I talked to Robert Peake about his first full collection ‘The Knowledge‘ (Nine Arches Press).
PART 1: THE POET
Paul: You are a British-American poet according to your biography. What does this mean, both technically and in terms of how you identify? Where are your connections to America and Britain?
Robert: It probably sounds more exotic than it is. I was born and grew up in California, met and married an Englishwoman, and after several years here in the UK I decided to take on British citizenship. I now hold two passports, which makes me feel a bit like Matt Damon’s anti-hero, former CIA assassin, Jason Bourne.
So, obviously, I am an American poet. The rhythm of American speech, the call of the open road answered by Kerouac and so many others, the brass-band gumption of a young nation is in my blood, and therefore can’t help but suffuse my work.
Yet I also identify with the gentle humility, celebration of eccentricity, and careful social observation woven into the fabric of British poetry. It suits me here, right down to the polarities of climate and ever-present threat of rain. It comes with a broader outlook—both geographically and historically—and I daresay I am finding more of a home amongst wise, clever, and immensely capable British poets all the time.
Paul: Could you describe the place you grew up in?
Robert: Have you seen the first Star Wars film? Do you recall the desert planet of Tatooine where Luke Skywalker grew up? That was filmed in Death Valley. From north to south the desert is called Death Valley, Mojave, and then the desert I grew up in, the Sonora. But really, these are just different names for one continuous stretch of sand dunes, tumbleweeds, and cactus. Temperatures in summer consistently reach 50 centigrade. So I grew up in a Biblical wilderness, right on the border with Mexico.
Paul: I guess you speak Spanish then?
Robert: I do, and the Spanish-language poets have had a great influence on me. Ironically, I didn’t discover them until university. In school, we read mostly read British and the occasional American poet. That is, I read more Wilfred Owen than Pablo Neruda growing up. But this also means I came to the Spanish-language poets on my own, in my own way, on my own terms, and for my own reasons. In some ways, I think I was more receptive as a result. And having that foundation of understanding the poetry of my mother tongue helped me to contextualise what I was discovering, and why it was so thrillingly different.
Paul: Which Spanish-language poets would they have been?
Robert: Neruda, of course. Machado, Lorca. Even as far back as the 17th century and Sor Juana Inés de la Cruz there are some real gems. Spanish is a wonderful language, with a rich literary tradition.
Paul: So you studied poetry all along. When did you begin writing it?
Robert: I dictated an epic to my patient mother at the age of five. So, what that really tells me is that I was encouraged—to dabble in many art forms alongside sciences, music, mathematics. I think this openness to life’s various disciplines and avenues is important. It set me up. I wrote a few mediocre sonnets for a girlfriend at university. I then plucked up courage to apply for a creative writing course, taught by former US poet laureate Robert Hass. I sent in some poems.
Needless to say, I was naïve to think there wouldn’t be fierce competition to get in. I still remember reading the list of accepted students on the classroom door, my name absent. I thought, “Well, maybe poetry is not for me.”
But poetry wouldn’t leave me alone as a way to try to understand the world. I fled university as soon as I could (literally, in the middle of the night) and joined a seminary. I took “night classes” at UCLA with a wonderful, quirky teacher named Suzanne Lummis, who was the sort of unofficial poet laureate of Los Angeles. She encouraged us, helped us into publications and readings. She also wore a beret without fail. We used to take bets before class on which colour it would be. My favourite was pink.
Then, when I got married, I decided I needed to “put away childish things” in anticipation of fatherhood—poetry among them. With the birth and death of our infant son, poetry came back to me. It became the only language that made sense as I rode out a wave of relentless grief. From then on, poetry has been with me as a survival skill, as a necessity.
Paul: Who were your early poetry influences? Which remain with you today?
Robert: Probably the earliest influences were, of course, Dr. Seuss and an assortment of nursery rhymes. I don’t think we can discount the importance of children experiencing, in a kinaesthetic way, what it is to delight in the spoken word through meter and rhyme, how we set up patterns and subvert them to our delight. I still love a well-crafted children’s poem, to be honest, including modern mixed-media varieties like The Gruffalo.
Regarding the more “serious” poets, there are just too many to mention—few poets, once I latch on to them, ever really fall away. I haven’t had “phases” so much as a continuous accumulation. One poet I am especially fond of, and always have been, is William Blake.
