A Conversation with Andrew K. Peterson
Interview by Andrew Wessels
ANDREW WESSELS: Your poetic series occasional landscapes is a wonderful way to kick off what we’re calling “Chapbook Week” here. The series we published is in that amorphous range of chapbook-length work. However, it doesn’t stop where we stopped-it is in fact a book-length work. When you are composing, do you think up-front or consciously about the final published form, as either a chapbook or a full-length book?
ANDREW K. PETERSON: I try to stay open to where each project wants to go, rather than impose a pre-conceived length (and therefore ‘appropriate’ form) that will dictate ‘what it is’ before writing. When composing occasional landscapes, for instance, I simply started out with a new notebook, and a spring day, and the intention to stay present with what was going on around, where I happened to be, where part 1 begins, incidentally the corner of Church and Brattle Streets in Cambridge, Mass, where something happens. I really had no idea where I was going, which, at that time, is where I wanted to go. Just let these moments acquaint and accumulate until that charge is gone or I’m on to something else. I’m actually unsure if this series is, in fact, a chapbook or ‘book-length’ work, and instead consider it simply as a piece or series of writing, rather than a work with a formal end-point. I wouldn’t call this or any poem something ‘purer’ than something in a chap or book form, so when you ask…
AW: When does the pure poem begin to coalesce itself into a poem object?
AKP: I don’t really know what a ‘pure’ poem is, or that this state of ‘pureness’ truly exists, or rather, any thing’s as ‘pure’ as any other. Or, maybe, the purest poem is the one that never gets written. But, trying to get to the second part of the question, maybe there’s a conscious gesture towards after the writing-stage feels ‘complete’ and the thought begins to evolve towards ‘something else’ ‘this’ work can be, or attempting to clear through these preconceptions to discover what elements of physicality or object-ness are embedded within the piece all along.
AW: Two years ago, we published online a chapbook-length work of yours, Bonjour Meriwether and the Rabid Maps. A few months ago, the work was published again by Fact-Simile as a handmade chapbook. How do you see the difference between these two forms of publication? Do the different forms in any way make the work itself different?
AKP: I think each format has more impact on an audience’s experience rather than on the work itself. Recently, I was considering format in relation to film viewing; how Casablanca is Casablanca, whether it’s viewed on 35mm film in a theater (perhaps a more ‘social’ scene?), or at home (with others or alone) on broadcast television, a VHS or DVD (rented at a store, or online, or purchased), or streamed. What changes is the viewer’s experience of that content, their place within that variability of connection. Perhaps there’s challenge or, rather, opportunity to make each experience unique, in whatever medium.
Bonjour Meriwether has been a blessed project for me because of the wonderful editors I’ve been involved with (including yourself and others at TOA, and JenMarie Davis & Travis Macdonald at Fact-Simile) whose attentions to their particular format of choice – online, in print – have allowed different (separate, but common) surfaces of this text to manifest…
The Offending Adam released Bonjour in four parts throughout the week, which emphasized the serial nature and non-linear narrativity. To me this recalled an earlier era and form, akin to an old radio serial drama, or story chapters appearing in periodicals, allowing the work’s lyric story to unfold over time. Also, more generally I find the weekly release of TOA a refreshing model, unique to the scene and feel of most online literary journals. This proximal frequency crosses physical distance and makes me feel an active part of a community of poet-citizens.
I think it’s interesting and valuable to try to work with that sense of continuity with the past and communal spirit. This is not merely as homage, or for sentimental reasons, per se. Rather, it emphasizes the unique materials and personal responsibilities within an historical continuum.
Fact-Simile’s treatment of Bonjour fit wonderfully with that sense of investigating place and distance I was interested in: each copy is unique, with a cover printed on an old gas-station road map. I appreciate your insight in consideration of how a reader might experience the content, with constant re-questioning of place. Here, I’d like to quote you back to you, I guess in thinking about how this might answer your own questions, above: How do you see the difference between these two forms of publication? Do the different forms in any way make the work itself different? You wrote:
“place refers to two things: geographical location and the observation of one’s surroundings. Though the coordinates are hyperspecific, they work to dis-locate the reader who likely is unable to, without seeking outside help, connect the coordinates to a known location. We keep asking Where are we? as each set of coordinates arises… [D]escriptions… prevent us from being grounded in a specific understanding that we are in a specific named place. We can only know exactly where we are if we stay in the same place and never move. Instead, to journey forth, echoing René Char: ‘How can we live without the unknown in front of us?’”
