Boatsman on a Wasted Shore:
An Interview with Peter Mishler

photo by Jennifer Wetzel

Interviewed by Michelle Lewis

In voice, form, and content, Peter Mishler’s Fludde (Sarabande Books, $14.95) is a debut collection that feels driven into existence by the present moment. Selected by Dean Young as winner of the Kathryn A. Morton Prize in Poetry, Fludde is an empirical and moral interrogation of contemporary American culture but employs none of contemporary poetry’s familiar devices—or any device I can name. The book’s music, its vivid, outsized imagery, and its surreal associations are steeped in the Romantics, shaped by the Modernists, and communicated with a language so restrained and earnest it can stop your breath.

Young states in the introduction that the collection permits the reader to “see beyond the life of a single poet, and outside our current moment.” Don’t let your guard down. Follow the book’s shadowy corridors to the community pool and find yourself in the City of Dis; surrender to its agonizing schisms only to find a doubly painful ache for unity. “I am unfeasible now,” says the speaker, “in my protective suit / and mask.” Despite its slag of municipal waste, its sarcophagi of CFOs, its flatscreen with its warbling Spice Channel, between the written words resides something deeply personal. In this exchange, Mishler provides insight into the genesis of the collection, how he pushed past the barriers to its existence, and his formative, real-life experience as a performer in the opera that is at the center of this collection.

Michelle Lewis: First, I want to tell you how much I’ve been looking forward to this conversation—living with this book the past few weeks has been something I’ve truly enjoyed. Fludde is magical, mysterious, and disturbing, but knowledge is power they say, so I’m not afraid. Are you?

Peter Mishler: Thank you for being so kind about the book, Michelle. Any fears I've had—about what my poems might say or reveal, to a reader or to myself—dissipated after writing "Fludde," the first poem I wrote for this collection, which intuitively suggested a way to proceed in writing the rest of the poems. From that point onward, I trusted myself to write lines and phrases that felt like they had some level of integrity in speaking for that which is deep within me. However, this gift came to me after a decade-long struggle with the question of whether or not I could ever use language in a way that would have that integrity, whether or not I could write poems that would "feel” as A.R. Ammons once said. So, what I feared most came before the writing of the poem that would ultimately also serve as the collection’s title.

ML: I can certainly see this poem as a locus where the arteries of the collection depart. Can you say more about what that way of writing was—what gear it was that unstuck itself and permitted you to move forward?

PM: During the time of writing “Fludde,” I was waking early, in the dark, before teaching, to work in a space which Toni Morrison identifies so beautifully when she observes her reasons for working before dawn: “not being in the light, but being there before it arrives” [her emphasis]. I sat down each morning to commune with those writers to whom I've felt closest for mostly indescribable reasons, but which I think I can articulate now: they were those writers who suggested in their lines a kind of intentional searching of the unconscious. Reading these lines allowed me to write lines that sprang from an inner well—the deepest resources of my body and mind. Reading before writing is, of course, nothing new for writers, but even knowing this and having practiced it all of my writing life, this particular experience at this particular time felt remarkable.

And it was not just my experience of reading. I also believe that, parallel to the work, I had committed myself to the difficult task of trying to pursue, understand, and unravel that which has the potential, psychically, to stop access to those depths, and this, I believe, gave me the gift of lines I wanted and needed to write.

Something wonderful happened with that poem three or four months later: it occurred to me that the poem was explicating, without my knowing it, some new understandings I was moving toward in my personal life. I was pleased to discover that I had enacted and then witnessed language’s ability to hold in it a kind of foreknowledge, a quality of seeing that would otherwise be unavailable. And of course, I wanted more of that.

ML: The title of the poem you mention is a reference to Benjamin Britten’s opera Noye’s Fludde, a performance piece for school children; in this poem, the reader is placed vividly in the school and the surroundings of the performance. It is an extremely intimate poem in a collection where the speaker often maintains a critical distance.