Paul: What is it that you appreciate about Blake?
Robert: His singularity of vision, the way he so fervently translated that vision into poetry and prints. Also, the timelessness—the way you can read and re-read a poem, especially the more self-contained ones (as opposed to the lengthy and intricate prophesies) and each time it repays you, each time you feel as though you almost completely understand—but don’t. And so, you read it again, and you still don’t understand—yet enjoy it just as much as the first time you ever read it.
Paul: Which British poets of note have you discovered since being here?
Robert: So many. It was like being in a candy store. I admit I didn’t know very much about contemporary poetry of the British Isles beyond Seamus Heaney, whom I was lucky enough to meet as an undergraduate. Had it not been for Robert Hass, I might not even have known about him!
Paul: You have spent the last decade travelling around Europe. Where has impressed you most? Are there places you return to? Where’s still to visit?
Robert: I sometimes joke that I’m doing the “grand tour” very slowly. I never thought much of travel, having been raised on a kind of Emersonian self-reliance that emphasises the regional and the present-tense. Then one day an inveterate traveller and friend I respect mentioned that, to him, travel is a form of education. Something clicked.
It was my wife who introduced me to the wider world. In some ways, we’re retracing her early Inter-Rail pass adventures (though in no doubt nicer accommodation as adults). We’ve visited a good swathe of Western Europe at this point. It always amazes her that I don’t necessarily write about the specific places that we’ve visited. But that opening, that expansion, the heightening of the senses and the quality of wonder and presence that comes from travelling—has in itself no doubt had a great influence on my work.
Paul: If you had to say one city or place that has really impressed you, or you felt a connection to, which would it be? A place you want to or like to, return?
Robert: I am fond of Italy in particular—the food, the outdoor culture, the rich history. Strangely enough, I felt more culturally at home there even than in Spain. I think it’s hard to dislike Italy. I’d also like to spend more time in Ireland. And one day, I’d like to visit Iceland (and I don’t mean the frozen food store).
Paul: What’s the best and worst of Britain?
Robert: Mince pies and Brexit, respectively.
PART 2: THE BOOK
Paul: You called your book ‘The Knowledge’, which alludes to learning and making sense of the world, but also to driving taxis in London. What intrigued you about this and how did you arrive at the title? Perhaps there were other contenders?
Robert: I could have picked other titles, either based on other poems in the book or on a word or phrase that stood out. But this one kept coming back to me as an organising principle, as a thread that ran through the work that stemmed from this period in my life. I’ve always been interested in the idea of leaving paradise. When I tell people that I moved here from California, they sometimes think I’ve done just that.
Paul: Have you had any memorable conversations with taxi drivers? Has the ride ended up with you on the receiving end of a monologue or diatribe? How do you find them?
Robert: I find them thanks to good signage at the airports and train stations. But I know that’s not what you mean… They are a dying breed, aren’t they? To be able to invest in something you can be proud of, like a comprehensive knowledge of a great historic city—and then make a decent living from it—I think that’s something we all can relate to as meaningful and good.
So, this book is also a time capsule, as that opportunity is being eroded by technology in service to the so-called “optimisation” of markets. I think we are seeing much the same thing with the creative classes, too—the commoditisation of writing as “user-generated content” and the transfer of wealth from the makers of art to the makers of platforms for self-expression. So, in a strange way, I think the London cabbie and the poet are at the effect of similar forces. But, of course, most of us poets aren’t trying to feed our family writing poems. So, the stakes are different.
Paul: John Glenday said of your book that it is ‘quirky, wide-ranging, luminous and completely enthralling. If there were an A-Z of all the places poetry should take us, this would be it’. What is the name of that place that your poetry takes us to?
Robert: Hopefully lots of places, though not necessarily in alphabetical order. I think writing poetry is not so much a destination as a quest, like searching for El Dorado. As Michael Longley put it, “If I knew where poems came from, I’d go there.” So, like every poet, I’m looking for the portal at the back of the wardrobe.
Paul: The book is in three parts: ‘The Argument’, ‘Postcards from the War Hospital’ and ‘The Smoke’. Could you tell us a little about this structure – how you arrived at it and how the parts are distinct?
