Poetry co-editor Aurora Nowak recently had this exchange with Issue #49 featured poet Joel Peckham. Here’s what Joel had to say about his experimentation with form, his literary influences, what he’s working on now, and more.
Your poems are filled with vivid imagery, linguistic musicality, beautiful use of repetition, and a unique sense of style. Each piece is written in a different format. When writing this portfolio, did you know the form your work was going to take? Or did you let your words do the figurative walking?
I’ve been playing around more with form recently. I used to compose in a pretty consistent line and then I found that the line kept lengthening and lengthening to the point where a page couldn’t contain it. And that became a distraction during the drafting stage. I’d also gotten to a point where I felt that an intuitive sense of the line served the poem better (for me at least) than one driven by the poem’s visual presentation. I didn’t want the line to be justified or proscribed by what I saw on the page but rather by necessity. I wanted to break the line only when I had a very good reason to do so. This relates to some of your other observations, which I take as enormous compliments. I tend to write by ear first, eye second, conception third, allowing the aural and associative qualities of the language to drive the poem, providing thrust and hopefully, surprising shifts in direction that still make sense to the overall fabric of the poem, as patterns emerge which then suggest a structure. Where a line breaks (or doesn’t) becomes a final consideration. So yes the words lead the way, they pull me along, but I am still holding the leash (except when I’m not). It reminds me of the joke my neighbor never tires of when he sees me walking my golden retriever, Ivy. “Are you walking the dog or is she walking you?” My answer is always the same: “What does it look like?”
Your poetry can be compared to that of Walt Whitman’s. How has Whitman influenced your work? Do you have other favorite poets?
Whitman has influenced all of us one way or another. I go back to Whitman constantly for his embracive, democratic, ecstatic, spirit—his enormous heart—as much as for his craft. Still, his ear is tremendous—better than he gets credit for. I love the rhythms that he generates through syntax. I love his lists. I love how he can be incredibly arrogant one minute and vulnerable and self-deprecating, even self-loathing, the next, his speaker possessed of both great fluidity and consistency. I love his attempt to get his entire world on the page. I love how he can go very big and then very small and precise. I love the arc of his career and am a fan of “Song of Myself” one day and “Drum Taps” the next. I embrace him quite a bit, wearing that influence on my sleeve. His “As I Ebb’d With the Ocean of Life” is one of my favorite poems. I have a recording of Galway Kinnell reading it somewhere that just guts me. I read/listen all the time: poets, essayists, fiction writers, playwrights. My poetic mothers and fathers are probably Whitman, Galway Kinnell, James Dickey, Adrienne Rich, Jean Toomer, Larry Levis, James Wright, Carolyn Forché, Louis Glück, and Dylan Thomas. But I am just as influenced by Faulkner, Morrison, Steinbeck, Ellison, Tennessee Williams, and Didion. There is certainly a sprawling, essayistic quality to what I do, I think. And my God, there are so many amazing contemporary poets who I love: Abdurraqib, Komunyakaa, Patricia Smith, Dean Young, Danez Smith etc., etc.
The chorus of “And I am…” in your poem “Wow! Signal: Dredging Light” ascends in progression of different stages of life/or of time demonstrating that one is never still in time. Yet the call out of “Slow down. Wait for me.” is so poignant. Where did you see the speaker in this poem initially, and where do you see them now?