Almost by accident, we found this attention to place could also be brought to this chapbook’s distribution: the specificity of the covers’ locations allowed us to match readers with map covers that held personal meaning to them. It felt like giving a gift to a friend, and acknowledging each reader’s (and I mean a specific, not an abstract person) unique locale and personal history.
Also, I just want to say it’s been an honor working with Fact-Simile. I love how they use reclaimed/recycled products for their publishing projects, as a subtle ethical engagement towards material sustainability. Jen and Travis’ impulse is to “poeticize everything”, which you find in their books and curios, from baseball cards to cigarette packs.
AW: That locational aspect of Fact-Simile’s treatment of the chapbook was really remarkable. The cover chosen for my copy was from Texas, my home state, and did engage my re-reading of the series in a new way, in some sense by locating the series within my own past experiences. Your relationship to chapbooks and publishing is not just as a writer. You have also published books and chapbooks as one of the Livestock Editions collective, which last summer started publishing an online edition of the journal Summer Stock. I’d like to hear more about this ongoing publishing project.
AKP: Jared Hayes and I started Livestock in 2006. Starting a small press seemed like the natural progression of our poetry kinship. We’d just graduated with MFAs from Naropa’s Kerouac School, still living in Boulder. We envisioned producing a little handmade magazine that was quick, dirty, tactile. Hot Whiskey Press and the House Press collective were contemporary influences. We talked a lot about poetry, community and small press poetries mimeo revolution of the ‘60s/NY School while living together. I recently asked Jared about this period of our lives, and he responded:
what a place and moment…and so feel that those small press [conversations] were really as much about what we didn’t yet know about those magazines…they were our occult romanticism…these were writers we respected just deciding together to make these journals…we knew how they were mimeographed and distributed and by whom…but we were in the dark as to much of the actual writing inside … this isn’t to say we were ignorant of those writers actual writing… mayer/waldman/ sanders/berrigan…even the locus solus fellas before…we were reading or had read to greater or lesser extent…i was submerged in a deluge of so many of the joys and politics and spirit these authors held…so their early journals were like this huge presence of influence residing in the absence of content…a feeling of being linked to the mythos of lineage through trajectory and lack…
We decided on Summer Stock as a limited run weekly journal to correspond with the Summer Writing Program, where students and faculty are earnestly supportive and eager for creative conversation. We printed and collated issues in our living room on a printer Jared hauled from a dumpster. We formatted the first issue using scissors and tape, which made for a pretty gaudy look with those sensitive black photocopy bleed lines; we learned on the fly. The cover was a brown paper bag stock, with reference to a Ted Berrigan Sonnet: “I think I was thinking / when I was ahead I’d be somewhere like Perry Street / erudite dazzling slim and badly-loved / contemplating my new book of poetry / to be printed in simple type on old brown paper / feminine marvelous and tough” Summer Stock was intended to be local, ephemeral. We published what we liked from who was around; by and for present company.
When I suggested to remake Summer Stock online, my intention was to (re-)create that communal, open spirit of our journal in an organic, digital space; with poets and writers who we find kinship with, in their attention to mindful, social, performative experimental or experiential open (open field, open source, i.e. engaging with outside texts, as history; or conceptual, appropriative, collaborative) literature. But we have no agenda or thoughts of exclusivity, really. Just that we’re offering up our energies to the ever-expanding network of friends and collaborators.