PM: I wonder if the intimacy you are describing comes from the fact that the poem is closely cleaved to autobiography. I did, too, feel immediately at the level of meaning that I had accurately captured what it felt like, what I had experienced, when performing in the Britten opera.

I performed in Noye’s Fludde as one of two owls at the age of seven or eight, and the experience was strange and intense and frightening and also sublime: the rehearsals that went late into the night; the adults singing operatically in their robes and beards; all of us children wearing animal heads and meant to run in exhilaration and relief toward the ark; the limited understanding of the flood story at that age, knowing just its devastation and wonder, knowing that there was a punishment and then safety; the swaying, all of us, in the boat together singing of our deliverance; the canned thunder from the PA system; and once, before the performance, the whole company went on retreat to rehearse for a long weekend at a camp called Mount Misery where I got a fever—with all its attendant childhood delirium—in the midst of these songs that I was learning and practicing, and all of them maddeningly recurring as I tried to sleep off the illness in my bunk. So it was also, then, thrilling to feel that I had remembered this whole childhood experience in the act of writing. And I think I knew, too, that the experience of performing in this particular play, and writing about it—with all of its theological, literary, anthropological, environmental, and psychological import—would at some level continue to provide the hint of a subject as I kept making new work.

And this began my experience of writing Fludde, which I can only describe in one way whenever I think of it: that I was a boatsman alone on a wasted shore or blasted heath that was littered with the detritus of English language of all kinds—of the corporate world, of my earliest childhood, of the current moment, of the songs and poems I’ve loved, the commercials I’ve memorized—and my task was to gather them and to put them in an order. And so, with as little interruption as possible, I wrote the rest of the book over the course of three years, trying almost ritualistically to work under all of these circumstances.

ML: Your discovery that language had the ability to “hold in it a kind of foreknowledge” is beautiful, and so apt for a collection where boundaries—particularly of time and knowing—are fluid. I expect you are, or will be, categorized with poets who are considered cultural critics. Do some of the fears you refer to have to do with writing within these anxieties? How much do you think about satisfying the modern reader?

PM: My first thought is to say that the modern reader I am writing for is me, and if I am writing to anyone, I do hope that this voice has spoken to and satisfied me first. I have thought intentionally about a poem’s audience only to the extent that I am its first reader—the poem can go no further without me. I hope that the poem will reflect something back at me; comfort, sadden, anger, or elate me; fill the void of what I am unable to find—and long to find—in the work of others; and I always hope this voice will bear that foreknowledge I was describing earlier. And maybe most importantly, the poem has to register its finality for me at the level of music. At that point, I can discover what I think is being said in the song and try to strike a balance between a clarity that is in service of what’s at stake in the poem’s narrative without striking that which seems anomalous or that which I don’t understand or that which fulfills the song even at the expense of sense—I don’t want to excise anything that might be valuable that is beyond my current understanding of the poem. This has to come first for me, the music and resonance of the voice within me, because a reversal of this, that the poem should consider an audience outside of myself, would be—for me, anyway—a quick way to cease the production of writing, that active searching of the depths in the dark. It would also bring me closer to the rhetorical, which isn’t the kind of music I want to make.

ML: Is there an example of a poem that began at the level of music?

PM: Well, the poem that comes to mind is “Salvation Army,” because it’s also a good example of the closest I ever come to intentionality in terms of composition, and it demonstrates how that intentionality takes on a life of its own in spite of myself. The poem’s lines were developed from the list of PRISM’s keywords for domestic surveillance as well as all of the words that signify the natural world in “The Wasteland.”

ML: That’s a fascinating insight into this poem. It includes the lines, “Done with the upper-/echelon malls, the sylvan suburbs, /the salted fields.” Those sylvan suburbs do so chime with Eliot. “Salvation Army” is also an excellent example of the collection’s music. This is the last half of this poem:

the embassy garden
is thronged for you
with freckled girls,
a hospital bed
of innumerable threadcount,
and palm
after dew-blighted palm.
You flip your pocket change
onto the boots
of the pockmarked
lyrist from Thrace,
and he play
and he plays for you,
and he dumbs down the sound
of your aircraft
dropping new tennis shoes
into the mountains.