Robert: It seemed there were a group of poems inspired by the natural world that wanted to be together, and then a group of darker, more political poems, and finally, of course, poems about London. I suppose you could look at the first two sections, then, as inspired in some way by Blake’s Songs of Innocence and Experience. In a way, then, that third section is a synthesis of the other two. That’s how I see London as well—since, as Samuel Johnson put it, “when a man is tired of London, he is tired of life; for there is in London all that life can afford.” (I would add that there a few things one can’t afford in London as well).
Paul: Does the book contain poems from your first two chapbooks, ‘Human Shade‘ and ‘The Silence Teacher‘?
Robert: The first poem in the book was the last poem in the previous pamphlet, and the last poem was the last poem from the first pamphlet. This bookending was a way to signal both continuity and a departure from the previous material. ‘The Silence Teacher‘, for example, is a short collection that really needs to stand on its own. It couldn’t have been chopped up and re-purposed in any way. So, unlike most debut full-length collections these days that build on previous pamphlets, the book is 99% new material.
Paul: The poems are preceded by a quote by Marvin Bell that reads: ‘The penalty for education is self-consciousness. But it is too late for ignorance’. Could you tell us about Marvin Bell and why you chose this quote?
Robert: Marvin Bell was my most influential mentor in graduate school. To me, he embodies a life well-lived in conversation with poetry. This quote seemed to fit nicely with the lapsarian theme of the book, and also to tie that theme to our present-day circumstances. It seems a bit prescient, now, too—since this was before the term “fake news”, and all of its implications for ignorance and self-consciousness, entered the mainstream.
Paul: Which is more important in life, knowledge or know-how?
Robert: Wisdom, which is the integration of the two.
Paul: There is a lot of animal and insect life in your poems: white pigeons, badgers, bees, flies, larvae, small fish, cats, robins, scorpions. Where does this interest come from?
Robert: My sister was (and still is) a great animal lover. Our home was a bit like Noah’s Ark—two of everything. I suppose I became fascinated as well. Animals aren’t anti-intellectual, but they certainly operate in a different way than we do, which in some ways feels more honest, truer to the present moment, more interwoven with the rhythms of life and death, rather than always conceptualising and fretting. I think there is a lot to learn from the study of the natural world, at least for me.
Paul: You have a poem called ‘Jellied Eels’. Have you tried them?
Robert: Indeed. It was at Goddard’s in Greenwich. We picked up a Styrofoam cup of the stuff, and were eating it on a bench outside the Maritime Museum. A pair of inquisitive tourists came along and asked us about them. We explained a bit about the significance of the dish to London, and they ended up each trying a bite. Their faces were a picture! To be honest, mine probably was too.
Paul: Your sequence ‘Smoke Ring’ is an accomplished set of six sonnets about places in London, including the Home Office in Croydon, each starting where the other left off. Can you tell us about the significance of the places you feature?
Robert: Well, the Home Office is where I applied for British citizenship. Other places just stuck out to me as so very different to where I grew up. I suppose I wanted a representative sample, but in particular my sample of places that in some way made an impression on me. I also wanted the locations to form a circle when plotted on a map, as my own little inside joke. I’m not sure how many people have ever discovered that.
Paul: I love the close observation and imagery in the poem ‘British Matches’. It’s playful, with an eye for specific wording, and yet has an unsettling tone to it. How did the poem come about?
Robert: Home-longing, but also wanderlust. In the first few months of my arrival, I read signs like my life depended on it. In some cases (like “look left”) it actually did. You only have to step off the kerb on instinct a few times to realise the precariousness of assumptions. It was an exhausting time, but also opened my senses in a different way. Everything was through a glass darkly. So, I think this poem captured a bit of the strangeness in what to others was mundane. I think a certain amount of delirium is conducive to poetry. This poem came from a somewhat delirious state.
Paul: How did you find yourself published by Nine Arches Press? What was your experience of working with Jane Commane as your editor?
Robert: I sent my very first pamphlet (published in the US) to Jane upon my arrival in the UK, by way of an introduction. I really liked what she had been doing. She later told me that she kept returning to that little book, that it “troubled” her (in a good way) over time. So, years later, she wrote to me—this was after the second pamphlet came out with Poetry Salzburg—to see if I had another manuscript in the works. The answer was, “Yes! Of course!”—followed by excited scrambling.