Our chapbooks reflect these poetic attentions: periplum maps our star/less shores by Jennifer Rogers has a playful, surreal projective sensuousness; and .compilate. by j/j hastain wrings possibilities from new sentence-like sensual abstractions. Jared edited and designed these books with elegant minimalism – bright covers, hand-sewn bindings. Perhaps this is what I love about the personality of a chapbook: it’s modest, fragile, and intimate. Somehow, a chapbook is both ephemeral and timeless, more-so than a book, maybe more like a body.
AW: How does your position as a poet affect your approach to publishing? How has publishing affected your approach to writing?
AKP: I think Jared and I both believe writing is entwined with the act of reading; each is a conversation, with history and your local environment. I guess, as an editor, I’ve actually learned a lot reading query letters! I really love hearing writers describe their process. Notes, sources, methods: how a poet thinks about what gets thought, intergives with the page. This all inspires me to continue to become more attuned to my thoughts and physical actions as I conceptualize and my attempts at poetry. Even “no method” is a method, right? Also, it’s a very intimate thing to get into other writers’ Word docs, or words in progress. I feel tremendous responsibility and care in preparing these poets’ words and forms for publication. I want to make sure everything vessels across to the reader exactly how the writer intended; I don’t want editorial format to overshadow content. I think that’s given me a better appreciation for integrated subtleties in form and format.
AW: Let’s return full-circle to get back into your own work. What are you writing right now? I’m curious specifically to hear a bit more about the “physical actions” of your writing. I can’t help but think of Frank O’Hara’s interest in action painting…
AKP: Recently I’ve been thinking about collaborative writing and curation as poethical actions. Elizabeth Guthrie and I are beginning “Notes Toward a Practice Journal”, a collaboration about integrating meditation and poetry practices. I’m also writing an investigative series MAYFLOWER SUTRA that draws on Native American/Pilgrim relations, regional history of my home area, on South Shore of Massachusetts, and expanding that region outward by incorporating symbolism and language from Scandinavian mythology (Poetic Edda), The Diamond Sutra, and dreams of a somewhat forgotten American Surrealist, Pete Winslow.
AW: I remember vividly the first time I read your poems, when we were trading packets or work in Cambridge. Instead of handing me the standard 8.5×11 computer-printed-stapled-top-left-corner packet, you had made me an overflowing chapbook-thing of your poetry, filled with printed material, found material, and Xeroxed material. This remains one of my favorite book-objects. I’d love to hear more about your own relationship with making, printing-that physical relationship with the book-object.
AKP: Thanks, Andrew! I like bookmaking, though I’m not particularly good at it. I don’t have great dexterity so my cuts, holes, and knots are pretty imperfect. But I’m interested in the concept of wabi sabi, so let’s just call it an art of imperfection. From what I can remember, I made you a ‘Selected Poems’, and I experimented with multiple signatures and the side-stitch looks like a clumpy, waxed thread dreadlock. But, it was a joy to make that book for you. I think bookmaking is an exciting and intimate way to pass creative work along.
AW: As this is part of our chapbook special and as a way to conclude the interview, are any chapbooks or chapbook presses that you’ve found particularly interesting lately?
AKP: I’m currently in love with Little Red Leaves. I think they have a wonderful sense of material (in the work they choose to publish, and the physical aspects of their book-making). I like how they integrate and present their web-based content (e-books & journals), and also produce beautifully handmade, sewn chapbooks from recycled fabrics. Two particular favorites from the 2011 LRL Textile Series are Mairéad Byrne’s Lucky and Sarah Mangold’s An Antennae Called the Body.
I also feel such admiration and affinity with Susana Gardner’s Dusie Kollectiv. What attracts me is how Dusie’s annual poetry chapbook collective operates as a communal, free trade economy. The artists write and produce their own chapbooks and mail them to one another. In keeping the number of participants relatively small, the writer/book makers get to imagine and create these wonderfully conceptualized book-art objects. There’s such care and personality to each aspect of production. I think the Dusie project is the guiding post for this holistic production and design; there’s no hard line between poem-writing and object-making with these artists. Form and content are fully integrated, and distributed with a personal sense of locality and human connection. This is such a positive alternative to the current commodification and depersonalization of reading experience brought on by e-reader interface. Handmade, recycled, organic: island-binding.