2016 National Book Award Finalist, Poetry
(Wesleyan University Press)
National Book Foundation: Who did you write this book for?
Peter Gizzi: I don’t often think of myself writing for something or someone, but out of something—or, to put it another way, with something. Obviously, with my imagination and experience, but also very much with the poets and artists that have informed my work throughout so many years. They're in the room with me. I feel like I'm just a class of worker that has been with us for millenia, along with farmers or fishermen or, for that matter, soldiers. For as long as we’ve had war, we’ve had poetry. I'm interested in a lyric of reality, with all its damage and beauty, and I’m trying to contribute to the reality of the lyric, a precious tool for understanding the human record that’s been passed from reader to reader and writer to writer through all these of years.
In Archeophonics, Peter Gizzi dives deep into speech and syntax to bring together emotion and philosophical inquiry. He investigates fundamental human concerns, both those that are current and urgent and those that persist beyond our urban turmoil. The book captures a cosmic loneliness in the face of our increasingly disorienting public reality. Air is a primary element in this book—the air we breathe to stay alive, the air we use to form each uttered sound. It is through language, “the ecstasy of naming,” that we shape everything we know. From molecules to galaxies, for Gizzi, everything is spinning, as he spins his piercing, lyrical lines.
ABOUT THE BOOK
Archeophonics is the first collection of new work from the poet Peter Gizzi in five years. Archeophonics, defined as the archeology of lost sound, is one way of understanding the role and the task of poetry: to recover the buried sounds and shapes of languages in the tradition of the art, and the multitude of private connections that lie undisclosed in one’s emotional memory. The book takes seriously the opening epigraph by the late great James Schuyler: “poetry, like music, is not just song.” It recognizes that the poem is not a decorative art object but a means of organizing the world, in the words of anthropologist Clifford Geertz, “into transient examples of shaped behavior.” Archeophonics is a series of discrete poems that are linked by repeated phrases and words, and its themes and nothing less than joy, outrage, loss, transhistorical thought, and day-to-day life. It is a private book of public and civic concerns.
About the Author
Peter Gizzi is the author of seven collections of poetry including Threshold Songs and In Defense of Nothing: Selected Poems, 1987-2011, and The Outernationale. He has also published several limited-edition chapbooks, folios, and artist books. His work has been widely anthologized and translated into numerous languages. He works at the University of Massachusetts, Amherst.
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Interview by Paul Legault
Peter Gizzi is the author of six collections of poetry including Some Values of Landscape and Weather, The Outernationale, Threshold Songs, and Archeophonics, a 2016 National Book Award Finalist. Poetry as an art form is often the target of scrutiny in Gizzi’s work. Yet he turns—and we turn with him—again and again, to poetry for the answer. The title of his newest book, Archeophonics, is a neologism, i.e. a brand new word, but its roots indicate something akin to ‘ancient word-sounds.’ Inspired in part by one of the earliest audio recordings, produced in 1860 by Édouard-Léon Scott through a method that pre-dates Edison’s phonograph, this book pulls language from the void, catching the overheard on the page, thus catching it in time. Gizzi and I corresponded in October about the ghosts of poetry, his new work, and what’s next.
Paul Legault: In “A Social History of Mercury” you write: “The mirror world / Its cruel repetition / This is not a melancholy state / Simply primeval / Words live here.” Is there something primeval about all language? Where do you get your words?
Peter Gizzi: When I write I am always aware that language is bigger than me, older than me, that it doesn’t live in me, I live in it. We all do. Language is an ancient medium we all negotiate every day in the world and in our heads, or better said, the world in our heads; it is archival, hence why and how we (think we) understand one another (or ourselves). So, over these many years I feel more and more that my job as a poet is simply to listen and receive. And what I have learned is that one of the greatest gifts of being a writer, particularly a poet, is learning how to listen.
PL: I’m struck by how few words you need to maintain a line, how you can affect an image with such concision as “we look / to flower” — two two-word lines strung together. Or you don’t shy away from leaving a single word like “hauntedness” hanging on its own. How do you decide when to break a line?
PG: It is a touch, or an intuited feel for the sound and cadence of any particular phrase and therefore poem. I sometimes favor short lines for speed and focus and mostly for the turn from one line into the next and then one phrase into the next. The shorter line with a longer thought breaking across lines creates a spiral thinking, constantly turning. It is in the turn or the break that meaning is made percussive, physical—and hopefully—alive.