She’s a remarkable editor. There was a sense throughout the process that she was genuinely on my side, that she was a fan. So, when she would make sometimes painful suggestions, I had absolute faith that it was in service to the work. It’s an intimate relationship, between editor and poet—not unlike between heart surgeon and patient. You are opened up. In the case of working with Jane, being “under the knife” with her was all to the good, and the benefit of the body of work.
Paul: Which other Nine Arches Press poets do you admire?
Robert: I think they are all doing exceptional work. I was very pleased to see Jacqueline Saphra‘s ‘All My Mad Mothers‘ nominated for the T.S. Eliot award this year—a first for Nine Arches Press—breaking through what seems to have been a longstanding tradition of that prize being dominated by a handful of bigger publishers.
One of my favourite poets in the Nine Arches gang is Abegail Morley. I think we all want veracity from a poem, a sense that the poet is showing you their truest self, come what may. Abegail lets you into her world, its beauty and strangeness, like no other.
Paul: Esther Morgan said of your collection that it ‘sounds a note of Biblical warning in which “beneath the surface, dark matter stirs”. What do you understand she meant by this?
Robert: Well, the book was in some ways more prescient than I could have known. I read poems like ‘Despot’s Progress’ nowadays, and people think I must have written it since the election of Donald Trump. There has been a darkness stirring, a hint of the coming flood, the intellectual version of a swarm of locusts, for some time now. I think Esther picked up on that astutely.
Paul: She went on to say that you provide a ‘post-lapsarian vision’?
Robert: Again, I’m fascinated by the idea of departing from paradise, both as a tragedy and a kind of necessary fledging. I find both in my own experience of emigrating. And, like Adam and Eve, I’m not sure I can go back. Even if I do, it will never be the same, because I have been changed by that bite of apple.
Paul: You write on despots and drones, robots and friendship, making love to gunfire. I see a tension in the work, perhaps between man and machine or man and ‘progress’, maybe even with man among men, as if we are a danger to ourselves, part of our own undoing. What would you say to this?
Robert: I would say you’re spot on.
I dictate in all weathers, including the warm ones,
at a cock-eyed angle, at a balmy degree, with latitude
stretching like a sock across toes; I am writing
a new first-person historic account of my greatness.
Do not frown, my downcast daffodil, we will educate
the appalling masses our of their brawn and head-banging,
forcing the miners to march in light, mincing steps
and eat the thinnest pancakes dusted in sugar.
We will drag them into the buoyant train stations
of tomorrow, letter by letter and note by note,
coercing the birds to sing from our national songbook
and shit on the fallen statues of lesser men.
Only the most beautiful women from the most beautiful
villages will be allowed near my coffin to mourn, to shed
tears on demand with an approved mineral content, pageant
veterans turning the good side of their anguish to camera.
Paul: Human salvation or apocalypse?
Robert: I was talking with the wonderful poet and Poetry editor, Don Share, before one of our Transatlantic Poetry broadcasts, and I reminded him that he had rightly predicted Trump’s victory some time before. “How often do you get to be right about the apocalypse?” he quipped. Obviously, if it’s really the apocalypse, the answer is: only once. But as a holder of two passports, with both Trump and Brexit in one year, it feels like the apocalypse has come twice. I think we have the keys to our own undoing as well as our salvation. These days, I’m honestly not sure which door we’ll choose.
Paul: There is also a great sense of absurdist humour in poems such as ‘Problem’, ‘Have a nice day!’ and ‘Mr Ergosum Speaks’. Where does this take on the world come from? Is it a particularly British or American humour, or perhaps more reminiscent of the writers of Central Europe?
Robert: Eastern European writers, and Polish poets in particular, have had a great influence on me. Their mix of almost cynical sarcasm combined with genuine warmth and pathos is very hard to pull off. It’s a kind of wry smile, a post-traumatic response that still seeks out beauty and meaning, with which I resonate.
Paul: Your poem ‘The Hills’ is really beautiful, both sonically and visually. It is also quite unique as a shaped poem, given that you tend to write in various regular stanza forms, sometimes blocks. What determines the appearance of your poems?
Robert: Each line is conscious of the previous line. As Marvin Bell put it, ‘A poem listens to itself as it goes along’. So, often within the first few lines the die is cast, the mould is set, the form is evident. I was trained to be comfortable in a range of forms, and I enjoy discovering what shape the poem wants to take.
PART 3: POETRY LIFE
Paul: You established the Transatlantic Poetry series. How did this come about? What was the rationale?
