Forge Interview with Simon Perchik

By Tim McLafferty

Welcome to the third Forge Interview: our series of interviews with makers on making. Conceptually cast as craft interviews, we offer time and space to invited writers, the goal of which is manifold: to get to know the artist better by trying to understand how they make a thing, to better understand the thing itself, and hopefully, to provide a lasting utility.

Our guest is Simon Perchik. Published in little magazines since the 1950s, Simon’s first book, I Counted Only April, appeared in 1964 on the illustrious Elizabeth Press, where he was published by James Weil alongside poets such as William Bronk, Cid Corman, Theodore Enslin, and Frank Samperi. Since that time, Simon has released over 20 volumes of poetry, and continues to write and grow on a daily basis. Our many thanks to Si for his generosity and ongoing support of Forge.

 

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TM: Let’s start with your method

 

SP: I think if I could patent it, or copyright it, I would do that, I could make a fortune—it’s infallible, it works all the time.

 

TM:  I think you’ve solved the problem of subject. Some poets may get a good idea twice a year, but you get a good idea each day.

 

SP: Yeah, but I don’t have an idea when I begin.

Okay, here’s how it works: the method I use is exactly the process that lawyers earn their living with: a client comes to a lawyer and says, I got this problem, and another client will go to another lawyer and say, I got this problem, and the two clients are opposed to each other, they have an issue that they can’t reconcile, they can’t agree on, they don’t know what to do, each one wants their lawyer to resolve this conflict. Okay? That’s exactly what a metaphor does for a living: you take two opposing, contradictory, irreconcilable situations, and you resolve ‘em. And that’s exactly what I do.

So I take a photograph, and I write down what’s in the photograph: “this is a horse; this is a cow; this is this,” and then I read a book on mythology or science, biology, mathematics, whatever I’m reading, (I read The Beginning of Time by Hawking, and I’m probably the only one that ever read that, best seller, but I read it through to see what I could steal); and then I say, what does this thing that I just looked at in the photograph got to do with this concept of time, this concept in biology, and I’m writing these down just as the words I’m saying to you now, and then three of four pages later, it gets a little hook, and maybe ten or twenty pages later, it does have something to do with each other, and in a couple of more pages, it has everything to do with each other. And in a way, that’s exactly what a metaphor does: it takes “a cloud is like a camel” and you get the idea a camel shaped like a cloud, and then you’ll say, well, that’s the job of a metaphor, to use that connection, so the reader sees when they look at a cloud, maybe they’ll see a camel. That’s not a good example, but you get the idea.

A metaphor resolves contradictory issues, and that’s what lawyers do. I make the problem that I resolve. I create a problem by facing what I image in the photograph with the idea that I get from science or mythology, and resolving ‘em. In that process, you get a poem. And you get an idea that you never had before.

It’s best to start with nothing because you start with nothing. Usually if you start with something, it’s a bad idea, because if you came to that something to write about just by thinking about it, it’s usually pretty much been thought about by others, it’s almost certain to be a cliché; whereas if you get a new idea, which is forced out of you by resolving this image with this idea, it’ll be a new image ‘cause there’s nobody thought on those terms on resolving those conflicts. So your chances of not getting a cliché are greater.

Tim, let me tell you, it’s a brutal way of working. Brutal. And even if after 30 or 40 pages of trying to get a resolution here, you can’t, something will ignite. You literally, like when an epileptic has a fit, it’s because the brain is overloaded, the neurons just can’t handle it all, and the brain shuts down. And the guy that has the fit is either gonna kill somebody, or write a symphony; but he has no control over that. But you can force a fit, in a way, by jamming the brain with a photograph and an idea that have nothing to do with each other, and you’re forcing the brain to resolve that, which is very difficult.

 

TM: Let me try to understand: it doesn’t take you more than a couple of pages or a page to describe the photograph.

 

SP: That’s right.

 

TM: And then it doesn’t take very long to get the mythology on a page, right?

 

SP: Not quite. When you read the mythology and you like the idea, then you say, okay, that takes care of the mythology, like a child born from two mothers, now that’s a great idea, how can you have two mothers? That’s wild, I love that. So, you say I got two mothers here, now I have a woman who is a migrant’s wife, let’s take the Walker Evans photograph: a migrant’s wife, no teeth, could have been good looking. Now what has that got to do with being born of two mothers? Now that’s not so obvious there, that may take 60 pages to resolve. And it may not be resolved, but it will, in this jamming of the brain, this brain-storm that you’re creating, shutting down the brain, it may create another idea, or another idea, and another idea, that might connect, in this lightning storm that’s going on in your brain.