PM: I was pleased with this particular poem’s ending, especially: “your aircraft / dropping new tennis shoes / into the mountains.” After finishing the poem, it occurred to me that it had some things to say that I do agree with: the poem appears to criticize American exceptionalism for its impulse to proselytize its “democracy,” for its view of developing nations as untapped human capital, for its ideological belief in a goodness and charity that is inconsiderate of actual human lives. The central subject of this poem, this head-of-state emeritus, gets to live in his retirement enthroned, his every personal desire attended to, while listening to the musician whom he has pitied, patronized, and subjected to his will, and who allows him the luxury of turning a blind eye to suffering elsewhere which he has probably legislated, and is responsible for, himself.

ML: The officer’s vantage point at the end seems to parallel the perspective in the final poem of the book, “Little Tom Dacre in Heaven.” Dacre is the boy at the center of Blake’s “The Chimney Sweeper.” In your poem, he is violently kidnapped into heaven where his tears fall on humanity’s spoils (“I see my tears received below / on the arched back / of a chief of staff”). Many poems in this collection are in dialogue with Blake’s Songs of Innocence and of Experience, and just as Blake confronts the reader with the hypocrisies of class and religion, Fludde seems to confront the reader with their own ethical accountability.

PM: I agree that putting those two poems in conversation with each other says something about my reading of Blake, and about certain vantage points that are available in Fludde. I think that the poem “Salvation Army” has more in common with the critical stance Blake takes in some of his Songs as opposed to my poem “Little Tom Dacre in Heaven,” even if the latter poem does reanimate Blake’s Tom. The perspective of “Salvation Army” is a voice that, from afar, maybe even from the arm-chair, is sickened by American leadership: how could one dare give a kind of senseless charity? This seems like a Blakean impulse and a Blakean influence to me.

But to focus on “Little Tom Dacre in Heaven”—I wonder if what you are reading here as a confrontation with my, or the reader’s, ethical accountability is developed through a sense of intimacy in the poem which by extension can be experienced as a personal address. This may be an effect of what we were talking about earlier in terms of who I’m writing for. I am finding my way through the poems as I write them in order to understand how I correspond with them and how they correspond with me, at the level of music especially, and less so at the level of meaning. Any calls to action in the poems that don’t feel explicitly damning of a specific apparatus of power must be calls to action sent from me to me, and that speaking to myself, when it is overheard, perhaps resonates with others. And I wonder what, at the level of the line, in the prosody, in the “music” of the poem, creates this sense of confrontation at a more personal level? In the case of “Little Tom Dacre,” Tom tells us what he sees in a dark pool of rain before he is kidnapped to heaven: a flooded, spoiled, post-apocalyptic adult world—through an accumulation and conjoining of images, which borrow cadences from John of Revelations more so than Blake: a warning and a plea for preparedness, an account and accountability.

Many of the children in my poems have experienced trauma of one kind or another, which they must use their imaginative resources to escape. I've similarly had to disappear into my writing to escape the world, and I find that in doing so I've often written in the voice of a child. They've written me, and I've written them. What emerges in that overlay is a deep feeling of the recovery of something lost. Perhaps the poems themselves are pleading for ethical accountability at this level as well—asking me to continue writing in this way—and the poems are promising me that they will continue to repay me, if I do. There is a responsibility in abandoning one's self to poetry in this way, and I feel this sometimes even more deeply than other forms of personal responsibility I might have to take for our world and my relationship to it. My relationship to the world and to myself seems to be directly joined to the writing and reading of poems.

ML: You refer in the Notes to Poetics of Reverie by Gaston Bachelard, and this book makes an interesting companion to Fludde and some of these ideas we’ve brought up.