Robert: I started to feel a part of two different tribes, and began enthusiastically making recommendations to friends in both camps. Transatlantic Poetry was a natural extension of that instinct. We arranged some of our first broadcasts to showcase British poets to an American audience. What was most interesting, and soon became clear, is that the mystique runs both ways—British poets are equally curious to discover new American poets as well. So, the two-poet approach (one from each side of the Atlantic) soon took hold as our standard format, and we have been broadcasting for over four years now.
Paul: How many poets did you feature and who were they?
Robert: There’s a long list here, that includes multiple Forward, Eliot, and even Pulitzer Prize winners alongside poets who are still being discovered.
Paul: I believe you handed over the running of the site. Who takes care of it now and is there an archive?
Robert: John Gosslee, editor of Fjords Review from Virginia, and Malik Crumpler, a poet/rapper/producer from Paris have taken over as curators for next year. Everything is archived, and will continue to be, in a variety of places—on the site, on YouTube, in a special collection of the Internet Archive, and at the Saison Poetry Library in London.
Paul: I think you also created a website for readers of poetry to identify new poets they might enjoy that are a little similar to or somehow related to poets they enjoy. What prompted this and what has the feedback been?
Robert: Poet Tips is a site designed to help you find new poets to read and love based on ones you already know you like. I felt that what helped nurture my own love of poetry was trusted recommendations. People who knew enough to introduce me to new poets that have now become old favourites did me a great service. So, I thought, with so much that technology is doing to shorten our attention span and distract us away from the kinds of meaningful engagement that poetry represents, perhaps there is a also way that technology can be put to use to help poetry as well. That was the impetus for the site.
The response has been overwhelmingly and almost universally positive. We grew by tens of thousands of new recommendations over the course of just a few days thanks to the site “going viral”. Since then, we tweet out random recommendations, and almost always the poets involved are flattered, intrigued, and motivated to contribute more. So, it’s growing steadily.
Paul: Who did it say you are like (or who is like you) and do you agree?
Robert: Several names popped up on my page, such as William Oxley and the Prague-based poet Stephan Delbos, whose work I didn’t know as well as I should. Yet I can see why someone made those recommendations. So, it’s working! I also see that, based on the diversity of recommendations, I don’t fit neatly into just one category or box. Few poets do. I think of it more as a kind of “genetic code” than a rigid categorisation. I can relate to all the lineages mentioned as different strains of my own DNA.
Paul: When you are not writing poetry, what are you doing?
Robert: I write software, teach people how to be more productive with less stress, take long walks, paint miniatures, stroke the cat, cook, watch terrible b-movies (the worse, the better) and recently have returned to playing Dungeons & Dragons after a 25-year hiatus.
Paul: I understand you also collaborate to make short films of your poems. How does this process work? And where can we see some?
Robert: My wife and I came across this genre as a means to collaborate between our respective disciplines (she is a musician) by adding the third element of film. You can see what you think of the results for yourself here.
Paul: What are your poetry-go-tos? Which magazines, websites, podcasts?
Robert: POETRY (Chicago), North American Review, Rattle, Acumen, Magma, December, The North, The Dark Horse, Poetry Salzburg Review, Under The Radar… oh, there are so many, and that’s just in print.
Paul: Which print or online poetry journals from the US would you particularly recommend a UK reader?
Robert: Besides the obvious ones, if you haven’t already discovered Rattle, you’re missing out on a lot of excellent American poetry.
Paul: What do you consider to be the main difference in poetic tradition between the US and UK?
Robert: It has to do with an emphasis on innovation versus craft, and I wrote a bit about it here.
Paul: What are you currently reading and what do you make of it?
Robert: I’ve recently been reading Matthew Zapruder, who I think is outstanding and unique.
Paul: When might we expect a second collection?
Robert: My new book Cyclone is scheduled to come out in July 2018 from Nine Arches Press. It’s about weathering storms—personal, political, psychological—in our present-day climate of chaos.
Paul: Where does the poem begin?
Robert: At the point where the reader and the word make contact, when the reader is transported beyond the words into the intensity of presence with which the poet wrote them.
Dr Seuss is a GREAT influence!
I am grabbed by Robert’s poetry and the film-poem Buttons was a revelation.
Great interview, thank you!
So much to think about here, and I anticipate a rather marvellous evening following all the links. Thanks!