Interview with Poet Simon Perchik
by Steve Parker
TCR: Hi, Simon. Thanks for doing the Triggerfish interview. You’ve said a few times over the years that you use pictures “in the worst sense of the word.” I’m very interested in your process of using pictures as starting places for poetry; could you elaborate on that a little? What makes it the “worst” sense?
SP: Steve, I confront the photograph with a contradictory image or idea and then resolve that conflict. In the process the photographic image is lost and most likely the idea or image first used to resolve the difference is also lost. I detail the process more fully in my essay Magic, Illusion and Other Realities ( www. simonperchik .com ) but basically it’s the confrontation of conflicting images or ideas that ignites something new and that something new becomes the foundation for the poem where nothing of the photograph can be found.
TCR: I like that idea rather a lot, Simon, and it does sound magical, as you allude to in your essay/. It reminds me of those physicists at the ‘Large Hadron Collider’ smashing particles into each other to see if any previously undetected particles might be created by the collision. I don’t think I’ve met a poet with such a clearly defined method before.
‘The D Poems’ must have been a pretty big project, obviously: 183 poems catalysed (is that the right word?) by a series of photographs. Can I ask do you actively set out looking for inspirational pictures, or do you come across them serendipitously and decide to work with them/from them?
In a sense it sounds like there is quite a strong element of chance at the beginning of your process, whereby you create this clash of disparate ideas/images/texts and then see what occurs. It almost sounds rather shamanistic or divinatory, and as you say, magical, in whatever way we define that. But you also clearly identify with the idea of this as a scientific process, as you mention in your depiction of the cafe (where you write) as a laboratory. Do you identify more with the scientific or the magical elements of your poetic process, or is that an unnecessary distinction?
SP: I don’t like inspirational pictures. If a photo inspires me I usually know where the poem will go. Of course it’s easier that way but the better poems come when I have no preconceived idea in my head. But once I choose a book of photographs I write to one after the other till I finish the book. Did that for Family of Man, a book of 482 photographs published by the Museum of Modern Art. All great photos.With reference to favoring the photo over the science or myth I don’t favor one or the other. I try to resolve the conflict and it is that process that bring forth the poem and usually, most always, both the originating photo and originating science or myth falls off the page never to be seen again as their offspring takes shape. Hope I answered your question. If not, let me know and I’ll try again.
TCR: Can you say a bit more about what you mean by the word ‘magic’ in this context? Your poetry seems to be full of startling events and tangents, and it does sound like a magical process, but I’m interested to know how you’d define that. And can I also ask why you’ve decided not to use titles?
SP: What I mean when I say magic is “unexpected” “coming from nowhere” Such a goal helps eliminate any narrative. With reference to the asterisk as a title: From year one I never titled the poems. Not even an asterisk. I latched on to the asterisk when I saw an Italian poet use it. Thought that was neat. So I stole it. The reason I don’t title the poems is that each earns its living in the subconscious and as such, has many facets, often conflicting. A title might draw the reader’s attention toward one facet to the detriment of the others. Why not let the reader have free range?
TCR: Interesting about eliminating any narrative. My take on it, from reading your poems, is that I tend to feel that there are flashes of discontinued narrative surfacing everywhere like bursts of radio static. I really like the effect actually, and I try to attempt something like it some of the time. It does feel like magic, as though one is somehow picking up on these broken bits and pieces of voices. This may be impossible to answer really, but where do you think they come from?
And would you connect it at all to things like automatic writing, which people like Yeats or the Surrealists used to use? I’m also thinking of Burroughs’s ‘cut up’ technique. Would you say these are ways of producing similar effects?
Not using titles obviously has a pretty long history, although it’s still very rare, of course. Do you think there’s a possibility, though, as with Shakespeare’s numbered sonnets, or with e.e. cummings’s untitled poems, that readers might just end up using the first lines as titles? This happens in collections of cummings’s work, where editors have listed the first lines as titles on the contents pages.
SP: Steve, the bits and pieces come from how we dream. Dreams seem to me to be the subconscious’s attempt to tell a narrative and Freud notwithstanding, they leave a lot for the dreamer to deal with. Which is exactly what poetry does. I don’t deal in automatic writing. I need the control and if I do it right, the words will light up the fields of reference I want considered. All this without the reader being told to make the connections. The word is out there to be taken up or by-passed. Hopefully, gotten the next time around. And yes, titles help, as long as they don’t lock out the reader from other possibilities.
TCR: How did you start out, Simon? A lot of people seem to start out writing with first person narratives about who they are and how unfair the world is, or something like that. Did you go through a stage like that? And connected to that, who would you say influenced you along the way?
SP: Steve, I started writing poems in grade school. The teacher had the entire class write and read poetry. I never left it. Yes, my poetry has always been personal, still is. I was influenced by Baudelaire. Never did like “poetic language” and he encouraged me to write in the vernacular.
