Our poetry co-editor Chris LaMay-West recently had this exchange with Peter Vanderberg, our Issue #20 featured poet. Here’s what he had to say about the scriptural, literary, and artistic inspirations behind his crown of sonnets, how he views his role as a teacher of writing, and how military life can foster a creative life.
Your poems in this month’s issue are a series of linked sonnets. What do you appreciate about the sonnet as a form, and how did you adapt it for the particular effect you were looking for here?
The sonnet helps me to shape my thoughts. In the most basic sense, the Petrarchan form creates a dialogue: question and answer, experience and reflection, physical and metaphysical. The Shakespearean helps me to collect several elements and draw them together. I’ve also found that the fourteen line limit forces me to make some disciplined choices in terms of what to keep and what to cut.
As far as adaptation, I’ve recently been playing with how far I could push the form and still call it a sonnet. I’m sure this is a matter of interpretation, but for me, fourteen is the key – what can I do with fourteen lines? As far as the linked poems go, the crown of sonnets has a rich tradition (Donne, Rilke, Nelson) and that cumulative effect – building toward a more layered experience / understanding, is what I was hoping to achieve with this sequence.
Among the sources you mentioned being an inspiration for these pieces was an exhibit of illuminated manuscripts at the Metropolitan Museum in New York. I wonder if you could talk a bit about the exhibit itself, and what about it drew a poetic response from you?
The Art of Illumination was an exhibit of a particular illuminated manuscript from 15th century France. Each folio was displayed separately and as I strolled through the bright miniatures, I was entranced by the various expressions of religious faith, saints’ lives, martyrs and concepts of death. Many of the images were quite violent and enigmatic. The folio for The Office of the Dead in particular offered a very mysterious picture of two corpses sharing an open grave. There is a monk standing behind a blank grave marker, gesturing toward the blank space while whispering something to another monk. This image struck a chord in me: the concept / inevitability of Death – what it means and how it pricks us all to existential questions – that humans have been wrestling with this for millennia and can still offer only vague possibilities and more questions. It seemed like a worthy subject for consideration. The uncertainty that surrounds this one certainty terrifies me. So I was also just trying to make sense of death.
The illuminated manuscript seemed to offer a more visceral experience of the spirit. The practice of a book of hours – taking time out over the course of an ordinary day to read, reflect and pray – was also something I became very interested in. I tried to keep the canonical hours myself for a time, and still do occasionally, and I’ve found that it shapes the day and creates a continuity that deepens my experience of both the mundane concerns of life as well as spiritual questions.
The other source mentioned for this cycle was selections and erasures from scripture. Could you talk a bit about how the erasures were done, and also what connections there are for you between religion and poetry?
The scriptural erasures were again an attempt to engage more deeply and personally with a spiritual dimension. I began to wonder if I could draw some secret meaning from the scriptures I had been hearing all my life. My thought was to pull out the most interesting or puzzling juxtapositions of scriptural passages, arrange them on the page, and consider them as a new sacred text. This began to feel like a heretical practice, but that made it all the more interesting to me. In this way, scripture offered a puzzle I could turn in my mind. This felt more powerful than the rote passages and interpretations of their meaning I had always been given. The experience also approximates that of being in church, fading in and out of attention as scripture is read, and in so doing, catching only glimpses that begin to form new and strange messages from God.
There’s so much going on in this cycle of poems–nature scenes, a narrator wrestling with his own mortality, a parent’s concern for his children, family history. Are these typical themes for you? Or did the source materials you were inspired by bring them out?
These are themes I am continually engaging with. But also, the ever present question and inevitability of death charges each in a different way. My desperate hope is that if I can bring death into life, consider it as an integral part of nature, my relationships with my children, my daily existence, then maybe this will lead to an understanding of death in its rightful position. Perhaps even lead to some level of peace with the fact of death. On good days, the fear of loss that comes with death – loss of the beloved, loss of self – begins to fade if I start to see death as concurrent with life. The lost beloved is reincarnated in a sense in the very patterns and relationships of the self, just as these will be continued in the next generation and in nature. I cringe at how this might all smack of new-age “spiritualism,” but it really does help me sleep at night.
There’s a sense throughout of a layer of everyday life, the kids cleaning up the yard after a storm, for example, but these scenes always seems married to things more intangible, like memory and metaphysical speculation. Could you talk a bit more about that aspect of the poems?
Not to beat the old death drum again, but its all largely due to my fear of death and erasure. I’m always trying to savor each moment – no matter how mundane – and this isn’t new: carpe diem, etc. But the metaphysical is there – even science will admit that we perceive only a small portion of totality, of what is. So I try to layer the seen and the unseen into my poems. In this way, the most basic activities and patterns become sacramental. For example, my family and I live in the house where my father grew up. Every year I rake leaves in my yard, just as my father and grandfather did before me. I used to help my grandfather rake his leaves, and now my children help me. When I’m not aware of this, raking leaves is just another chore, but if I can sense the metaphysical realities that are buried under that very basic physical reality, the moment becomes illuminated. This continuity is all over nature too. I guess cycles for me feel like another message from God.
The last line of the poem is also the refrain of a 15th century poem “Lament For The Makers,” by Scottish poet William Dunbar. Is there an element of homage to that poem in yours? What other poets do you feel kinship to?