I don’t reread my own poems much unless I’m giving a reading, but that’s a poem I’m going back to a lot right now—perhaps to give me a sense of where I am, a grounding while everything else seems to be spinning out of control. It really is a poem about identity construction and how both rooted and fluid it can be. How beautifully and terrifyingly fragile—how large and small a thing—a person is. In that sense, the poem is doing what every poem tries to do, exploring what it means to be human. The poem really started just being about that signal received from outer-space, the receiving of a message that we were waiting for but never expecting to get and then realizing it was always there, but we didn’t (and don’t) know how to read it—which is, I think the condition of a poet and the radical openness one must nurture to BE a poet or at least to live as one. And that of course is a position of incredible vulnerability, which to me, spoke to a childlike consciousness and to my many encounters with fragility and beauty as a child. Where is that speaker now? Writing a response to this question and still running down the beach—trying to figure out the truth in the poem and in the process, constructing the threads of new poems that explore the same issues over and over again. I don’t mean to be glib at all (I’m not very good at glib), but I can’t even get past the word “now” which keeps changing, keeps moving (what “now? The now of the poem? The now of my writing this? The now of the moment you read it? The now of the speaker who both lives only in the poem and beyond it?). Faulkner suggests that it is all one moment, which may be another way of saying that all moments are bound together, or that there is no such thing as the moment once the moment passes. We hurtle along so fast, trying to understand, process, live, as we go—as best we can. So yes, we are always saying, “Slow down. Wait for me.” But the world won’t wait; it can’t. Still it is not so bad to be overwhelmed. To be struck with the overawing vastness and speed of it all. There is a knowing in that, too.
Dredging is excavating sediment, debris, and other materials from the bottom of bodies of water to improve drainage. The concept of dredging light as a mineral is novel: “The shovel is not a shovel but a dish, glittering with stars.” What drew you to this idea?
“Dredging” was a carefully selected word and I think I got that one right. That line about the dish came as a surprise. I had already written about the Wow! Signal and was thinking about the Big Ear satellite dish that received it. So when I was looking for a way to describe the shovelhead coming up out of the water, the two images came together, creating a superimposition of the two. It felt exactly right and came very suddenly. I can get into what I think that light/mineral is, but I think I’d rather just take the image for what it was/is: a gift.
“The Tongue is a Fire” is an intimate poem that discusses control. While sharing your aspect of a personal relationship with this idea, what emotions were you trying to evoke from the reader? What is the relationship you would like the reader to have with this piece?
I kind of recoil when I see poets trying to be self-consciously “sexy” in poems—which is not the same thing as being sensual. Most bad erotic poetry is bad and embarrassing because it tries too hard to be erotic and when many cis-male poets attempt it, it’s with a lack of awareness regarding the fraught, misogynistic narratives of seduction so prevalent in our literary history. When delivered with lounge-lizard swagger, such poems become self-parodic. In this poem, I wanted to bring the reader to the edge of that and then turn the thing on its head, so the swaggering confidence that drives the poem initially, doubles back on itself, revealing the fear, vulnerability, self-loathing, and doubt that such posturing hides. The poem is also exploring the possibility, pleasure, and danger of language. Words are powerful, they create other words, they move beyond our ability to control them and that’s exciting, but also potentially really dangerous—especially in a culture that consumes so much social media. Even more dangerous
is the faith that we can control them. It’s a risky poem because I am betting on the reader staying with me for quite some time before that turn inward takes place. I’m allowing the speaker to be his worst, most indulgent, arrogant self for some time. In that respect, it’s a very personal poem about the many things I’ve said that I wish I could take back—the many times my tendency to speak before thinking or fully processing what I’m feeling has hurt others, done damage.
“Preoccupied” is a long-lined poem containing longer stanzas, but the lines are sectioned with slashes. As humans, our minds are always drifting from thought to thought. What was the purpose for the slashes in this piece? And how did you arrive at this form?
I think you got that exactly right. I was trying to mimic the associative drift of my mind in that moment—at its most relaxed, receptive, but also unfocused. This was an exercise in leaping. I am ADHD and often compare myself to the dogs in the movie, “Up.” Only to me, everything is a squirrel. I’ve learned to lean into that associative distractedness in my work and to see it as a different kind of focus, an alertness to the connectedness of things. This is kind of a love poem in which I’m trying to explain to someone who loves me, what’s going on in my head—where I am—and how difficult a question that can be to answer sometimes. I love allowing my mind to do what it does. I always have. But that can make me a frustrating person to sit down and have coffee with. For a long time, it made me a terrible student as well. I just couldn’t focus on the one thing I was meant to. I guess this poem is trying to validate that way of seeing and experiencing. The form is trying to match that. There’s a line there, there are stops, units of meaning, but for a poem like that—which is about associative thinking and experiencing—using the hard break of a line just seemed wrong. I also should give some credit to Hanif Abdurraqib’s amazing “A Fortune for Your Disaster” for suggesting the form to me.