 

TM: So, when do you stop looking at the picture?

 

SP: Once I finish writing.

 

TM: So then it’s all in your mind.

 

SP: That’s right, and it’s amazing how the picture stays in your mind.

 

TM: You’re moving away from staring at the image…

 

SP: Correct.

 

TM: …and you’ve got also the mythology in your mind.

 

SP: That’s correct, and I put the book aside.

 

TM: So now you’re going 20 or 30 pages just trying to resolve it.

 

SP: I create a storm in my brain, and out of that storm, the lightning, hopefully, will ignite some concept, say ah, this is it.

 

TM: And when does the verse start? When do you start writing lines of poetry?

 

SP: Well usually that comes pretty much after I crystallize what I’ve got.

 

TM: When you read through your notes, do you think, “I gotta grab that little phrase,” do elements start to pop out of your notes when your read back?

 

SP: That will happen just in the process of writing down what this has to do with that. In that process will come ideas that may have nothing to do with the photograph, or nothing to do with the mythology. The poem may have nothing to do with a child born of two mothers, nothing to do with the migrant’s wife, be something entirely different, but you have a hook. Once you have the hook, then you can take a deep breath.

 

TM: What is the hook?

 

SP: The hook is like when you make yogurt, you gotta have a little culture, something to start it, that would be the hook. The hook, let me give you an example of the one that I wrote today, which I already forgot….

Okay, I was  hoping that this would show some relationship to the photograph and to the text that I use now, which is Science News, it’s a magazine that works very well for me. Science News, it’s a monthly, and it’s little excepts on science, biology, math, each one is perfect for me, and I’m looking at it now [his pages of notes] and I can’t remember what the science was or what the photograph was.

That’s the point. The point is that if you have nothing to write about, which is the best way to go, ‘cause if you have something to write about somebody else has already written about it and it’s bound to be a cliché. So, the best way is to start with nothing in your head: you start with an image, and you look for an idea. The image is in a photograph. If you have a good photograph, to the better. But then you go—you get an idea from science. And then you start the two. In that process, the chances are, most of the times, the image falls away, and the idea falls away, but something comes, something comes of that process of resolving those two contradictory, disparate, irreconcilable issues.

 

TM: Okay, but it’s not easy, right? It takes time. You’re talking about 20 or 40 pages…

 

SP: It’s brutal.

 

TM: It’s not like you wake up and you write a poem.

 

SP: No, you wake up and you’re faced with an image, a picture, and a text, and you struggle.

 

TM: You had told me that it takes you about a week to complete a poem, so, about how many days are you writing notes, do you think, before you start to write your first lines of the poem?

 

SP: Maybe three, four…

 

TM: So you’re patient…

 

SP: …before I get the hook—

 

TM: …you know it’ll come.

 

SP: Oh, that’s the beauty: it always comes. And I’m never sure. It’s insane. It’s like the monsoons: they always come, but you’re never sure. I oughta patent this system. It never fails. The value of this system is that it eliminates clichés: you’re gonna come up with something that nobody else has.

 

TM: And nobody has to write like you…

 

SP: No, they’re not gonna write like me, they’re gonna write like they write.

 

TM: They’re just gonna end up writing.

 

SP: Yeah. The value of doing it this way, it’s like a scientist works the same way: he goes into the lab, and he’s looking for an idea, and he doesn’t know what the result is going to be at the end, he has no idea, but he’s going to test this, he wants to see if mice will run faster if there’s a treadmill or a cage, a circular cage, now, he doesn’t know, and what’s the difference if they run faster? He doesn’t even know the importance of it, but he does this, and then he may find out that maybe there is an importance between whether people walk on a horizontal or walk, maybe rolling along, or some god damned thing that he never thought of before, who would think of walking around, instead of on a bicycle pedaling, going from one place to another inside a, like mice do, on a circular…? So, the trick is to start out with the unknown. If you already know, it’s gonna be garbage. And there’s no excitement for you either, as the writer, ‘cause when you finish, the first thing you ask yourself is, where did that come from?

 

TM: Now you’re 40 pages into the notes, I’m curious where the process goes next. You start to write your poem, right?

 

SP: Yeah, the poem, yeah. Once you got a good hook, that may be the first line, and once you get the first line, the rest will follow.