PM: I read Poetics of Reverie about a year before I wrote “Fludde.” I even wrote Bachelard a letter on the title page of the book, thanking him for echoing back to me nearly everything I’d ever thought about the kind of poet I wanted to be. Some writers have a way of putting into words something you’ve been carrying around with you privately with nowhere to put it. I felt that I had always known that what he calls childhood “reverie”—an abandonment to the music of the unconscious and to glimpses into the depths where the images of childhood remembered and misremembered are at play—was my greatest resource. Bachelard suggests for me in his poetics a permission to stop making sense, to eschew practicality, even to mistrust the artistic efficacy of transcribing dreams; he is against nearly any expository recounting in favor of that which can only be heard if one has let go of wanting to write in favor of letting something be written. There’s an indulgence in and trust of the images that surface unexplained as opposed to an image that is deployed as some correlative to explanation: the dreaded metaphor.

Earlier you were asking about my artistic fears; my biggest fear, to say it plainly, was that I would never have a “real subject.” I willfully searched for one. Tried to wrest one into being. Coupling that with a nagging urgency that there was another answer (made plain in Bachelard’s writing, which I would discover later) resulted in poems that, as I revised them—harmed them, really—expressed that struggle in their stiltedness, their needing to be poems.

ML: Bachelard says, “We need lessons from a life that is beginning.” It struck me as a beautiful sentiment that many of your poems embody.

PM: I assume that what Bachelard means is that childhood is an ideal, uninhibited state that does not have anxieties about what it makes, imagines; does not have anxiety about—or desire for—mimesis, but favors the freedom of pure song and reverie, unadulterated creation.

The imagination of the child can in its purest, unharmed state provides a good contrast to the kind of freedom we give up as we mature into creative animals—but I hesitate here, too. Bachelard assumes that we can divorce the traumas of childhood from an idealized childhood underneath it, though this seems dangerously uncomplicated. I’m not sure what my deepest imagination would be without the complication of lived experience. Many children are forced to employ their creativity to protect themselves from harm—which is a subject that is written about effectively and beautifully by another great scholar of Jung, Donald Kalsched, who wrote Trauma and the Soul: A Psycho-Spiritual Approach to Human Development and its Interruption. This book provided me with the same experience as Bachelard’s did; it echoed back to me everything I wanted to enact in my poetry.

Much in my life was beginning to heal in tandem with making the book, from that first poem onward. Jean Valentine, who is a beautiful poet of Bachelardian reverie, wrote me a generous letter in response to a note I had written to her when I had first started writing poems, and she gave me some kind advice about the long journey of finding my way from my head to my heart. I didn’t know what she meant at the time. But she was so right.

ML: These influences certainly help me see these poems in a new way. A poem I wanted to ask you about is “Mount Airy Resort and Casino”—this poem comes near the end of the book. It is incredibly raw in its use of direct address, and the compassion and pain of the collection seems to pool here. Would you share when this poem was written in the context of the other poems, and how you feel it serves the collection?

PM: To return to “Fludde,” to the story of Noah: at this point in the collection, I was aware that the great flood of Genesis (or floods in general, as there are of course various stories that predate the Old Testament) had appeared and reappeared, however distorted or fractured, throughout the collection, and I felt I needed my Mount Ararat, the dry land and place of safety for those who survived. I say this with some reservation, as only a shimmer of this need occurred to me. Mt. Airy, in the poem, is an imagined place—although I googled it after writing the poem, and there is an actual place, near where I grew up, called Mount Airy Casino Resort in the Pocono Mountains. I surely had driven past its billboards on the trip from where I grew up in New Jersey to Syracuse, New York where I studied poetry, and the name must have stuck with me.