TCR: Simon, can I ask what you mean by “poetic language?” I take it that Baudelaire didn’t use the sort of poetic language that you don’t like. Could you give us an idea what the difference is in your estimation?
SP: Steve, A good comparison would be between the language in Gray’s “Elegy Written in a Country Churchyard” and that in William Carlos William’s poetry. One is studied, the other is in the vernacular, almost conversational. I feel emotion rather than awe is crucial that craft can taint the honesty needed to evoke emotions. Just one view.
TCR: They are two hundred years apart, though. I wonder if Thomas Gray felt like he was on the cutting edge two hundred years before William Carlos Williams. Maybe he felt funky and conversational and avant garde back then. Can we really compare those two guys?
I’m wondering what made the difference and what first moved things forward into the conversational place that you’re talking about. Was it Whitman? I know he was a big Blake-style prophet sort of guy, but in some ways he was conversational. He tried to engage the reader and involve himself as a human, rather than just doing a Thomas Gray thing of engaging through form and tradition.
Talking about Whitman, he seemed to have a very clear and huge mission about poetry. I think he almost wanted canonizing. Do you think there is a clear mission any more with poetry? What is it for?
Listening to an earlier interview, I get that you do most of your writing in a coffee house in New Jersey. Is that still the case? Are you a fixture there then, working away at pages?
SP: Steve, you have a point .Gray may have felt he was far removed from his contemporaries. And yes, Whitman led into Williams. And all were striving to evoke emotions in the reader. As for me I try to evoke that emotion by presenting the reader with fields of reference that, if I do it right, will light up inside without he or she knowing why or what is was that was lit. As you already know I abhor narrative. And yet I love to read Gray and Whitman.
Now. With your reference to “a clear mission ” you ask a profound question. I know I write poetry not as any “clear mission” but as a way of trying to work myself out. A rather selfish motive. I’m not on any mission and frankly, any poet who is has his or her work cut out. What is it for? Maybe, if the reader can work his or her way out, maybe that’s enough. Maybe that’s all poetry is supposed to do: help you find a way out.
And yes, I write in coffee shops. It’s a lonely business and I need the commotion around me. I also write at the local YMCA. Those treadmills are great to hear.
TCR: Do you think that commotion gets into your poems then? I wonder if we try hard can we hear a bit of the steam and hubbub of the coffee shop in your poems… Do you think that maybe someone who once walked into the coffee shop ended up featuring in a poem? They definitely would in mine, just as a random event or something.
The ‘Young Men’s Christian Association’ too? I suppose I should ask about that. Do you have religious beliefs?
And can we truly get away from narrative? Isn’t there always some narrative of oneself pushing through in some way, no matter how much we try to avoid it?
SP: Steve, I can never be sure but I doubt if anyone I see in the coffee shops ever ends up in a poem. The YMCA I go to, like all I’ve ever visited, is low-keyed, if at all, about religion. No, religion doesn’t enter my work because I’m not religious. I’m Jewish but go to a temple only for cultural events which they sometimes have. With regard to getting away from narrative, yes, there’s always some. But it can be broken up so that the reader is made to consider other options. That’s what I like about Rothko and the other abstract artists..There’s nothing in the painting that exists in the real world. And the brain, in the effort to make sense of it, jams. It’s when the brain jams that new insights are possible. In my poetry I try to achieve the same effect the abstract painters strive for. In short, narrative is the easier, though not the most effective, way, to talk .I like to think of abstract painting being what the artist’s unconscious is saying to the viewer’s unconscious. And that, Steve, is my goal too. If paint can do it, why not ink?
TCR: Simon, how do you like to spend your days when you’re not writing?
And given the photography connection, do you do that yourself?
And do you remember a moment in your life when you first thought you wanted to write poetry? Was that because of reading someone else?
SP: Steve, First question is easy. I’m retired so spend my days writing. And reading. With regard to the photos I use photos from others. Frankly, I never had a camera. I don’t think there was a moment in my life when I decided to write poetry. Seems I always did, starting in grade school when the teachers asked the class to write a poem. We also had to read the poets but I don’t think that was a factor on how I ended up writing, writing, writing.
TCR: Here’s a bit of a curveball question then: what would you ask yourself in an interview?
SP: The question I would ask is, “Why do you write? It’s a question I’ve been struggling with from year one and still don’t have a clue. The best answer I can come up with is, Fear. Once I figure out what it is I’m afraid of I assume I can stop writing every day, 6, 7 day weeks, year in, year out, 2 to 4 hours every day. Seems my life depends on it. Fear of death? Hey, death wouldn’t be so bad. I could use the rest.
TCR: I guess we all have to live, and I guess we all try to explain ourselves to ourselves… Another weird question maybe: do you have favourite moments in your poems? Do you look back and think like, yeah, that was a good line, or something like that, or do you just move on? Do you feel like your poetry has landmarks even without titles or narrative?