 

TM: You have a strong sense of rhythm in your work and language, where does that come from?

 

SP: Well it’s same as you, you have a technique, you have a voice, call it voice, so you could ask any writer where it came from, and they’d probably have no idea.

 

TM: You must have an aesthetic though: things that you like to hear. You definitely like it to sound like conversational English, and you don’t go for the big words…

 

SP: Oh yes, I want the vernacular. The vernacular came to me early, it seemed artificial when you were using poetic language, and I didn’t want that, I just wanted to talk to people, and then my material was different than most—most do not write personal poems, most write for the Universe, they want to be looked at as something that’s not involved with the poet or the reader, nothing that concerns somebody else, and I didn’t want that distance, I want to be a conversation between me and the reader without the bullshit. But to do it in a way that’s a little exciting and turns the reader on a little bit by making relationships that they never thought of.

 

TM: Okay. Your poetry is lean and distilled; you’re going from 40 pages of notes to 12 line poems…

 

SP: Well most of those pages are looking for the hook. Once I get the hook, it trims down, the end comes quick. The end comes quick, and with doing this for a while you can learn not to go down the blind alleys, and learn to cut off when you’re going to narrative, ‘cause I make a point not to be too narrative, and let the reader go off on a narrative, let the reader go where they wanna go. So the actual, well, let’s look at this particular one here: this one here was very short. This one here is only 8 pages, and I think it’s finished. It begins: desk and office, two desks, showroom over supply store, clouds held, each in a mirror, window, wallpaper, lamp on one desk (can’t even read my own handwriting), so then it goes on and on, here’s where I left the photograph: no people, just space to be filled by people. Now I go to the Science News: can’t predict that drug effect from mathematics—they were tying to get a survey to find out different drug uses, particular drug using a mathematical formula, and come up with a formula, “since side-effects not treating, know before the drug test,” so mathematics don’t do it, you need a drug-test, and that goes on, then dirt is fertile because of rotting plants, crops, trees, bushes, how will climate affect soil? The soil doesn’t get its nutrition from falling leaves but from roots that gave off nutrition.

Now, there comes something exciting: that the soil is enriched not from the leaves at the top, but from beneath: the roots; so already roots has got something cooking in my brain, soil deeper than one foot on top, oh, the soil that’s for inspection, it doesn’t just go down six inches, soil has nutrients going deeper. And this goes on and on… so now, page 4 [of the notes] starts to take hold. Oh, then the Science News goes into forgetfulness: how people remember things, and some are better at memory than others. And so I read that article, and then I come with an idea: from now there is only one kind of memory. That’s the hook. Out of all that shit, that has nothing to do with office space and office furniture, that fell by the wayside, and now comes up: memory, that’s the hook. Now let’s see if the hook would up in the final poem: this one, it wound up in the final poem. And let’s hope it stays there.

I must tell you that I worked with the photographs in The Family of Man, which has 482 photographs, and I wrote to every one, and that took almost ten years, and out of that 482, there’s only one photograph that survived in the text of a poem; that’s how they disappear, that’s why I’m surprised this stayed, but it’s there now and it might not be there when it’s finished.

The good part of that story of The Family of Man, where none of the photographs survived the text, is that my son knows the widow of the guy who was the photographer who died and the widow invited my son to the memorial and then my son tole me he was going to a memorial for a photographer and he had a photograph in The Family of Man, so I asked what his name was, I can’t even remember his name now, ‘cause I never remembered the names, I didn’t pay attention to them, so I had marked the book Family of Man, one, two, three, four, up to 482 poems, so I went back to The Family of Man, and sure enough, I saw his picture, and it was a photograph of a woman in an insane asylum, lunatic asylum, and she’s sitting on a park bench, and it’s the most scary picture, most powerful picture you can imagine: that’s the only photograph that survived, and the whole poem is about a woman in an insane asylum sitting on a bench. That’s the only one.

I mention all this because, in that process we are talking about, which I hope others will benefit from, that process: don’t expect the photograph to survive, and don’t expect your text, whether it’s mythology or science or whatever, to survive. Just get them to ignite: something will happen. You didn’t have an idea to start, but by using this, going back and forth, you’re doing something, like when you want to start an engine, sometimes you have to prime it with a little gas, or a well with a pump, you have to put some water in the well the get it going: that’s the primer. This process of jamming the brain with two conflicting issues and trying to resolve them, which maybe can’t be resolved, but in that process, something will come out of that.

