Forge Interview with Simon Perchik

By Tim McLafferty

Welcome to the 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.

In 1964, James L. Weil’s Elizabeth Press published Simon Perchik’s first book, I Counted Only April. I Counted Only April revealed a poet already breaking from narrative, yet determined to keep his voice intact. Today, Perchik’s ongoing commitment to his art offers us more than five decades of work with which to chart his progress and success in abstracting language while remaining true to his vernacular. James L. Weil, a fine poet himself, who was also the primary publisher of William Bronk, Cid Corman, and many others, dedicated his 1973 anthology My Music Bent to Simon Perchik and the poet Gena Ford, calling them both “my music.”

We remain thankful for Simon Perchik’s many contributions to Forge. This is our second conversation with Si; for more on his concepts and methods, please see his previous interview in Forge 8.2, Summer 2014. Past Forge Interviews have featured Edward Butscher, Alison Stone, Simon Perchik, Mark Belair, and Jeanine Stevens.




TM: We don’t have much of an agenda this time. Let’s start with the difference between narrative poetry and the sort of poetry that you write.


SP: Rightfully or wrongfully, I feel that poetry is different from prose: prose is a narrative, but if you can evoke an emotion through the words without a narrative, by just using phrases or bits of phrases that light up fields of reference for the reader or the listener, then that’s more powerful, because then the reader is moved but they don’t know why. I think that’s where the power comes in.

With prose or a narrative, you’re pretty much telling the reader why they should feel the way they do—you’re telling a little story that’s a little tragic or a little sad, and so the reader feels sad—that’s really lapping it to them, but if you have a situation where you feel sad, and there’s nothing on the page that you can point to that you can say that made you sad, that’s dynamite, that’s spooky. So that’s how I feel, the problem is that doing it that way is a big risk because sometimes, if you’re not doing it right, not connecting with the reader, they may consider it gibberish, you know, that none of it makes sense, and why am I bothering with it?


TM: Well, that might be because many people who read only narrative free verse can’t slow down enough to read another sort of poem.


SP: In that sense, it may be the way the reader was educated from grade school on. In grade school, the teacher gives you a poem and it rhymes, you know, and you listen to what the teacher says, so if she says a poem rhymes, you want a poem to rhyme, and if it doesn’t rhyme it’s not a poem.


TM: Sure, but contemporary poems hardly ever rhyme.


SP: Right, so in the same way, if your teacher now says it doesn’t have to rhyme, but it should be blank verse, or it should have an iambic beat to it, or it should have a story to it, or a moral, or whatever, that’s what you’re gonna grow up with because your teacher says so. So, if the teachers are teaching the kids today, who are going to grow up and read the literature that everybody is writing, if they are gonna follow what their teacher says, they’re gonna want to be told something, and if they’re not told something, they’re lost.

If the teachers say, look, there’s another way of handling this art form, though it’s not pigment, it’s not paint, it’s not an abstract painting, it’s not music so it’s not sounds—it’s words, and words are supposed to have meaning, but not what all the time you think what words are supposed to mean: words can mean other things, and not necessarily proper grammar, and if you have an open mind when you read words, you may look at them differently and say I don’t have to be told something, maybe they’re there in a way that will cause me to think of something that the writer, author, didn’t think of, but all of the sudden I feel sad or angry or whatever emotion I feel, I didn’t feel it because somebody told me to feel it, but at the same time, I didn’t have that feeling before I read those words.

How you present that to the kids that are growing up in third grade, fourth grade, when they are starting to read poetry, I don’t know.


TM: I don’t know, but we can present it to the people who are writing poetry now, who have come to it late, have decided that they want to write a poem, but they’re really still writing prose with line breaks.


SP: Right. Well, that, like you and I discussed before, Tim, the solution to that is these guys have to read, have to read everything.


TM: What’d you say once? For every poem you write, you should read how many?


SP: A hundred, at least, of the good guys; and while you read: steal. That’s the main thing—don’t forget to steal.


TM: Who are some of the good guys?


SP: The good guys? Neruda, of course. Vincente Aleixandre, Ingeborg Bachmann: she’s very, very good, and the other German, Karl Krolow, very good. Reznikoff, I don’t know why Reznikoff isn’t more read, I don’t know.


TM: Let’s talk about Reznikoff: there’s a guy who can write a narrative poem, but it works as poetry. Why do you think it works for him?


SP: Reznikoff has what I would call a Yiddishkeit, a basic human story, he’s more in what I’m not doing, but he does it so well that I can’t fault it. He’ll have a guy walking into an elevator and you’ll be stunned, he has a way of presenting very human incidences.


TM: And he has a voice.


SP: Yeah, and he does it very, very well—beautiful, beautiful, yeah, very human. Everything is basic; he’s not talking about the cow jumping over the moon or something that has nothing to do with anything.


TM: And he doesn’t end up with a moral.
SP: No, no, he just tells a story.