PL: In the section titled “Wrapper Frag” from the opening poem “Field Recordings,” you write “Remember me to convenience stores.” I was surprised to come across a “CVS in the distance,” in this poem. I don’t recall any chain stores in your previous books. Another poem in Archeophonics is titled “Google Earth” and another “Instagrammer.” How do you distinguish between everyday language and the lyric? Do you?
PG: I don’t distinguish. Also, I’m not sure if this is the first time I used this type of language—the language of commerce—in my work. Nonetheless it is there in the language, just as the beloved is there. Syntax in a lyric utterance connects me to highs and lows. It’s like that old linguists’ joke: “What is the difference between a language and a dialect? A language is a dialect that has an army and a navy.” So that world is in our heads too, always. Words are haunted. Think of it: as long as there have been soldiers there have been poets. I choose the lyric over narrative or epic because I am ultimately interested in mystery, presence, intimacy… and I often reflect, with awe, at the plain fact that an intimacy has been passed from poet to poet for millennia. The power of the lyric is that it is already working in a degraded language and finds an opening to an individual’s interiority, singing the changes of light in a damaged world. It is like a miracle to me when that light comes back into my room in the form of shaped sound, and I can feel its ray.
PL: I love that concept: “For as long as there have been soldiers / there have been poets” — which is also a line in your poem, “Sentences in a Synapse Field.” If the soldier’s job is to fight for their country, what is the job of the poet?
PG: I think being a poet is a form of disobedience; I like to think of it as a form of civil disobedience—because I’ve signed up to be a mystery in the face of violence.
PL: I can’t get over the phrase “sadness like glitter.” You have this unique ability to translate melancholy into beauty. Is sadness creatively generative for you?
PG: I guess I was thinking of glitter and of its tiny wish to signify gladness in the face of eternity, kinda tragic. Or I guess it could be a form of sadness. I call it consciousness. Or maybe I suffer from something more like a deep melancholy which I find to be generative but maybe it is closer to a form of doubt, an insistence on not knowing and a kind of questioning (and questing) the real, pushing back at the sensory data I receive to test what is in fact real, the thing itself or my perception of it, or maybe it is the fragility of reception itself and what can be known. As I have said elsewhere, I occasionally have difficulty separating my work from the world, it is a private homemade experience with both style and form. For instance, the negotiations of loneliness and vulnerability are formal concerns. The need to connect the inner life with the social is a formal concern, or the invisible with the material, or the staging of private life within a broken political reality. None of these are new conditions of poetry, but still they exist as formal problems, as in how to address the momentary and time itself. Maybe it is simply a form of being awake to the polyphony of worlds, or words. Or, maybe just being awake.
PL: You summarize my own feelings about archeophonics in “A Winding Sheet for Summer,” when you write: “I’m not ready to put the book down.” How did you know when this book was done?
PG: This book came fast for me, a little over two years. I hadn’t been writing for various reasons and then I picked up a carrier frequency of some sort and that is when, as you have probably experienced, everything you see and hear can become poetry. It is the greatest of experiences but then it suddenly, like a sunny day, can go dark and then you have to work through the darkness into the light. But I think of all of my books as one book in the end—one work, one gesture, one breath, the archive of a voice developing, aging, deepening. So for me one book moves quite naturally into the next. But that is an enabling fiction I need to continue. There is an arc to every book I write and it is no different for this one.
PL: Some of your poems feel haunted by dead writers — the way “This World Is Not Conclusion” houses the ghost of Emily Dickinson. Her language turns into your own as you write, “I see circumference there.” Whose writing haunts you most? How has your reading life shaped your writing life? And how has it shaped your real life?
PG: I work in Amherst, Massachusetts. It is her landscape. Her injunction is real and present and she is a beacon. A pure and singular transmission of poetry and personhood. Her work haunts me, hurts me, and informs me to the honest and deep commitment this practice entails. She gives me courage. At this point I could say that my bibliography is pretty much my biography. What I read and what I write is life itself to me.
Paul Legault is the author of The Madeleine Poems, The Other Poems, The Emily Dickinson Reader: An English-to-English Translation of the Complete Poems of Emily Dickinson, and Self-Portrait in a Convex Mirror 2. His writing has appeared in Art in America, The Third Rail, VICE, and The New Museum’s Surround Audience anthology. From 2013-2015, he served as Writer in Residence at Washington University in St. Louis. He is currently the Director of Programs for the Community of Literary Magazines and Presses and an editor at Fence magazine.