 

TM: Do you keep a file of all these notes for your poems?

 

SP: Yes, they’re all in the Beinecke library. But I have to say something about Beinecke, so you don’t think I’m important, ‘cause Beinecke houses a lot of important people, but, I got a free-ride: I was published by Jim Weil, who published Elizabeth, and Bronk, and he had a stable of about 20 poets that the Beinecke was interested in, but they were interested in Weil as the publisher of this stable, and the magazine Elizabeth, ‘cause in those days there weren’t that many magazines, this is the early ‘60s, so they asked him for his archive, his papers on his whole venture with the publishing and the magazine called Elizabeth, and so he said, okay, and then get the people that are with it, and so I got a free-ride not because it’s me, but because I was part of Elizabeth Press. So, I just want to make it known that it’s not like they came to me: Perchik, we want your stuff.

 

TM: Well, Weil wasn’t publishing crap.

 

SP: I’d like to think not, he had Bronk and Cid Corman. He should get a medal for dealing with Cid Corman.

 

TM: Lately, like you’ve said, your poems seem to be once sentence…

 

SP: Yeah, well, I like tension.

 

TM: So let’s talk about tension. How do you make tension?

 

SP: You have it in your music. You can’t do without tension. You keep the tension there, you don’t go off on… if you start to tell a narrative, the chances are that you’re going to lose the tension a little bit, so you keep it going where the reader is on hook all the time and never sure where the writer is going and where he’s gonna wind up, and just like you’re thrown into a cement mixer, and you’re never sure you’re gonna come out.

 

TM: And so technically some things you’re doing, like you’re using enjambment, right?

 

SP: Yeah, the enjambment I use, I figure where the line should break, I see some poets breaking the line where it seems stilted, it seems artificial, it’s not a natural pause in the thought and it just breaks, it’s odd, it just doesn’t sit right, and so I try to make it like a breath, like when I’m finished taking [inhales] —gasping a breath, or where I feel it ends in a word that will make the reader want to go to the next word, it’s really like I want to keep the customer happy, interested, and there, and not to bore them to death…

 

TM: You don’t use commas at the ends of lines and when we get to the next line, we’re really not sure if the thought ended at the end of the line or if we’re starting again…

 

SP: That’s alright.

 

TM: … no, it’s great because we don’t really understand and we slow down…

 

SP: And then, as you know, words are like people: they’re all good looking, but some are better looking than others.  It doesn’t hurt to spend a little time thinking about maybe getting a better word where you’re getting near the end of it, when you’re getting near the end.

 

TM: Do you use any reference books?

 

SP: Oh, I’m so glad you mentioned that. In addition to my method being of help to somebody, I have another way of doing things that may help others, including yourself: in my search for using/finding better words, ‘cause when you read, you like to read good words, so in the search of looking for better words you can get an idea if you use a good thesaurus, now some thesauruses, like people and like words, are better than others, and I have a thesaurus, let me give it to you now because this thesaurus is out of print but it may be around on a secondary market.

Okay, as we said, some words are better than others and you try to get a good word that excites the reader, in that process, looking up the thesaurus, you’ll find a word that may make the poem take a 90 degree turn. Because you get an idea. That word also ignites another idea, it may change the whole nature of the poem. The brain, you know, works in a screwy way, so there will be another word and you say, oh, I just thought of something else, ‘cause in the meantime you’re thinking of what you are looking up and your whole poem that you’re looking at, so the thesaurus not only gives you a better word, but it may give you a word that’s different from the word you really want, and that difference is where you want to go. So that word that you see, that doesn’t exactly suit what you are looking for, may be what you want, and take you in another direction that you like better. So it could be a source of inspiration, not just getting a better word.

 

TM: So this thesaurus, it goes everywhere with you?

 

SP: Everywhere.

 

TM: What is it?

 

SP: The Saint Martin’s Roget Thesaurus of English Words and Phrases, New Edition, Completely Revised and Modernized by Robert A. Dutch, OBE, St. Martin’s Press. The book is out of print, so you have to look hard to find it, but don’t take a substitute. Why they don’t keep it in print, I don’t know; it’s a hundred times better than all the others. It’s a great source of ideas because the synonyms that you have, being just a little different, is enough to start you off at an angle, and that’s what you want.