“What It Means to Drift” is a perfect example of existential poetry questioning mortality. What caused you to search this external reflection along with the self-reflection?
There’s some intellectual heavy lifting going on in the question. I consider myself more transcendental than existential philosophically (though, as with most people, I guess it depends on the day or even time of day). I think the poem is really trying to ask a very personal question about my father’s dementia and the burden we all put on him to be who he was before he began to lose the incredible intellectual acuity and self-sufficiency that defined him for most of his life. The poem is asking the question, what makes a person a person? Are we only our memories or even the memories that others have of us and try to hold on to? What is our obligation to another person’s sense (or even our own sense) of who we are or were? Do we have an obligation to that former self or can we embrace the shifting nature of identity, allowing ourselves to constantly become in the way that improvisatory music can—always becoming something different while still being connected to the original pattern. I was in an accident that took the lives of my wife and my oldest son. I also suffered head injuries that I am convinced fundamentally changed my personality. People who knew me before the accident have had some powerful reactions (including the one mentioned in the poem) to that change. But this is me now. As this is my father now. And this version of me, and this version of my father, often confused and lost and vulnerable, subject to powerful and sometimes frightening emotions, contains the capacity for great beauty. I see myself in him still, just in new, astonishing, and often troubling ways. I don’t think change must be tragic. And beauty is never easy.
Could you share with us some of your workshop experience? Which of your poems, would you say, was difficult for you to workshop? To edit? Were you attached to the original?
I took one poetry workshop in all my years as an undergraduate and graduate student because I started out as a scholar of American literature, not a poet (my degree was in American Literature with a dissertation on Southern lit). I do teach workshops now at Marshall University where I just received tenure (hurray!). Most of my personal workshop experience is very informal—a close group of people I trust talking poems over drinks here in Huntington and another group on-line with another group of friends and poets I love and trust (one of whom is my son Darius Atefat-Peckham). But my best readers are Darius and my wife Rachael Peckham. Both are wonderful poets and essayists in their own rights and find ways to be both very supportive and constructively critical. Between the two of them, I have my Ideal Reader. The most difficult poem to finish here was probably “Wow! Signal” which took several years between inception and final form. I just could get it where it needed to go (wherever that was) but I liked the idea. The problem was that the idea, the initiating subject, was overwhelming the poem. For a long time it was just a narrative poem relating the historical event. Rachael and Darius liked it just fine and so did my friends. But it was never a poem any of them cared about much. It took years to make the connection to dredging the creek in front of my house and many months after that to make it somehow cohere. I needed to figure out why this historical event was tugging at me before I could write a poem that would connect to a reader. Sometimes that happens right away. Sometimes it takes a long time to find “it.” If I’m attached to the original version of a poem, that’s usually because I felt that I got it the first time and then that sense of having gotten it is affirmed by the reaction of the people who read it. Most of the time I work on a poem long after people have already told me it was good, though. I’m surprisingly obsessive that way, considering how fast I compose and how messy my poems can seem. The final result is often a completely different poem from I started with. The final version of “Wow! Signal” contains only one line from the original.
Could you talk a little bit about what you are working on now?
I have several projects in various stages of completion. I’m currently finishing the final editing process of an anthology I’m co-editing with Robert Vivian for New Rivers Press titled Wild Gods: The Ecstatic in Contemporary Poetry and Prose. My current collection of poetry, which contains many of these poems, is called Bone Music and is in final stages of revision. I am also working on a couple of chapbooks of poetry and am engaged in the preliminary research for an essay on dementia, focusing on the primary caregivers of those suffering from it. This morning I worked on a couple of poetry sequences, one about the pandemic called “Journal From the Plague Year” and another exploring poems about the moon landing, called “Any Moonwalker Can Tell You.” I like to keep lots of irons in the fire, I guess. Or maybe I’m just content to feed it, letting it go where it goes.