TM: And leaves it.


SP: And you can figure it out and get it. I wish somebody would champion him.


TM: Voice isn’t just your story-teller voice, I think you have to bring a very genuine personality to the page.


SP: Right, and that genuineness is apparent to the reader, the reader can tell whether the writer, the poet, is sincere, and is himself moved and cares himself. If you get the feeling that the writer is just writing to write, then you say, well this is nonsense. You have to have the reader feel that that poem had to be written by that guy, and if you feel that this guy, man or woman, this poet, is in trouble: that’s good, and that’s part of getting the job done.

If you, the writer, can convey that the reason this poem was written is because this guy who’s writing it is drowning, and wants the world to know he’s drowning—and so you’re looking in, and of course you’ve had the same experience this guy has had—you may not have the skill to articulate it the way he’s doing it on his page, but you can indentify with this poet—if the poet bares his self to the reader, it seems to me that’s the only way to go, it’s the only honest way to do it.

You bare yourself, and you say, I don’t worry about being ashamed of myself, I’m laying it all out because I know you, as the reader, have gone through the same thing I have, and maybe I, though my skill that I picked up over a while, after the years, or it’s natural talent, or whatever it is, I can say it differently than you could.

It’s like a guy writes a love note—a teenager doesn’t have the emotional strength, the maturity, to go up to a young 14 year old girl and say I love you, he can’t do that, so he writes a note, and by writing a note, he hands it to the little girl, and that’s the best he can do, and so, in a way, the poet does something on that level: he’s writing these notes for these readers who don’t have the emotional strength to deal with their own problems, so that’s the whole business of love notes, you don’t do it, you just can’t do it, and if somebody can do it for you, instead of writing a love note, you send a poem, or you send a card that somebody else wrote, because you don’t have the strength to write it.


TM: I see you in all your poems, but you’re not saying I did this, and this happened to me.


SP: However you work that, but the question of a good poet would be the honesty. You have to be willing to, the poet, him or herself, has to be willing to be honest in laying down those words. You say, this is what I’m going through, and if you can use these words to help yourself, they’re yours. That type of thing. If you’re not honest, and you’re just writing for the skill of it, it won’t hold up.


TM: There is gonna be some honesty that’s awkward.


SP: When I say honest, I don’t mean you have to talk about going to the bathroom, and this and that, or your problems, but honest in the sense that you’re not just throwing out the words and being slick about how you’re presenting your ideas, that’s all. You can sense that in the good poets, that these guys are not doing a little dance around the page, they’re laying it out as they see it and they’re moved, and the reader has to feel that if the writer isn’t moved, isn’t excited about this, why should I be?


TM: But if a poet is technically good, you can’t take it away from him that he’s technically good and honest, like Auden.


SP: Okay, well if you’re technically good, then you should be able to fake the honesty.


TM: But he doesn’t have to fake it.


SP: Okay, but the reader has to feel that this guy isn’t faking it. Like an actor.


TM: If we had to classify your work as a sort of verse, we’d have to say free-verse, but we know there’s nothing free about it. If we took a very common free-verse narrative poem, took away the line breaks, and set it up like a paragraph, we’d end up with a paragraph in prose. But if we did that with one of your poems, that wouldn’t happen.


SP: Right, okay, well that’s a good test to see if the poem is not just a recitation, and I did that one time with an awful poem that I saw in a magazine. I typed it up in a paragraph form, and I mailed it to the editor. It was awful. It was lousy prose. I’m just saying, you can’t, they try to get away with a lot of white margin on the sides and think it’s a poem, and the people who read it think it’s a poem ‘cause there’s two wide margins on the sides.


TM: You can read the people who are famous for doing that and you’re gonna eventually say, okay, I could do that.


SP: Okay, but it’s more that that. You have to say more that what you say. If you say, like I think I’ve used this example before: if you’re in a funeral parlor in the middle of August, and you say to the guy next to you, it’s cold outside, you’re not giving him a weather report, you’re saying more that what you just said, you’re saying we’re all gonna go someday, death is near; and so, poetry has to do that, has to say more that what it says.

It’s not easy, sometimes I think it’s all luck if you get it right, but the problem, I think, is that, why most people want the poem to rhyme, and most people want the poem to tell a story, is ‘cause that’s the poems that they were taught in school, and they’re not being taught in school that there are guys like Celan.


TM: You mean in grammar school?


SP: Yeah, in grammar school, that’s where they get it. Every poet, I’m sure, had a teacher in grammar school that encouraged them.


TM: I’m talking more about people who are writing and submitting poems now.


SP: The answer to that is, no question, you have to send me the 100 poets you just read between this submission and your next one. It’s another reeducation, and they didn’t get it when they were 12, they got to get it now. They got to see what’s out there. You get a guy like Baudelaire, I still remember the opening line: Listen to me, do you hear?, and it blew me away, I said, who talks like that? Very strong poem. It’s so different from what I was taught. In fact, I was writing the rhyming shit all this time and submitting them to the college journals, and then one guys says, you know, it doesn’t have to rhyme, and I said what?