 

TM: So we’re going over tension…
SP: Oh, the tension has something to do with enjambment too: when you break a line, make sure that the reader wants to go to the next line, and make the ending as if they gotta go to the next line.

 

TM: What about the length of your stanzas, is that part of it also?

 

SP: That’s something that I have no reason, I have to go to a psychiatrist to figure. I used to write poems, maybe 20 lines in a row, now I’ve got three line stanzas and I don’t know where that came from, but I’m comfortable with it. I have no conscious explanation of how that developed, but for the last maybe 5 or 10 years, all three lines.

 

TM: You’ve been surrounded by and are very interested in the visual arts—even though the poem is not a painting, it definitely has an appearance on the page.

 

SP: Visual, yes. In fact, I know some very, very good poets who will stretch a line halfway across a page, the next line is four words, but for me, I would like to have it more visual.

But along that line, I am influenced by the abstract painters—Rothko and de Kooning and those guys. There’s a guy named Herman Cherry. I did know de Kooning, but Herman Cherry was a friend, very nice guy, and a good painter, abstract. I always felt that there was more power. I don’t know why I like power, but there’s more power in an abstract painting than in a cow and a barn and a tree, you know, or a portrait, no matter how good the painter is. So, you can stand in front of a Rothko and you can cry, you can do that. There’s, I thought, more power, so that’s why I headed more and more to the abstract. I don’t know if I’m getting away with it, a lot of rejections come in: we don’t understand this, you know, and I felt like writing back: there’s nothing to understand.

 

TM: I think that your poems are very honest. I’ve heard you say in another interview, that your poems have the potential to touch people—you’ve said that you’re lighting up fields of reference.

 

SP: I’m depending on what some guy calls the collectivesubconscious, a universe where my subconscious is the same as yours; and if I’m dealing with my own subconscious, I’m dealing with yours, so that would be the connection. If mine was unique, then I’d be talking to myself. But if I’m talking about my subconscious and it connects with yours, then I’m good because I’m connecting with your subconscious, I’m not lecturing you, I’m not telling you anything, and the guy who’s reading the poems says, you know, I thought about something this writer never thought of, but I thought of it, and so on. And that would make me feel good, that the readers came to the idea all by themselves, so that, if you’re sad, or you have some kind of an emotion, and cannot point to anywhere on the page where that came from, then I did my job. It’s like you’re reading a poem and you start to cry, and there’s nothing on the page that you can point to that you could say makes you sad. If I tell you your mother died and you start to cry, you say why are you crying, and you say, well you just told me my mother died; that makes sense. But if you’re listening to Mahler, or you’re reading somebody else, and you start to cry, that’s spooky.

 

TM: You are in all these poems—they’re very much you. You’ve told me that you have a hard time reading them because of how personal they are.

 

SP: To be honest, I have no doubt that I’m trying to write my way out of my demons. Some people do it different ways—comedians: I have a feeling that comedians are joking their way out, and I would like to feel that the reader has a problem too, and maybe that’s the reason they go to poetry. Like at a funeral: they read Donne, they read a poem by John Donne: no man is an island—they don’t read Dostoyevsky. The poet, he has that power of doing that, and it’s nice to know that people are benefitting from it. You never know because it’s a strange world out there, you never get feedback, it’s like a radio announcer: he’s talking. You don’t get fan letters.

The average person picks up a book of poetry, well, the average person won’t pick up a book of poetry, but if they pick up a book of poetry, they may be already distressed and they are looking to see if maybe that will help them; and usually it does, a good poem will help a person.

 

TM: Off the top of your head, what is a poem?

 

SP: Oh, my definition, I hope it takes hold. I have a definition—poem: words that inform the reader of that which cannot be articulated. That’s just like a modern painting, or music—you cannot articulate what you heard or saw, there’s nothing you can say you saw, just colors, but those colors, like this guy Herman Cherry, he paints in a lot of dark purples, dark blues, and Rothko paints in these oranges and reds, they do something to you that you can’t say what it does, and that’s where the power is.

 

TM: When you first started reading poetry, who were the poets that you feel really influenced you?

 

SP: In college were reading a lot of rhyming and I hung out with the guys that were writing on the literary magazine, and Paul Blackburn was in that group, and he said to me, I still remember, well, you know, you don’t have to rhyme. Okay, and then, I felt liberated, ‘cause then I could talk, and talk in a language that wasn’t prose, but it implied things, you know, I didn’t want to tell things. So everything was allusion and implication, and off somewhere, and let the reader… but I could do it without rhyming. By having the rhyme, the rhyme-scheme was telling me what the hell to write; this way I could do what I want to do. So, Paul Blackburn was a big influence on that beginning.