But more directly, as I communed with my reading, trying to abandon all semblance of an “idea” for the poem in order to return to the art of writing lines, the poem is more directly indebted to the cadences and sensibility, of those found in Han Shan’s “Cold Mountain poems,” a series in which a poet who has exiled himself to a mountain takes pride in this vantage point from where, having shed his old life, he can look down on the rest of society’s quotidian doings. In my case, the “cold mountain” I’ve written into my poem has been co-opted as real estate—the land ruined by a casino and some shuttle system, the beautiful vista having been repurposed, depressingly, as a bottomless, thinly carpeted void of a casino that thrives on our vices. The figure who remains there, who haunts the place as if it’s a winter time Timberline Lodge, is disillusioned, lost, and desperate for connection. And so he places the death mask of a child over his own, the mask of a child who had died at a summer camp near the Casino—who died in a “cage of ice,” no less. This child has been taken in death by the speaker, who needs to become the child in order to break the spell of a world that has done him no favors. He longs to come down, to begin again, to return to his “trial life” as Bachelard calls it. But now his only chance to do so is through an uncanny reanimation of the dead.

I was talking in my last answer about the journey from the head to the heart. I errantly expected that if I was to gain access to the heart, it would generate poems of hope—but apparently not. In poems like “Mt. Airy,” in these representations of loss that I’ve found myself making, there is affirmation in giving a voice to pain. To name harm is empowering. Enacting its effects can be a way of creating space for managing personal grief and loss. This is healing. And further, to have abandoned myself to any outcomes through the focus on the making of lines and resisting meaning—trusting the deepest impulse—that is healing, doubled.

ML: How fitting that this imagined place, Mt. Airy, turned out to be real. Many figures in this book live on one threshold or another— I am struck by the idea that Han Shan himself may not have even existed. In speaking about these final poems, it appears we have returned to a place where we started, considering intimacy and critical distance and how vantage point triangulates with confrontation and personal accountability.

PM: There is a poetics of intimacy and distance, and the development of such from line to line: how the writer becomes the interlocutor who receives that first written line and decides whether to continue, to maintain, to balance, to expand on, to reject the integrity of that line, to draw deeper inward or to turn outward. This is seen, for instance, in the volta of the sonnet, when the poet can summon the energy to intensify the poem by broadening or narrowing the emotional distance of its voice inwardly or outwardly. I’m thinking of the difference between Wyatt’s turn toward “Noli me tangere, for Caesar’s I am” and Shakespeare’s “This the world well knows yet none know well. ” One’s reading of such effects, again, at the level of their music, dictate a direction for the poem in a way that may seem intuitive but can also be credited to the seductive music of my reading. These effects in the poems of others serve as a kind of blueprint or vessel into which I pour whatever it is I am trying to haul up and order and arrange by sound.

The Serbian poet Vasko Popa tells us the fable of the “Prudent Triangle,” in which there is a fourth side that keeps itself hidden in the burning center of the triangle. I would like to remain there too. That burning center is the place where poems are made. In his poem, Popa says that the fourth side of the triangle climbs the peaks of the other sides, until all three of the sides disappear in fire, and so the fourth side breaks itself into a new triangle, hidden inside the original three sides, and then that fourth side goes again to hide in the new triangle’s center to begin the process again. I have to remain there, hiding myself from any empirical knowledge about my work when I’m writing, and if I start to know better, I must fracture this knowing and hide again. The aim is to become as unknowable to myself as possible, and thereby, when the poem is completed, reap the benefits of having delayed knowledge in order to experience the shock of recognizing myself—to be known, and knowing, in a space much more complex than the identity and psyche with which I’d have typically assigned myself.

ML: This puts me in the mind of Bachelard again, who asserts that poetry is one of the destinies of speech. When language attempts to have a future, we find poetry.

PM: Poetry creates, in all its imaginative potential, virtues that those who have the power to legislate our lives show no talent for harnessing: its capacity to see many sides at once, to refuse to draw a line in the sand, to "contain multitudes" and to "contradict" itself, to forgive (if it wants to), to exhibit humility, to acknowledge complicity, to critique itself, and to admit or confess. And then there is an aesthetics of failure here, too, in this art I love. There is room for the incomprehensible, the jagged, and the strange; an embrace and acceptance and welcoming of imperfection; the ability to muddy ideological division—the permission to remain in mystery, in unknowing. This is a future I long to live in.

Click here to purchase this book
at your local independent bookstore
Rain Taxi Online Edition Summer 2018 | © Rain Taxi, Inc. 2018