This poem could be considered an homage to Dunbar, but only insofar as his poem was an homage to those who came before him and used the same lines. Timor mortis conturbat me has been adapted from the Catholic Office of the Dead by poets since the medieval era. That Latin phrase originates in the readings from the Office of the Dead that would be repeated in funerary rites. And as I write this it feels a bit presumptuous to try to crash that party and put myself in the company of Dunbar, but the poem is certainly grounded in that tradition. As far as other influential poets, there are so many that I feel a kinship to. My teachers at City University of New York, Queens College – Kimiko Hahn, Nicole Cooley, Roger Sedarat, John Weir – have taught me so much through their direct mentorship and work. Other poets that I continually look to are Li-Young Lee, Jane Hirshfield, Nate Pritts, Brian Turner, A. R. Ammons, Aracelis Girmay, and so many others. I’d love to have a cocktail party with all these folks in attendance, and after a few martinis just start reading from each others’ work and arguing and talking about poetics and what it can do in the world.
In addition to being a submitting writer, you are also the founding editor of Ghostbird Press. When you’re on the editorial side, what kinds of things do you look for in poems submitted to the press?
Well I’m not just looking for poems there. Short fiction, lyric essay, hybrid forms – I’m interested in all that too. I’m looking for work that feels honest and immediate. It’s so hard to articulate what makes a poem or story great, but that feeling of being transported, of being presented with something that runs deeper with each reading, that originality that makes me see things in a new way – that’s what I’m looking for. But so is every other press, right? You read through the editorial missions of journals and presses and you read the work they put out. Ultimately if you feel a certain connection to the work a journal or press puts out, then you send your best work there.
I was reading that part of what you do at Ghostbird is incorporate visual art in the works you release. Are there particular artists or styles of art that you feel inspire your writing?
A tough question in that, much like with the influential writers, there are so many. I’m inspired by all visual art. I have two brothers who are both visual artists and of course I’m biased, but I can’t get enough of their work. James is an abstract painter and Paul is an illustrator. Lately I’ve been into Rauschenberg’s weird sculptures – Opal Gospel in particular. Van Gogh is an old favorite, Chinese brush paintings, Buddhist statues, Japanese Zen gardens, Rembrandt’s drawings, medieval illuminated manuscripts, Brice Marden’s stick drawings (Cold Mountain series), I could go on. I will say that I don’t dig very ornate and realistic portraiture – but even that has a bizarre quality that can entrance me for a spell. I love how visual art gets me thinking and writing. I could spend days at the Met in New York and never get bored. As long as there were coffee breaks now and then.
Are there ways in which you notice your experience as an editor feeding back into what you write, and how you submit?
I’m not sure that really has affected my writing, but I will say that it energizes my submitting life. I feel more engaged with the writing world as an editor and it helps me be more apt to submit. I guess I take rejection better now because I know what it’s like to be an editor too and that it’s not a role I take lightly.
You have an MFA and are currently a teacher of Creative Writing, so you’ve been on both the student and teacher side of writing. What are your thoughts on the perennial question of what can and can’t be taught about writing?
I find that most of my teaching has to do with un-teaching preconceived ideas about what writing should and shouldn’t be. Once students are exposed to enough powerful, honest and original work, they inevitably want to try and make their own. I have a few tools I give, but at best I don’t feel like I really teach anyone how to write, more that I try to get them to a place where they want to discover and shape their own stories. I think that the ‘teaching’ of writing is more about exposure to new ideas and perspectives on your own work and on work that writers of the past and present have put into the world. Everyone knows that reading great writers is the best way to learn how to write, but I do believe that the classroom and teacher (as guide) can draw great work out of a student that might not otherwise have been possible.
You also served in the Navy for four years. A few of our featured poets have turned out to have military backgrounds- we actually worried about getting typecast for it at one point! Did you write poems when you were in the Navy, or did you know others who did? Are there aspects of military life that you think lend themselves to writing, either in subject matter or in process?
I wrote terrible political poems when I was in the Navy. I also wrote bad poems in the margins of a copy of Leaves of Grass. Again, really bad stuff, but this was the beginning of my writing life and it was born out of necessity / desperation. I had a few good friends on my ship and there were aspects of the job that I did find enjoyable and fulfilling, but I had a consistent problem with conforming to the military culture and with the implications of the military’s activities in general. I was always conflicted as to why we were doing what we were doing and the effects of our very presence around the world. There were also moments of fear and loneliness and missing my family and friends back home. So I wrote poems as a release, but also to foster and maintain that artistic side of my identity. It was in the military that I realized how essential that is for me and how powerful it can be as a survival tool.
Although I didn’t know of anyone else on my ship who was writing, it’s very possible that others were. Believe it or not, even in the age of email, writing letters is still an important part of military life. Also, I think that the discipline and conformity that is essential to the viability of any military unit, creates a need for counterbalance in the individual. Writing is a way to maintain those other parts of the self. It is a way to remove your mind from a present reality that is perhaps not ideal. Writing is a way to record and make sense of what can be a bizarre and tragic and beautiful and terrifying experience. So for all those reasons, I do think that military life lends itself to writing.
What are you working on now, literarily and personally?
Literarily I’m finishing up a manuscript of which Office of the Dead is a part. The book, much like this sequence, seeks God, or at least a spiritual dimension through everyday existence, nature, family and erasing scripture. The manuscript as a whole is largely inspired by and structured according to the illuminated Book of Hours that was on exhibition at the Met, but it is also wrought with doubt and I’m still not sure if the search it attempts comes to any sure conclusions.
Personally, I guess the same – searching for God in everyday life and work.