 

TM: Who do you like to read, who do you still like to read?

 

SP: Neruda, Vincente Aleixandre, and there’s Ingeborg Bachmann, she’s very good, German. I liked Reznikoff—I’ll tell you, if you want to get into heaven, champion Reznikoff. Timothy Corsellis.

 

TM: What about words that you use a lot, like stone?

 

SP: I’m conscious of the word stone, but I’m very comfortable with stone, and I stay with that, I don’t care. I dropped hands, I don’t use hands so much. Wood, wood and rot. I’m the junkyard poet, I like whatever’s broken, rusted, rotted, decaying—that’s my territory.

 

TM: How about the way you use the word you? The word slides back and forth in your poetry, I don’t know if you mean you, the writer, you, the reader, or all of us…

 

SP: Good question, because I don’t know. That you sometimes is me, and sometimes it’s the reader, and sometimes it’s a third person in the same poem. It’s weird—it shifts. So I really don’t know who the you is most of the time. But again, I’m comfortable with the you. I originally used I, and that seemed a little pretentious so I dropped that.

 

TM: It’s hard for me to use we in a poem because I don’t feel like I’m an authority on anyone else, but Bronk, he uses we all the time, and it feels great—it’s absolutely perfect.

 

SP: Well that’s exactly how to look at it: if you don’t feel comfortable with it, you drop it; and if you do feel comfortable with it, what do you care who cares? You stay with it. Like the word stone, every time I show new poems to Ed Butscher he says, what are you doing with so many stones? Get rid of the stones! I say, I’m comfortable with it, that’s it.

The poem that was in The New Yorker was also about a stone, I forget what the image was for that, but I remember the science that was involved: in that book on science that I was reading, it said that a stone emits radiation—any stone emits radiation—and then the thought occurred to me as I was writing all this down that radiation is a form of defense, it’s like a snake has a venom, a plant has a toxic thing, and people have defenses, and even a stone has a defense, so something as old a stone still wants to live, and that was the concept for the poem. That took hold in the beginning and then God knows what the hell the rest of the poem went, but those are the ideas that come, and stone is great—to me it has a lot of aspects to it: you can make it human, you can do a lot with stone.

A lot of things like stanza length are unconscious. In the craft, when I use craft, I use it mostly to get better words, or in looking for better words to get newer ideas, but I don’t have an idea of structure in that sense—like the three lines that I’m using now: that’s not planned, it worked out that way and I don’t even know how.

Trust me, a lot of this is subconscious, and it’s not like I’m a zombie or anything like that, I’m aware of the words and everything like that, but the phrasing, the locutions, a lot of this comes subconsciously, and when it comes, if I like it, it stays, if I don’t like it, it goes. But I don’t dwell on this and that and the other thing; one of the advantages of writing as much as I do is that I forget immediately what I do.

 

TM: Let’s talk about the way you use a colon immediately in front of a word: I’ve heard it said that it’s your way of telling the reader that a metaphor is coming. A poem from your recent book, Almost Rain, reads:

 

*

In those four corners formed

by the wailing and the dead

—we are turned to each other

 

to the grief in a stone

unable to tell one hand from another

—I stroke your name to reshape

 

the gray light boxing in

—all four seasons calling out forever

for decay :your name now face to face

 

with weeds that know only Fall

only those nights that will mourn

at right angles to the world

 

and all that’s left from the sun

is this headstone, everywhere

and the long way home.

 

SP: The displaced colon is like flying the flag upside down, it’s telling people there’s something there, just stop a minute, and I don’t want to say that decay is your name that’s following. I don’t want to say there’s a relationship between decay and your name, like all things are transient and nothing lasts: that’s prose; and the metaphor, by definition, is a prose statement. If I say that your name will not last forever, that’s a statement, that’s a prose statement, I’m telling you that your name won’t last forever. But if I put your name next to decay, I let the reader say, you know, maybe my name won’t last forever, and the reader will think of that instead of being told that your name will not last forever. It could be the next word after the colon, or a little further down, but just be aware that there’s a relationship between decay and what follows.

And this eliminates the prose statement that a metaphor does, a metaphor is all prose, so you stay in the poetic idiom, you don’t have to tell the reader anything, don’t tell ‘em nothing, let the reader figure it out, him or herself. And, they may not come to what you think they would, but that’s alright too, what’s wrong with that?