TM: Who was that, Blackburn?


SP: Yeah, and I said, I never heard of such a thing… that it didn’t have to rhyme—and then it freed me up.


TM: When do you know a poem is finished?


SP: I don’t let it go until I’m sick of it. I don’t know if maul is accurate, but I think I maul the poem. I beat it up a little, to shape it—everything has to have shape, I take here, add there, I move it around, until I find out that that’s what it is and it’s over. It’s like when a parent knows that a teenager is ready to leave the house. You get tired of it. And then there’s a point where it’s economically unwarranted to spend more time on that poem, it could be improved, but it’s good as far as I’m concerned, and out it goes.


TM: …and you will get up at 2:00 in the morning to change a line.


SP: I do that, I still do that. I got up the other day to change a word, and the word was what I wanted— I thought I had done a different word, I says, no, I want that word, and I went up there, and the word I thought I was going to change it to was already there. I felt better and I went back to bed. Yeah, I do that, often.


TM: We’ve talked before and you’ve said that you would like to see more people stop writing narrative.


SP: Yeah, but everybody can do their own thing, there’s room in poetry, the definition that I devised, let people write according to that definition, and that definition is: words that inform the reader of what cannot be articulated. Now if you accept that definition along with all the others, people can write to all the definitions— let people also write to my definition and see what happens.


TM: Even though your definition is very condensed, it can lead to a very long list of what’s not a poem.


SP: You’re right. Right. It’s a big risk, because if it doesn’t work, it could very easily be called gibberish or nonsense, because it doesn’t have a logical beginning and ending and so forth. But you can frame it, like a dream. A dream has bits of reality, it’s all pieces and shards of reality—so when you wake up you think the dream was real, and that you really did this in the dream—but it’s all pieces, and it gives that illusion that the dream told you something, or you saw something in a dream, or watched something in a dream. Freud notwithstanding, I have a feeling dreams don’t mean shit, but they give you images, but pieces, and why can’t poetry do that?

And just as you wake up and have a locomotive going through the living room, and you wake up and say, what the hell, a locomotive in my dream? And then you write about a locomotive going through a living room and somehow, in a locution, or a form, it fits in a little bit. So it can be pieces of reality. That’s what I feel dreams are: pieces of reality, and if you write according to my definition, it’ll wind up as pieces of reality, and it’s those pieces that could ignite in the reader, or the listener, mostly the reader, because this kind of stuff is not gonna work well with hearing because you gotta go back several times to get anything out of it.

Right now I have a poem about a bridge, and the bridge is really a curb, and the guy is stepping off the curb, but it’s like the guy is thinking about the water below as if he’s gonna commit suicide: stepping off a curb he’s gonna jump off a bridge. Now that should come from those three lines that I had, it doesn’t say a guy is committing suicide, it doesn’t say he’s jumping off a bridge, it says he’s looking at the water below and we don’t think it’s water in the gutter. If you keep those pieces, the reader can somehow fill in the blanks, if they’re the right pieces, you know, and that’s the trick, it’s a risk.


TM: But they don’t have to fill in the blanks that you expect them to.


SP: No, they still get a little benefit from the poem.


TM: It could be whatever poem they want it to be.


SP: That’s exactly it.


TM: Do you think submitting your work is part of the writing process, for example, if you’ve had the same poem rejected numerous times, should you think it’s a weak poem?


SP: Big mistake. Big mistake. You think that if a poem is published in The New Yorker, it’s a big deal? Or Partisan Review? Well, poems that they accepted were rejected by all these other little magazines before they took them. The one The New Yorker took must have been rejected about ten times before they took it, in ten different places. I should have kept track and sent them a copy of The New Yorker.

Big mistake to think that when a poem is rejected that it’s the fault of the poem. Big mistake. Big mistake. Don’t even go there. There are so many reasons why a poem is rejected. And what makes you think that the editors know what they are doing anyhow? Especially today, you get a guy with a little money, he can do a print magazine; no money, no money at all, he can do an online magazine, and there’s a proliferation of online magazines that’ll knock your socks off. And these editors, what are their qualifications to pass judgment on anything? Don’t think that at all. A rejection is such a loose thing, that if you give it any value at all it’s a big mistake. Don’t even.

I know from experience, Tim, do not think twice about the quality of the work, or the magazine, or anything. Just look at that end of the business as a separate end. There’s a creative end, and a distribution end. The distribution end is a ministerial act, don’t think twice on this, go from A to Z with your submissions, and go over and over and over again. This is what you keep doing. Don’t let it interfere with your writing. Big mistake.


TM: So you don’t think that you can use that as feedback?


SP: No. No. No. Not at all. I used to think that, and I said, this is crazy, crazy. Just write another poem.


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