SP: Steve, my favorite moment is when I decide the poem is done. It’s such a relief. Which may explain why I never look back. I even hate to proof the poem, want no part of it once it’s done. I don’t think in terms of good lines or locutions though I do strive to make the poem work as a whole. In the final sweep, when I think a poem might be done, I ask myself it each word carries its weight and if I doubt it does I look for another word. That search often leads to structural changes to the entire poem since the new word may suggest another facet and I want to work it in. Or the deletion itself changes the tone and I have to decide if that’s to the better. No wonder I’m tired.
TCR: I guess this feeds back into your suggestion about asking why do you write… What do you think poetry is for? Why does anyone do it? Does it have any purpose? I guess that’s a big question to ask about ‘poetry’ in general, as it covers everything from people who think they have a big message for the world to people who just want to play with words… I suppose in a way I’m asking where you see yourself on that spectrum. I could equally ask it of myself, obviously. What am I doing this for? What’s the purpose? Any thoughts on all that?
SP: Steve, please forgive my not getting back sooner. Lots of company. I live in a resort town and I become popular for a few weeks. Anyway, I have found some time. Maybe not the answer to your question but I’ll give it a try. I think poetry is for those who need to be consoled. Of course there is verse that deals with other issues but at a burial only John Donne can get the job done. (I couldn’t resist that pun. I see myself at the end of the spectrum that seeks to heal the wounded, not dazzle with poetic language or words that rhyme just to rhyme. Why we do this? Well, maybe we should look at ourselves the way faith healers do: we heal. Why else would we do it?
TCR: I was wondering do your poems feel at all rooted in moments or events in your life, or do they seem to be completely abstracted? From what you’ve been saying, it sounds like the latter, but I assume that your life must be seeping through, even if you take pains to avoid any narrative. Do you think someone who knew you really well could recognise pieces of buried/fractured narrative about you in your poems?
I sometimes think that if we write directly about ourselves in narratives, we can end up being very dishonest, so I’m wondering if attempting to avoid all narrative of oneself actually produces greater honesty, and if ‘the self’ is still in there. I assume it must be, and I think these questions feed into each other. What are your thoughts about all of this?
SP: Steve, Whew! Nice questions. First, the poems wind up rooted in events that affected my life. Aerial images and things breaking apart are all from my stint (in England yet) with the army as a pilot. But they start out by my trying to make two conflicting ideas or images into one. Once I get the “hook” so to speak I flesh it out with the personal. The abstraction comes in the final stages of writing the poem. Once I know where the poem is going I let my subconscious talk to the reader’s subconscious which is what abstraction is all about.
Much the same as Rothko has his subconscious talk to the viewer’s subconscious. Seems to me that’s where the power is. Lots of risk but if it works it works very well because the reader has no idea why he or she feels the way they do. A narrative (the tree, the cow, the barn) in a painting is very nice but it has no power. The power to move the viewer/reader without he or she knowing what it was that caused them to be moved. In short, narrative, both in painting and in poetry, can’t do the job. Not sure I answered you fully, let me know your thoughts. Si.
TCR: This is interesting then, Si. ‘Narrative’ is a big word that we all throw around, and it means a few different things. It can be our way of explaining ourselves to ourselves, or even a way for a society to chart it’s own history and its mythology of itself, or I suppose it can just be a way of documenting a series of events in a timeline. I’m sort of wondering if this exists in our perceptions of real life, or if really we are just bombarded by sense impressions all the time and in fact we’re not really following this linear path that we think of as narrative. Whatever it means ultimately, narrative has something to do with sequences and storytelling, but I wonder if that always only exists after the fact. Is there such a thing as narrative in real time, do you think, as we live and experience ourselves living, or does it always have to come later? Are you living through a narrative right now, or does it always involve looking back? And is your poetry an attempt to live in the present and not be retroactive in the sense that narrative, presumably, has to be? Does that make sense?
SP: Steve, I’m not sure I do that much thinking about what I do and where it all fits in. The only thing I’m sure I want to do is separate the literary forms so that there is a difference between poetry and prose. Narrative is crucial to prose but unhelpful to poetry. Since poetry says more than it says it says it is up to the reader understand the missing part. Like when a poet writes about a miner in an iron mine hearing a chime each time the axe falls against the ore. The bell hasn’t been forged in the foundry yet but still he hears it. He becomes the foundry and fashions the axe into the clapper. Of course, the way I just now laid it out is prose. But a poet, just by placing the word “iron” somewhere close to the word “mine” somewhere close to the word “axe” and somewhere near “chime” should be the words that the reader can make the connection to “bell”. Not sure it all the poet’s subconscious talking to the reader’s subconscious (as an abstract painting talking to the viewer’s subconscious) but poetry must inform by suggestion not reportage. Narrative is a tricky word so maybe we should define poetry as words that inform what cannot be articulated, and define prose as words that articulate all what the writer has to say. Whew! Truth be told, I don’t think that much about what I do. But it seems the way to go.
TCR: Simon, thanks very much for the interview. I hope we get to see a HUGE collected edition of the Simon Perchik poems one of these days! Thank you.