imitate what we admire, and that's going to be different for each person. At the same time, the more you understand, the more kinds of poetry you respond to, the richer your options will be.

Advanced workshops are another story. The goal, or an important goal, is to build on what each student already knows, to balance or counterpoint existing strengths. For example, if someone writes a very in-your-face, free-verse "confessional" poetry, I might try to interest him or her in a poet who deals with similar subjects but with more restraint, form-consciousness, objectivity.

I'm avoiding your question about "mandatory reading." For one thing, the field is so vast. World poetry? English language poetry since Chaucer? American poetry since 1910? We all teach best out of our own strengths and enthusiasms, and in intro workshops it's especially important to share those enthusiasms. Later, one needs to be more inclusive. But just to deal with the great Twentieth Century modernists—Yeats, Pound, Eliot, Moore, Williams, Stevens. (That's my list, but I know it should probably be extended to include Stein and H.D., and if we go that far then maybe we'd better add Hart Crane. And we can't leave out Frost, though he wasn't a "modernist." And so forth.) Anyone who writes poetry can learn incredibly important and incredibly different things from each of them.

Those kinds of lists look pretty daunting, so I'd just say "Start somewhere and follow the clues."

Do you have an overriding inspiration—singular or composite—that pulls you to and through your work?

PK: No, I don't think so. But I do seem to want to build individual poems into larger units.

What motivates you day in and day out? How is your writing experience different form one day to the next?

PK: The best answer I've ever heard to the question "How do your poems start?" was something my first creative writing teacher, Robert Sward, said: "It's never the same way twice."

"Where do you get your ideas?" is another question one encounters a lot. But in my experience poems don't start with "ideas," that is, with truths one wants to express, or with concepts for a poem. "Despair is the one unforgivable sin." I could never start with an abstraction like that and then sit down and write a poem which embodies or demonstrates it. My poems usually start with a swatch of language that interests me, or with an image that keeps coming back, an insistent image, or with something as nebulous as "a mood." If it's a mood, I can't go anywhere with it until an image (which might be a place or a character or a situation involving characters) or a bit of language presents itself. But then in developing an image, or in following a phrase to see where it leads me, I might end up with a poem that does convey that "despair is the unforgivable sin."

The thing that most often "pulls" me "to and through" a poem is the need to discover something, to find out what I truly believe and feel. So I guess you could say that—usually at a preconscious level—many poems start with some kind of emotionally charged issue or decision I need to make, something that generates good old Existentialist anxiety. There are many ways to deal with such anxiety, but I can only do so through a poem if I have words and/or images to work with.

A couple of examples:

One Winter night when I was living in Cambridge [MA], I read George Orwell's Homage to Catalonia. I was already fairly immersed in events in and around World War II, and the book moved me so much that I needed to get out of my overheated apartment and go for a walk. That was around 1 AM. As I was walking, lines started coming to me, beginning with "Movement is instinct."

I hadn't brought a pen or paper with me, so as more lines occurred I had to keep going back to the beginning and rehearsing all I had so far, just to make sure I remembered it. When I began to fear I wouldn't remember any more, I went home (repeating the "poem" all the way) and wrote the lines in a notebook, read them over, and thought "That doesn't mean a damn thing." But the next day I read them again and realized I had a whole poem—something very rare for me, because most of my poems go through a great many revisions over months or years. But the poem wasn't 100% finished, and one of the changes needed was cutting that first line—the poem as a whole conveyed that idea, and it was boring and unnecessarily limiting to spell it out. The poem is called "Movement" and it's in Chokecherries.

A more recent poem started with the phrase "hold each other's pulses," and that came from an idea—because it wasn't even an image yet—of intimacy and affection between two HIV-positive lovers. I couldn't go anywhere with that until I knew more about the lovers, and what I learned about them is right there in the title: "The Courtship of the Morticians." The poem ended up in two parts; the first ends "and hold each other's pulses" and the second "and held each other's pulses."

I have seen the article in Field—I like what Pamela Alexander says about reading [Chokecherries] as a whole work, "The book is dizzying in its turns from lovely to horrific, intimate to distanced, probing to sensual, manic to peaceful. Perhaps it's that variety that calls for the whole-book reading: no sample would be representative."

PK: I'm glad Alexander saw the book as "a whole," because I worked for years to try to assemble a selected that could be read as a single volume. My aim---right up until a few months before publication--was to keep the book to under 100 pages, so that it might be read in a single sitting (and therefore be more likely to be perceived as a whole). In the end, I was persuaded to include more poems, particularly the 60 or so pages of work not previously available in books, so I'm glad that it's still possible to see CC as a single volume.

How do you leave such a multifaceted impression with your poetry?? Has it been a conscious part of your process--this reinvention of your style, voice, words...? Or is it the natural evolution of a poet's work—with Chokecherries, we're talking about thirty years of poetry...

PK: I don't think the variety was conscious to begin with, and it's never been part of a personal aesthetic "agenda." When Lugging was published, a number of critics commented on the multiplicity of styles or voices, so then (of course) I became aware of it. Or more aware of it. A few reviewers really disliked the variety, as if having more than one poetic mode and a sense of humor were bad manners, as if I'd rung the doorbell while they were all taking naps. To think of it now--30 years later--reminds me of Philip Levine's wonderful line about "those academic pants-pisser poets" of the 40's and 50's, except these were academic pants-pisser critics.

On the other hand, most reviewers (positive and negative) tended to emphasize the humor in Lugging, and I came to be less happy about that. Stanley Kunitz's introduction started out emphasizing wit and word-play, but he also said--right in that first paragraph--"If one fails to catch the joke, one might as well shudder." I think that sentence is a wonderful statement of a metaphysics!

It's probably metabolic: even as an undergraduate I tended to build shorter poems--or fragments of poems--into larger, spatially organized sequences, and part of the drive to do so was to be able to counterpoint different tones and emotions. The subject of a poem--what a poem is "about"--is often elusive, so I like to be able to come at the "something" from different angles. Sometimes one can have those multiple perspectives in a single poem, sometimes you achieve it in a group of poems, and sometimes it can only happen over time.

My poems have occasionally been called "cynical," which I don't want them to be and don't think they are. "Cynic" comes from the Greek for a snarling dog. But many of the poems are "skeptical," which derives from a word meaning to examine or consider, to look about. That's another way of saying "to look at things from different angles."

--Or maybe I was aware of the tendency sooner. There's a poem in Lugging, written in the late 60's, called "On a Beach in Southern Connecticut." It's very Stevensesque, very derivative of Wallace Stevens, in fact sort of over-the-top, sort of a respectful send-up, and it includes the lines "not variations on a theme, but / alternation of all the possible routines." I'm a lot older now and I don't think one has to try all the routines, but I like variety!

Peter Klappert read with Bert Glick at Bookshop Santa Cruz on Tuesday, June 12th, 2001 at 7:30pm.

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