 

TM: When you write a line, do you try to sound it out? Do you look at a line and say it’s saying what I want, but I think it could be better?

 

SP: Well, usually I get to a point where I think it’s the best I can do, if I say it could be better, then I just stay with it and try to make it better. There comes a time when I feel it’s not economical anymore to deal with this, and everything can be improved, Beethoven’s 9th can probably be improved, but there’s a point where there’s economics involved: you’re not gonna spend your lifetime on one poem, you got your concept, you did the best you could, that’s it. Once you feel that you’re done with it, that’s the end of it, but before you say you’re done with it, you make a real effort to get the best for it, to get what you want—then you say it’s done.

 

TM: Is it a kind of music to you?

 

SP: Yeah, I like the sounds.

 

TM: Do you ever look and say, that doesn’t sound right, I have to find a way to make it sound better?
SP: All the time. All the time. Yes, and whether you say it or you hear it, the sound is going in your head somewhere, and so when you use a word, you know what that sounds like, like I mentioned Beethoven: he’s deaf but he knows what it sounds like, you don’t have to have ears to know what a word sounds like.

 

TM: So you’re not just making artifacts on paper, you want them to exist as sound.

 

SP: Yeah, of course. Well, music. You want the reader to feel good about reading this stuff. Otherwise it’s dry prose, you know—you want it very exciting, that’s why you want good words, ‘cause they usually sound better. When I say, look for a better word, usually the word sounds better too. But don’t let the people that are reading this interview go away with the idea that this is the way they have to write. Everybody has their own way of doing things, and just take this with one of the many and then go your own way. Like with any teacher you have, you listen and you think maybe they’re right, maybe they’re not, and you listen, and then you go on and get maybe another teacher, or get another view, and another view, and another view, and then come up with your own view. So you never follow anybody’s advice, but one thing I’m sure of is the way to write a poem that always works, and if you have no idea, and you have the need to write a poem, you know, I can understand because I often have the need to write a poem, and if you have the need and have no idea, my way is gospel, I’m telling you it works. It’s brutal, but it’s worth it.

I don’t know how this will come out when people read it, they may get the impression that one word follows another, and I know what I’m talking about, but I have a lot of doubts. I’m not that sure, except for my system, I’m not that sure that I’m doing it the right way: that you can go and trust the reader’s subconscious that much—I’m not that sure of that, but it’s the only way I know.

I just want people to know that when they listen to what I’m saying that I’m not that sure that I know what I’m talking about. It’s not modesty, it’s part of my legal training: I don’t want to mislead anybody.

The poet’s job is to make the reader feel better, like to heal, it’s your duty that when you finish a poem, the reader should feel strengthened, enriched, somehow changed. If you’re just writing, you feel bad, and you feel this, without making the connection with the reader, then you haven’t done your job. It’s not only not a good poem, but the job wasn’t done. The poem has to do to the reader something that makes them feel better, or stronger, or somehow able to survive a little better: something to help. The reader has to really be involved in this, and when you’re writing, you would seem to say, to ask the reader to join in this venture that you’re into, and be a part of it.

When you write, have the reader join you to find a way out. It’s almost as if you’re writing, and maybe even subconsciously asking the reader to help you find your way out. And the reader is now some abstract entity that’s not even in your room, there’s no such thing as a reader ‘cause you don’t even know if there will be a reader, but you’re writing to a reader that you expect, and so you may be looking for help not only in the process of writing your poem, so you can get out and get rid of your demons, you’re asking the reader to join you, and suck in the reader, to help you get out, and so maybe that’s the you we’re talking about: it’s the reader that you want to be part of this thing, that you can’t make it alone, and you have to bring in the reader. It’s not an entertainment that they’re involved with, it’s not something that’s a toy—it’s something that they need a help with, and that they need to be part of this process for both of you to get out.

Like the mourning at a funeral, these rituals, maybe the reading of the poem is a ritual, just like there’s rituals to help people get through it, like the burial, so maybe reading a poem is one of those rituals that helps you, helps the reader. The writing of the poem, obviously is for the benefit of the writer, that’s obvious. The reader may find in that moment of reading the poem, a temporary release, enough to get out and go on with their life. The writer will never get out, that’s why he’s writing.

 

*Almost Rain, Simon Perchik, River Otter: St Paul, MN 2013


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